New York: It Sure Looks Like the Ukrainian 737 May Have Been Accidentally Shot Down in Iran

In the wake of the crash of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 in Tehran this morning, two schools of thought quickly emerged. The first accepted the explanation given by the Iranian authorities: that the three-year-old 737-800, which had taken off minutes before, had suffered engine failure before plunging into the ground at Khalaj Abad, killing all 176 aboard. The second, widespread on the internet, was that the Kyiv-bound plane had been accidentally shot down by an Iranian air defense missile.

Given that the facts are just starting to trickle in, it’s far too early to say with any certainty what actually happened. Based on past experience, much of what has currently been reported as fact will turn out to be wrong. The true cause may very well turn out to be something that no one has considered yet. But given the information we have right now, the second explanation makes more sense than the first.

According to flight data recorded by Flightradar 24, the plane took off at 2:42 universal time, or 6.12 a.m. local time, a little more than three hours after Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases hosting US troops. Three minutes later, it had reached an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet and was continuing to climb at a steady ground speed of 276 knots, or 318 mph. Then, abruptly, its dropped. A state-run Iranian media outlet released a video that appeared to show the aircraft descending in flames before impacting the ground.

An Iranian official told the IRNA news agency that a fire had broken out in one of the engines, causing the pilot to lose control.

Engine malfunctions can certainly cause planes to crash, — but generally not in the manner observed with Flight 752. It is the wing, not the engine, that keeps a plane in the air, and even if a plane loses power in all its engines it can still glide for a considerable distance under pilot control (see, the Miracle on the Hudson). Even if an engine catches fire the flight crew generally has time to respond.

Worth noting, too, that Iran’s explanation came implausibly quickly, before officials scarcely had a chance to pick through the still-smoldering debris. Tellingly, Ukrainian officials, who had endorsed the engine-failure explanation soon after the crash, soon backtracked, saying that it was too early to ascribe a cause.

Meanwhile, the sudden loss of flight data, suggests a catastrophic event that instantly destroyed or disrupted the electronic equipment that transmits the data.

To be sure, there are ways other than a missile strike that a passenger plane can come to grief catastrophically soon after takeoff. In the case of flight 752, however, none seem to fit very well. The plane was fairly new, and the pilots quite experienced. It is quite plausible, on the other hand, that Iranian air defense forces would have been on high alert. President Trump had already warned that the US military would aggressively bomb Iran if the country used force in the spiralling escalation between the two countries. Tehran, the nation’s capital, would be an obvious target. Memories remain fresh of US airstrikes against Baghdad at the start of its wars against Iraq.

If the tragedy was indeed the result of an accidental shoot-down, it presents eerie echoes of the destruction of Iran Air 655, an Airbus A300 that the US destroyer Vincennes shot down on July 3, 1988, killing all 290 aboard. That accident, too, came during a period of heightened tensions between the US and Iran—though in that case it was overeager US personnel who mistakenly pulled the trigger.

In the wake of this morning’s crash, some voices argued against premature speculation. For instance, one much-circulated set of images showed the plane’s wreckage with circles around what seemed to be shrapnel puncture marks. Nick Waters, a member of the group Bellingcat that did extensive open-source intelligence investigation into another shoot-down of a civilian airliner—that of MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014—urged caution. “Hey all, be careful about analysis of holes in various parts of the plane,” he wrote in a Tweet. “For example: these images show the same piece, where at least some of the ‘holes’ actually appear to be small rocks or other debris in higher resolution images.”

Given the pace of air crash investigations, it will be at least several days before a clearer picture emerges, and months or years before the truth can definitively be known. For now, the tragedy seems almost uncannily engineered to stimulate public reaction, with a trifecta of breaking-new hashtags: Boeing, Iran, and Ukraine.

This article appeared in New York on January 8, 2020.

10 thoughts on “New York: It Sure Looks Like the Ukrainian 737 May Have Been Accidentally Shot Down in Iran”

  1. Jeff, what are your thoughts on an inside bomb scenario? Any evidence pointing to that scenario or against it?

  2. Hi @Myriam P, It certainly seems to be a possibility but I don’t think there’s any evidence yet pointing in that specific direction. Then again the same I think could be said for the shoot-down theory…

  3. I’m no expert, but I think that there would be reports of witnesses if a missile had shot the plane. Then again, a bomb is hard to get inside an airport, even in Iran. For now, I call it a draw!

    The first thing I thought when I woke up this morning and saw this was: ‘What will Jeff have to say about this?’. Thank you for writing quickly about this tragedy.

    « Worth noting, too, that Iran’s explanation came implausibly quickly, before officials scarcely had a chance to pick through the still-smoldering debris. » That’s an angle I did not see on other medias. Very relevant.

  4. @Myriam P., Of course the big unaddressed mystery is who would deliberately take down a plane and why. Not that there aren’t a lot of folks, state and non-state, with grudges and weapons in that part of the world.

  5. @Jeff
    worth noting some additional facts:
    – this ‘hit’ came within hours after FAA released an advisory requesting commercial aviation to avoid Iran/Iraq following the missile response from Iran, a situation very similar to MH17.
    – Iranian media appears to be full of comparisons to other Boeing tragedies, with suggestions all Boeing aircraft are flying coffins, thus distracting from what may have really happened.
    – the plane continued on a straight trajectory after taking off from Tehran airport, and it was low but climbing with all navigation lights on. IF this was a shoot down from the ground, it’s impossible for it to be a case of mistaken identity.
    – if it was an explosion on board the cabin/cargo hold, the plane could not have flown as far as it did without first having disintegrated altogether, OR without any distress signal/communication from the cockpit and continuous transponder signals.
    – Bellingcat is downplaying the shootdown theory, which suggests that onboard explosion scenario may be more plausible. If that is the case, the explosion must have been within the engine itself (the witness video supports this).
    – it’s very convenient for the Iranians to refuse to handover the blackboxes to the US due to the current tensions. Now their allies, the Russians, can step forward to carry out the investigation. Of course, the plane’s Ukrainian owners may object to that.
    – the victims were mostly Iranians, mainly dual-citizens, with presumably dual loyalties, undermining the current regime in Iran. Their deaths may not be a tragedy from the regime’s viewpoint, and may even send a message to the diaspora to be careful.

  6. News today that the plane had turned around to return to the airport paints a pretty clear picture of what probably happened. Reports initially of an engine fire are likely correct, and caused the pilots to turn-around. But now, right when Iran might be expecting retaliation from the U.S., they see a flaming object coming at them, and decreasing in altitude. And so far it sounds like the pilots hadn’t had a chance to call in and report the return, so ATC couldn’t even had warned the defense batteries what was happening.

  7. @Jeff

    I’ve been away from here for a few months since buying ‘The Taking of MH370.’ Excellent book, I dip into it whenever I get time but it has also encouraged me buy your first e-book.

    @CliffG – great analysis and you raise some interesting points. Nice to see read your contributions again.

    May I make some highly controversial remarks re- this latest shootdown? (Just conjecture I do not have any ‘evidence’ as such. I don’t want to offend anyone as I appreciate many readers here will be Americans. But war is war, and this shit gets dirty…

    a) Spoofing the Signal
    My first suspicion was that the American military may have somehow managed to spoof the signal to transmit a military code instead of the civilian one. This would’ve let to the instant shootdown by a jittery Iranian military.

    Win-win for the US. A quiet warning shot to the Iranians regarding American superiority and a simultaneous message to ‘back the F— off!’ In other words ‘You lob missiles at us, and we’ll hit you in ways you can’t even imagine…’

    The plane is of course (an American) Boeing. Do the American military have ways in which they can manipulate/spoof signals in this manner? Who knows.

    b) Using a drone to spoof a military signal
    This is another possibility that does away with the conjecture of point the first point. Simply, the Americans would’ve fired up a drone to shadow the civilian airliner, confusing the Iranian military, and resulting in the shootdown…

    Of course it may be none of the above but quite simply an accident. But I found something odd in the Iranians’ insistence not to hand over the black boxes to anyone. A casual observer would assume its just the Iranians saving face, but my mind wandered to other possibilities… maybe the Iranians don’t want the evidence erased…

  8. I found it amazing that Pine Gap picked up a missile hit during seriously hectic fires around Australia, yet it missed mh370 while it cruised past West Australia’s coast. (Selective memory maybe).

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