For any military aircraft to be in close proximity to a civil aircraft without clearance and knowledge of air traffic controllers and the pilots of the Malaysian flight would be highly irregular, Desmond Ross, an aviation security expert, told RT.
RT: We have heard a lot about the flight data recorders. What exactly can they tell us?
Desmond Ross: The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder are the two boxes that we are referring to. The cockpit voice recorder, as the name suggests, will tell us what was said, what noises were heard, everything that occurred in the cockpit prior to the accident. That will stop at the moment when the power goes off, at the point of impact or at the point when an explosion occurred. The cockpit voice recorder has a two-hour loop, so it has the previous two hours of all noise, voice activity, air traffic control communications, etc, in the cockpit. That can be very useful in those last moments of MH17. It could even record the sound of an explosion; it will certainly record the sound of warning bells, gongs, and any comments made by the pilots.
The other one, the flight data recorder, specifically records the parameters of the aircraft, its operating characteristics at that time. I would not expect it be anything unusual up until the moment of the explosion. But it will give us one particularly interesting finding. When we all fly on any aircraft in the world, the cabin pressure is set to 8,000 feet above sea level, with the exception of new generation aircraft which sets it a bit lower, at 6,000 feet. For most aircraft, it’s 8,000 feet. As the aircraft was flying at 32-33,000 feet, so the sudden decompression from an 8,000-foot pressure level in the aircraft to 33,000 feet would be quite traumatic. It could also be very fast, and this is what I am interested in. I think we are all interested to know if that decompression occurred instantly or if it took a few moments to de-pressurize.
RT: How long does it take to extract information from the flight recorders?
DR: That information should all be stored on the recorders, as long as there was no tampering with them, no interference, they should be completely able to give us that information. I do not think it will take terribly long, the cockpit voice recorder will be quicker, but the flight data recorder requires specialized equipment, which is why it is going to England. Actually, there are only about half a dozen specialized laboratories in the world where this can be done. Fortunately, we do not have plane accidents every day, so we do not need many laboratories. So the UK will examine that, and I am sure in a very painstaking examination, to determine precisely what happened in the last moments, seconds of MH17’s flight. It could take weeks.
RT: The plane went off course before it came down. How normal is that?
DR: The captain is the complete authority for the safety of the aircraft, so if he wants to divert his flight left or right off track, or climb, or descend from his cruising altitude, he has the authority to do that with clearance from air traffic control. And that occurs frequently, due to a thunderstorm or due to extreme turbulence that might be in the air. For the comfort of the passengers, the captains would often climb to get into the smoother airspace, or divert left or right off track. But you wouldn’t do it without advising the air traffic control. You must – and always would – advise the air traffic controllers, which in that case should have been the Ukrainian air traffic control center. It was necessary for a diversion left or right off track for whatever reason, he would normally state “due to thunderstorm”, or something. So he would do it, but with the clearance from ATC.
RT: There have been reports of another aircraft appearing in close proximity of the Boeing. If this is confirmed what effect could it have had on MH17?
DR: It would not necessarily be on the flight data recorders, unless the pilots were aware of that aircraft and made some comment, either to air traffic control or to themselves. There is nothing else on either of the two recorders to identify that aircraft’s presence. So it’s a little odd, again, [as] air traffic control has the responsibility of keeping all aircraft safe on their routes. They should not and would not normally clear any other aircraft, military or civil, to be on the same altitude in the close proximity of another aircraft, a civil airliner.
On the normal protocols, even if it was a military aircraft, which is being suggested in some cases, he should not have been in that airspace without clearance from the air traffic control system. And even if he was on the military frequency, normally, the military control would coordinate with the civil control. This is how it works internationally. So for him to be in close proximity to a civil aircraft without clearance and without the knowledge of air traffic controllers and the pilots of the Malaysian flight would be highly irregular. If it was a military aircraft and they thought that they were under some sort of a threat, it should still, under normal circumstances, have been coordinated between the military and the civil controllers. I understand that there is a war going on there at the moment, and again we come back to that problem of the fog of war and the confusion that occurs – who knows what was really going on.
RT: So would it be unlikely that there would be anything in the flight data recorders that could tell about the close proximity of the second aircraft to the Malaysian airplane?
DR: Only if the air traffic controller had advised the Malaysian crew to be aware of a military flight in this proximity or if they heard a clearance being issued to it on the radio frequency. It would only be if there was some radio conversation that would reveal the presence of that aircraft and they would know about it and that we would find that on the flight data recorder or on the cockpit voice recorder.