9 minutes read
  1. Following the crash of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800, Iran has admitted it accidentally shot  down the plane by human error thinking it was a cruise missile.

AeroAnalysis provided the following cautious analysis to premium subscribers of The Aerospace Forum prior to Iran admitting its mistake:

As tensions in the Middle East have started to rise, Defense companies saw their market caps increasing. It is one of the elements I marked as a possible boost to the sector in 2020 with the risk being an escalation of the conflict in the Middle East. Following the elimination of an Iranian top general, Iran retaliated by firing rockets at American bases in Iraq. On the same day, a Boeing (BA) 737-800 from Ukraine International Airlines crashed shortly after take off under what you could say are suspicious circumstances. In this report, we have a look at why the initial responses from various parties may be odd and why we didn’t really see huge swings in Boeing’s share prices or why extremely little of Boeing’s price movement is related to the latest crash with the Boeing 737-800.

Boeing 737-800 Teheran Crash

Source: wikimedia

Note from author: I’ve been getting a lot of questions to analyze the recent accident with the Boeing 737-800 in Iran. While I do share my views, I urge everyone to be cautionary about drawing premature conclusions. If you are looking for a piece in which definitive conclusions are drawn… this piece is not for you.

Background information

Flight PS752 was supposed to depart on the 8th of January at 05:15 AM according to Flightradar24 but did not depart until 06:12 AM from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. The flight was operated by a 3.6 year old Boeing 737-800 from Ukraine International Airlines leased from Varangian Leasing with registration UR-PSR. The aircraft which had 167 passengers and 9 crew members on board lined up on runway 09R at 02:41 UTC with destination Kiev. The last ADS-B data shows the plane slightly below a calibrated altitude of 8,000 feet and a speed of 275 kts.

The flight took off on the 8th of January, shortly after Iran fired missiles at American bases in Iraq sparking an FAA NOTAM (Notice To Airmen):

The NOTAM applies to:

  • To all US carriers and commercial operations.
  • All person in possession of an airman certificate issued by the FAA (except those flying for foreign carriers).
  • All operators of US registered aircraft (except those operating for foreign carriers)

So, those who wondered why the flight still took off despite the NOTAM being issued by the US aviation authorities. The answer is really simple: The NOTAM does not bind foreign carriers.

Ukraine International Airlines has a fleet of 40 aircraft consisting of 26 Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft, 4 Boeing 767s, 3 Boeing 777s and 7 Embraer ERJ-190. Though the airline has Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on order, the crashed aircraft is an aircraft of the previous generation. With an average age of 12.4 years, Ukraine International Airlines operates a relatively young fleet with no prior accidents reported.

Responses from Boeing and Ukraine International Airlines

An aircraft accident obviously never is good news, especially not when lives are lost. For crisis-struck Boeing an accident with a root technical cause would deepen the crisis the company is facing currently. On their website, without speculation about the cause of the crash, the US jet maker provided a brief statement.

Ukraine International Airlines passed its on its deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the air crash. What, however, was remarkable was that in the flight crew information statement, was Ukraine International Airlines almost completely ruling out pilot error as a possible cause of the crash:

Given the crew’s experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance.

It’s common to provide facts after an accident, but it is highly uncommon with extremely little information at hand to completely rule out factors such as pilot error. Not because it might not be true, but because it might be upsetting to the investigation that needs to be carried out… much in the same sense it wasn’t appropriate for former CEO Dennis Muilenburg to implicate that air crews had all information needed to fly the Boeing 737 MAX.

That such a sentence occurs in a statement shortly after the crash is uncommon and makes one think that in the best case Ukraine International Airlines had more insights or views on what caused the crash. The airline ruled out pilot error and mentioned maintenance was carried out before. If you take those two elements, what UIA basically is saying that the crash is caused by something the airline has no control over.

Iranian response

The Iranian response is even more puzzling; Extremely shortly after the aircraft went down, state media already mentioned that a technical malfunction was the root cause of the crash with no visible evidence to support that. First findings from the Iranian authorities was that the Boeing 737-800 crashed after the engine caught fire. That’s an extremely quick conclusion given that it takes a month to publish a preliminary investigation report. Now, it’s not uncommon for “details” to leak but it rarely happens via official channels.

Apart from that, even with an engine inoperative or even on fire, an aircraft can return safely to an airport nearby. With Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 in mind we do know two things:

  • Accidents in which the CFM56 turbofan (the same turbofan that is used on the Boeing 737 flown by UIA) is involved do happen.
  • It’s possible to return to the airport to the airport using only 1 turobfan.

With that in mind, we cannot rule out that something did indeed happen to the turbofans, but we haven’t seen any evidence of that.

The Iranians say that the aircraft turned around to make an emergency landing. Some have doubted this reading as the altitude and velocity readings available on Flightradar24 stop abruptly. However, this does not necessarily mean that the aircraft didn’t make any attempt to return to the airport. In fact, an image from the New York Times shows that the aircraft seemingly attempted to turn around:

What complicates the matter is that there are many contradicting statements that have occurred extremely shortly after the crash and none of which were reasonably supported. On top of that, Iran in an earlier stage seemed unwilling to send the flight data and cockpit voice recorder to the United States. Withholding these recorders for read out would not do justice to the investigation or improve the quality or reliability. Being familiar with ICAO investigation standards, it is required that the investigation is set up in such a way that the investigation can be carried out diligently and free of political influence. The fact that Iran initially said it would not send recorders to the US, somewhat seemed to go against ICAO investigation standards.

At this point, Iran has shown willingness to work with other countries including the USA on the investigation as the world now seems to consider impact by a missile to be a likely cause of the crash. Iran points at engine failure, and so it would be in the country’s benefit (but also for the regional stability and safety of the traveling public) to give investigators full access to all material.

Footage

What doesn’t help Iran at this point is that it was extremely early in pointing at a root cause, the Iranians were abnormally early and conclusive with their findings. At the same time, we have footage (confirmed by New York Times) of an object hitting the aircraft as it the aircraft is climbing away at 8,000 feet. It goes directly against the reading of engine failure being the root cause of the crash. We cannot rule out engine failure, but given the circumstances following the Iranian attack on bases in Iraq what we might be seeing here is a surface-to-air missile hitting a civil aircraft. With existing footage, this is in no way means that the investigation is complete because even if the aircraft was hit by a missile additional questions should be answered:

  • Who fired the missile?
  • What kind of missile did hit the Boeing 737-800?
  • What mode was a possible anti-air missile in?
  • Why did it engage?

With the footage of something hitting the jet and a bold statement from Prime Minister Trudeau from Canada, it seems that at the very moment I am writing this report Iran has started to backtrack on their earlier stance and now is looking for aid in decoding the voice and data recorders as they seem to have been damaged.

Statement from Trudeau and Trump

As 57 Canadians lost their lives in the crash, Canada is looking for a role in the investigation of the crash and Prime Minister Trudeau said the following:

We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.

It’s the strongest wording used so far attributing the crash to a missile impacting the aircraft. According to various media outlets European and US officials also consider the possibility of the aircraft being downed by a missile.

President Trump hinted at the aircraft being shot down ruling out a mechanical error but unwilling to specifically mention the thought of the aircraft being hit by a missile:

Boeing share price movement

What we see is that Boeing shares are trading lower compared to the day before the crash. You could say that the share price movement is caused by the crash, but this is not the case. Currently shares are primarily down because of news that Spirit AeroSystems will be cutting its workforce by 15% signaling ongoing uncertainty regarding a production resumption for the Boeing 737 MAX and new troubling internal messages from Boeing appearing. On the 8th of October, the first full trading day after the crash occurred, shares were trading lower as the Iranians cited engine failure as the cause of the accident and Ukraine initially said that the plane went down because of engine failure and not because of a missile attack. On the 9th of January this price movement reversed as confirmed footage as well as intelligence sources started pointing at the possibility of a missile hitting the aircraft. If that indeed is the case, that’d mean that the root cause of the crash would not be of technical nature attributable to Boeing, its suppliers or the design of the Boeing 737-800.

Conclusion

Accidents and incidents are always tragic, especially with aircraft as they often have tens or even hundreds of people on board. Despite recent problems with Boeing, the airline industry has a good safety record and so every accident that does occur is investigated in-depth. That often goes accompanied with official channels not disclosing a lot of information as speculation might affect the way in which the investigation is carried out. However, with the Boeing 737-800 crash in Iran, the circumstances were such that it has already sparked a lot of reactions. I think it is important to consider the fact that not everything you read or see is true, an example of that was some relatively low quality images showing “projectile holes” in the fuselage at the crash site… later on. higher quality photos showed these were mostly rocks.

At this stage we have a lot of different claims from different parties:

  • The Iranians were extremely fast with pointing at a technical malfunction.
  • The Ukrainian airline put an usual sentence in their statement almost completely ruling out pilot error.
  • Canada (among other nations) claims to have intelligence the aircraft was accidentally shot down by a surface-to-air missile which is not something that can be ruled out given that Iran was on high alert the day of the crash.
  • Existing footage available to everyone supports a scenario in which the aircraft was brought down by a missile.

At this point, final conclusions cannot be drawn but I think it is clear that with the many statements in the media and the current political tension having a fully objective and smooth investigation will be difficult. We have seen a lot of unsupported statements; Engine failure allows you to return to the airport as the crew possibly also attempted, while uncontained engine failure could indeed be harder to deal which ultimately could lead to catastrophic loss of the aircraft. The data recorders and the confirmed footage should be giving more clarity than any of the initial unsupported claims of the cause of the crash, though from available footage we have extremely little reason to doubt current readings from intelligence agencies.

Boeing shares headed higher on the news that the aircraft could have been shot down. Of course, it is not something to cheer about, but it reduces the expectations of a design flaw or technical malfunction being the cause of the crash which could spell more trouble for the crisis-struck jet maker and could even impact the future and the future product line up of the jet maker. Though all scenarios should still be investigated. I believe that if Iran did indeed down the aircraft it will become clear from the investigation and possibly even before the international investigation would start. If Iran did not down the aircraft, a capable team of investigators has been assembled to determine the root cause.

Currently the scenario of a civilian airliner being hit by a rocket is starting to get more support and evidence, even among word leaders. If that is the case, then it is saddening that it happened, especially after Flight MH17 being shot down in Ukraine years ago, which led to many airlines and stakeholders agreeing that airlines and regulators should better exchange information on military threats for civil aircraft operations.

This report is not one in which I want to point fingers (and I urge readers to share their views but in a thoughtful way), but is certainly something worthy of a report on this platform as Boeing now seems to be in the middle of US-Iran escalation with the escalation possibly being a contributing factor to the fatal accident and certainly being a complicating factor in the investigation to determine the root cause. For the safety aspect of the industry, but also for Boeing as the original equipment manufacturer, having a thorough and objective investigation is required. At this point, the tension between Iran and the West might affect the integrity of the investigation at a very important point in time for Boeing as well as the safety of aviation.