Rescue workers search the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

How a missile might have shot a plane down in Iran, and what a probe will look for

At least 63 Canadians and 75 more people heading across to Canada were aboard the plane.

Commercial airline pilots flying out of Tehran’s airport know a simple rule, says Ross Aimer, a former United Airlines captain who has flown there.

You don’t turn right, because that takes you towards the Alborz mountain range. The Ukraine International Airlines flight that went down shortly after take-off Wednesday turned right.

That turn, among other evidence, suggests the crew knew something had gone horribly wrong. The crash that followed killed everyone on board, including at least 63 Canadians and 75 more people who were heading to this country. And now multiple western authorities, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, say they believe a surface-to-air missile was the cause.

How does a surface-to-air missile system work?

Most systems are automated and radar-based. The radar sends out a signal and gets a return off something flying. A computer system processes what it has pinged — taking into account things like speed, direction of travel and elevation, among other factors — and then someone on the ground reviews the results to see if the object is a fighter jet, a commercial airliner or something else.

READ MORE: At least 14 people from B.C. among victims in fatal Iran plane crash

“It’s not a precise match and depending on the system, there’s greater or lesser degrees of actual interpretation of the information. So you get something that’s not always 100 per cent accurate,” says defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Perry says the weapons systems the Iranians use are a mix of current Russian technology and some equipment that is far older.

How would a surface-to-air missile system fire at a commercial airplane?

These surface-to-air missile, or SAM, systems typically have three states: “Weapons tight,” meaning a crew fires when it’s confirmed the target is hostile; ”weapons hold,” which limits firing to self-defence or on a specific order; and “weapons free,” which, as the name suggests, allows firing without restriction.

A local crew, in error, could have set the system to “free” status. It could have automatically locked on to the Ukrainian plane when the airliner entered the missile system’s surveillance zone and fired, said retired Canadian lieutenant-general D. Michael Day.

What would the pilots of the plane have seen or heard?

Aimer, the former pilot, said some planes have warnings that alert pilots to a missile threat, and some planes — such as Air Force One or those flown by Israeli airline El Al — would have countermeasures designed to help the plan evade a missile strike. But most civilian airliners don’t have warning indicators, nor is such a threat something most commercial pilots train for.

“There’s nothing really… any pilot can do to evade an incoming surface-to-air missile. You just get hit and you’re done,” said Aimer, now CEO of California-based Aero Consulting Experts.

Is that what happened here?

The Iranian air defences would likely be linked to the civil aviation system, meaning weapons crews would have likely known a plane had just taken off from the airport, said James Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.

Day said Iran would have likely had its own civilian planes flying around the area as well, particularly so close to Tehran’s airport.

But Day said if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was willing to suggest the cause was an Iranian missile, the intelligence had to be airtight and unequivocal.

“In probability, this means that there is some type of electronic evidence that the Iranian air-defence system identified, acquired and engaged the plane,” he said.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with Teal Group in the Washington, D.C., area, said an unconstrained or over-active air-defence system seems like one of the likeliest causes for the crash because “planes just don’t do this.”

“Uncontained turbine failures,” when an engine breaks up while rotating and parts punch out of the casing, are not unheard-of. One caused the death of a passenger on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 in 2018. But such an event wouldn’t have resulted in the wreckage seen in pictures and video from the crash site, he said.

“Technical problems don’t look like this. It blew up,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

“Uncontained turbine failures don’t blow up. Yes, bad things happen, things come shooting out the back, it can rupture wires and control lines and do terrible things. But just blow up? No.”

Iran has denied a missile was the cause of the crash. Its civil aviation authority on Thursday called the theory “scientifically impossible.”

What kind of evidence would investigators look for to confirm the cause?

The first step would be to look at the wreckage of the plane and the remains of the deceased passengers and crew for residue from a missile strike, kerosene residue if fuel tanks caught fire, and shrapnel to see if pieces come from a missile or an engine, Aimer said. He said investigators would also pry information from the plane’s flight data and voice recorders.

Iran leads the investigation under rules set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization, as the country where the crash happened.

Iran might give the recorders to another country, possibly France or Canada, that has the expertise to do the work, though not the United States because of ongoing tensions.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said in a statement Thursday that it had accepted Iran’s invitation to be part of the crash probe, and investigators are making arrangements to visit the site.

Aimer said the crash site and its evidence appear to have been contaminated by wreckage moved without being properly catalogued for its location in the debris field, putting investigators at a disadvantage.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2020.

— with files from Christopher Reynolds

Lee Berthiaume and Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Clinic helps retired Parksville educator return to running

ORCA Learn to Run program to start Feb. 5

Robbie Burns to be celebrated across Parksville Qualicum Beach

Legions host suppers and celebrations in trio of communities

Naked Naturals has tentative deal for $2.5M purchase of town-owned in Qualicum Beach

Business plan includes a new grocery store, 32 units of rental housing and parking

Council passes resolution regarding construction of roundabout in Qualicum Beach

Town hopes to get additional funds from a Beautification Grant

‘Like an ATM’: World’s first biometric opioid-dispensing machine launches in B.C.

First-of-its-kind dispensing machine unveiled in the Downtown Eastside with hopes of curbing overdose deaths

Horgan cancels event in northern B.C. due to security concerns, says Fraser Lake mayor

The premier will still be visiting the city, but the location and day will not be made public

B.C. landlord sentenced to two years in jail for torching his own rental property

Wei Li was convicted of intentionally lighting his rental property on fire in October 2017

Blue Monday is a myth but seasonal affective disorder and the winter blues are real

Canadian Mental Health Association says weather can affect mood

PHOTOS: Eastern Newfoundland reeling, search underway for missing man after blizzard

More than 70 centimetres of new snow fell overnight, creating whiteout conditions

Prince Harry, Meghan to give up ‘royal highness’ titles

‘Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family,’ says Queen Elizabeth II

Ice chunk from truck crushes vehicle windshield on Vancouver Island

None injured, but Nanaimo RCMP say there can be fines for accumulations of ice and snow

B.C. society calls out conservation officer after dropping off bear cub covered in ice

Ice can be seen in video matted into emaciated bear cub’s fur

Calls for dialogue as Coastal GasLink pipeline polarizes some in northern B.C.

Coastal GasLink is building the 670-kilometre pipeline from British Columbia’s northeast to Kitimat on the coast

Most Read