Malaysia Airlines Crash: Could Separatist Fighters Have Hit a Plane Flying at 33,000 Feet?

Even a relatively unsophisticated military force could take down a passenger jet with a weapon that has been seen in Ukraine.
In this Reuters file photo from 1999, we see a Buk anti-aircraft system firing. (Reuters)

A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 has crashed in the Ukraine, in a region that's been marked by battles between the government and a Russian separatist movement.

Before it crashed, the plane was flying at 33,000 feet, according to The New York Times

It is not clear how the plane went down. However, because of the region's instability, the immediate suspicion is that it was shot down. Both the Ukrainian military and the separatists calling themselves the Donetsk People's Republic have denied responsibility. 

Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told the Times, “We don’t have the technical ability to hit a plane at that height." Nonetheless, Anton Gerashenko, whom the Associated Press calls "an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister," posted on Facebook that the plane was shot down "by a missile fired from a Buk launcher." 

Stipulating that we don't know what happened yet to create this tragic situation, it makes sense to test the plausibility of the assertions being made. Is hitting a plane flying at 33,000 feet even within the realm of possibility, given what kinds of weapons technologies the separatists have? Maybe. AP journalists reported seeing an anti-aircraft system resembling what's called a Buk missile system in the disputed region. 

"Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but said even if they did, there had no fighters capable of operating it," the AP wrote.

The Buk system was developed by the old Soviet Union. Its missile batteries are portable. The missiles themselves are radar guided. If one is in the area, and there are people who can operate it, it has the technical capability to shoot missiles far beyond 33,000 feet. 

A passenger jet, in particular, would make an easy target, relative to a fighter jet or a rocket. They are big and they move in very predictable straight lines across the sky. Passenger planes emit a transponder signal, too, which could be used for tracking. 

This is not to say that a particular group shot down the plane, or even that we know, definitively, that the plane was shot down.

But the point is: it may sound implausible that a group of rebel fighters could take out a 777, but, given the right anti-aircraft weaponry, it is not. 

Presented by

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In