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TERROR IN THE SKY: Did MH 17 do the right thing?

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One unnerving question that is being asked about the MH 17 flight shot down over eastern Ukraine is whether it was flying in a restricted zone . The Guardian reported that it was flying 300m above restricted airspace when it was shot down.

Quoting the European air traffic control body – Eurocontrol – the British paper said the Ukrainian authorities had barred aircraft from ground level to 9,700m but was cruising at 10,000m when it was hit by a ground-to-air missile in the Ukraine.

All flights in eastern Ukraine have now been barred from the area, Eurocontrol said.

“The aircraft was flying at Flight Level 330 (about 10,000m or 33,000 feet) when it disappeared from the radar,” Eurocontrol was quoted as saying.

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“This route had been closed by the Ukrainian authorities from ground to flight level 320 (9,700m, or 32,000 feet) but was open at the level at which the aircraft was flying.”

The Daily Mail reported that the airspace flight was flying in when it was shot down was not restricted.

But, the UK daily’s website said airlines had been warned about the potential dangers.

Quoting the International Transport Association, it said the Geneva-based group’s initial assessment was that the airspace MH17 was travelling through was “not subject to restrictions”.

The Daily Mail said it was believed the MAS pilots had ignored several warnings to avoid the airspace over Ukraine because it was a shorter route and flying over the Ukraine instead of diverting north or south would save fuel.

The Guardian said airlines had been advised by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) “not to overfly Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov due to the potential for conflicting air traffic control instructions between Ukrainian and Russian authorities”.

The CAA memo, according to the Guardian, contained similar advice issued by the American regulators in June.

Noting that on every long-haul flight pilots were given clearance by air traffic control bodies along their route, the Guardian said flights could still be rerouted for safety reasons as they entered a country’s airspace.

The pilots of flight MH17 could have been warned by Ukrainian air traffic control of a threat from military forces on the ground more than 9,100m below.

The CAA said airlines had now been told by the European air traffic control body to avoid the region.

“The Ukrainian authorities are responsible for managing their airspace and the UK or other countries cannot enforce airspace restrictions in the area. However, the CAA has previously issued advice to UK airlines on operating in this area and following this incident, Eurocontrol has issued advice to airlines to plan routes that avoid the area,” the CAA said on its website.

Flight MH17 with 298 people on board, including three infants, was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when the Boeing 777 came down near the city of Donetsk, a stronghold of pro-Russian rebels.

Citing an unnamed pilot for a major European airline, the Guardian said it was normal practice for airlines to fly over conflict zones.

The pilot also said airlines flew over conflict zones, where groups might be in possession of ground-to-air missiles, “(because) the weapons (are) based on the ground (and) when you are at 30,000 feet that is far up in the air. There are not many missile systems that can reach so high in the sky.”

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