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The Painstaking Forensics of a Plane Crash Investigation

How, from the twisted husks of the plane itself to bodies burnt beyond recognition, do you retroactively piece together the puzzle of MH17?

Image: Muskoka stock photos/Shutterstock

The sunflower fields that blanket eastern Ukraine stand thick and tall this time of year. Today, you'll find hordes of locals setting off into this sea of yellow, as the Associated Press reports, but they are not there to tend to the plants. They're scouring a roughly 10-square mile debris field for any evidence of a Malaysia Airline passenger jet that crashed Thursday as it flew over the war-torn country. All 298 passengers on board died. 

The international reponse has been swift. The UN Security Council held an emergency session with the wreckage still smoldering, according to the AP, and is calling for "a full, thorough and independent international investigation... in accordance with international civil aviation guidelines" into what, exactly, brought down MH17, a Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it reportedly broke apart near the Russian border.

To complicate things further, most of the debris rained down on a dangerous and otherwise hard-to-reach pocket of a region stricken by separtist fighting. This is why the Council stressed that a thorough analysis of the tragedy necessarily hinges on the "immediate access by investigators to the crash site."

And that's about where we are as of this writing. The question, then, is how, from the scattershot husks of the plane itself, amid bodies burnt beyond recognition, do you retroactively piece together the puzzle MH17's fate?

The forensics of plane crash investigations is not an exact science. But the most critical phase of any case begins right at ground level, which means the most important work is happening right now, in those sunflower patches. That's where a far-flung cast of local and national police, emergency response personnel, and off-duty coal miners, the AP reports, are combing for anything—passports, boarding passes, cell phones, smashed watches, chared bodily remains—they can find. 

It's worth noting here that the MH17 investigation is already a much different sort of analysis than that of MH370, another Malaysia Airlines passenger jet, that's believed to have crashed somewhere in the Indan Ocean in March. Over four months on, that investigation—despite all the satellite data on the doomed flight being released to the public and an advanced deep sea drone scanning the ocean floor for blackbox pings—continues to run up against the vastness and darkness of Earth. To date, all we've found is some trash

With MH17, we have a plane, or at least what's left of it and everyone inside. In that sense, its crash investigation bears a certain likeness to the forensics of a lethal drone attack. And that relies on interviews with eyewitness and publicy-available satellite imagery to help investigators model the explosive force of the missile hit, the blast radius that was left behind, and the time of impact and number of casualties.

Nevertheless the MH17 investigation is already of a far broader scope. The US National Transporation Safety Board, which is tasked with investigating all plane crash incidents on US soil but also supports crash investigations abroad, has been tapped to help the international investigation into the downing of MH17. NTSB's Major Investigations Manual is worth a close look, but to give you an idea of what the investigation is now up against, here's an overview of NTSB's eight-point crash investigation process

  • Operations: the history of both a doomed flight and the duties of its crew "for as many days prior to the crash as appears relevant";
  • Structures: the profile of "aiframe wreckage and the accident scene," including calculations of impact angles "to help determine the planes pre-impact course and attitude";
  • Powerplants: an examination of the craft's engines, engine accessories, and propellers;
  • Systems: a close study of the various components "of the plane's hydraulic, electrical, pneumatic and associated systems, together with instruments and elements of the flight control system" (this will be particularly crucial to the MH17 analysis, as it's currently unclear if the plane's blackbox, perhaps containing haunting last words, has or has not been located);
  • Air traffic control: a reconstruction of the "services given the plane, including acquisition of ATC radar data and transcripts of controller-pilot radio transmissions (this can be a tough knot to unravel, as commercial flights aren't as closely monitored as one might think)
  • Weather: a compilation of all official weather service data from the time of the flight and crash;
  • Human performance: a study of "crew performance and all before-the-accident factors that might be involved in human error";
  • Survival factors: a full documentation of "impact forces and injuries, evacuation, community emergency planning and all crash-fire-rescue efforts."

On that note, the AP also reported that one man who was combing for evidence in a sunflower field fainted after happening upon the charred remains of a passenger. What happened? We'll have to wait, bit by bit, for the full picture to come to light. So I wont' point fingers (yet). For its part, however, the US isn't isn't ruling out Russia's role in the downing of MH17.

If you're curious, here's what the weapon that may've downed MH17 looks like in action.