On Air

Last month I was in Helsinki, Finland, for about a week. Right at the start of the World Cup, which took on a new meaning (i.e. became incomprehensible) with TV commentary in Finnish.

Finland as a whole is considered a land of natural beauty, but I have to say the capital is underwhelming. On the last afternoon there nothing anchored us to the city so we went to Estonia, only a few hours by ship.

I was with someone from the Emerald Isle, and when we heard Tallinn was within reach we looked at each other and echoed a silent Yes.

When I got to Helsinki, I was pretty sure I’d arrived in the land of efficiency, but my first experience was just the opposite—my bag took longer to emerge onto the one carousel than the Finnish winter.

In fairness, that was the first and last problem I had; from then on Helsinki was efficient, seamless—and silent.

I boarded a bus from the airport to town and marveled at the quiet. As I looked around the vehicle, I realized that people were talking, but it was almost a whisper. Wonderful in a crowd, where people normally raise their voices because others talk loudly, until the whole place is deafening.

Then five Spaniards entered the bus. They were quite a way back, but the Spanish do not suffer from atrophy of the vocal chords, and they made more noise than the whole complement of Finns. The locals didn’t raise their voices, they just whispered away and silently tapped their smartphones.

It was the same in restaurants, even the rowdy ones were like libraries.

The morning before we escaped to Tallinn I was in a large meeting room, and the Finnish lady taking notes asked an American if she could please speak louder. I had to strain to hear the secretary’s whispered plea.

Estonia, along with the rest of Europe, is south of Helsinki, and Saint Petersburg is to the east, so ferries often do a stopover in Tallinn prior to going on to Mother Russia.

I always find ferries unsettling, and every ferry accident reinforces that—when you’re belowdecks, death seems quite certain. This beast was enormous, manufactured in the shipyards of Ancona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, and as it lumbered out of the port of Helsinki on the eve of Midsummer, I stood aft in the pouring rain watching the Russians drink beer.

A choice place to have a snooze. Second class aboard one of the Baltic booze ferries.

A choice place to have a booze snooze. Second class aboard one of the Baltic alco-ferries.

I tried to recall the last time I visited a new country by sea or by road, and drew a blank. Maybe the Netherlands, just after college—also by ferry, but this time from the U.K.

Planes have been my route into the world for the last twenty-five years. And every time I’ve flown over the vast expanse of the former U.S.S.R., an endless passage on the route to China, or over Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, I always think  of that missile on the ground, with some fuckhead’s finger on the trigger.

The idea of growing old, infirm, insolvent, and ignored, doesn’t appeal to me, so dying in a plane crash is never a concern. Flying is a binary decision—once you’re in, that’s that. But I still think of that one guy, sitting there in the remnants of the Cold War, who either through accident or deliberation has sealed my fate, and offered it to SAM.

So neither the fact that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was downed, nor that it was a missile attack, come as a surprise. The terrible side is of course the human cost, the innocents who were looking forward to exploring the mysteries of Asia on vacation, or perhaps returning home for a few days rest.

Statistically, tragedies of this scale occur about once a decade: in 1983, a Korean Airlines 747 was shot down by a Soviet jet fighter; in 1988, the aircraft carrier USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 on board—the Airbus was allegedly misidentified as an F-14. In 2001 a Siberian Airlines Tupolev was downed by an Ukrainian SAM. This week, MH17 boosted the ranks, with 298 dead—Ukranian separatists allegedly claimed a strike on a military Antonov.

These are just the big ones—a host of small passenger planes regularly hit the deck, blown out of the skies by rockets.

With the usual 20/20 hindsight, no commercial airliners should overfly war zones, which given the state of this world, is easier said than done, not least for cost reasons.

What about terror attacks? It seems pretty easy to get hold of a SAM and shoot down a plane—after all, the Americans were giving away SAMs to the Afghan resistance (now known as the Taliban) back in the Soviet era.

Likewise, in Angola and other parts of Africa, Russian, American, and Chinese SAMs abound.

How many countries manufacture SAM missiles?

Five? Maybe as many as ten?

Nope, a full sixteen (that we know of), including such unlikely candidates as Sweden and Norway. In some cases the offering is incredibly vast—on Wikipedia, the People’s Republic of China rates nineteen pages, one per SAM.

The PL-8 missile, for instance, dates from the 1980s, following on from the Israeli Python. It was part of Number 8 Project—if you’ve read AtmosFear you’ll know all about the importance of ‘8’ in China. The PL-8 is built in Xi’an, better known for its terracotta warriors, at the Xi’an Eastern Machinery Factory.

The missile is about ten feet long, with a wingspan of less than three feet. It carries about twenty-five pounds of explosives, and has two other features of note: a flight ceiling of about sixty-thousand feet (MH17 was flying at about 33,000 feet, like most commercial airliners), and a top speed of Mach 3.5, three and a half times the speed of sound—airliners usually do about three-quarters of Mach 1.

Between Russians and Americans there are fifty pages of missiles, twenty-five for each nation.

The Soviet Buk missile has been suggested as a likely culprit in this most recent tragedy. If you ever saw images of the traditional U.S.S.R. May Day parade in Moscow, you recall missile batteries deployed from armored cars.

There are other options on the table, but I’ll go by the Buk, if you excuse the pun, and tell you a little about what NATO variously calls the GADFLY (SA-11) or the GRIZZLY (SA-17). Many SAM missiles have an altitude range from less than a hundred feet to well over sixty thousand, but bringing down an airliner like the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 is a non-trivial exercise.

On the other hand, near airports all over the world, a shoulder-fired SAM could cause a tragedy with much greater ease—in Mombassa, Kenya, in 2002, it nearly did.

The Buk is not exactly a portable item—we’re talking of three vehicles, two called TELAR, for Transporter Erector Launcher and Radar, and one TEL, just the launcher. Each TELAR has a four-man crew,  a battery of four rockets, and its dome-mounted radar can guide three rockets simultaneously.

Each SAM weighs over fifteen-hundred pounds, and is eighteen feet long. The modern ones do Mach 4. To bring that home, it’s like doing 50 mph on the freeway and seeing a guy in your mirror bearing down at 250 miles an hour.

From Sean Connery to Daniel Craig: The more recent upgrade to the Buk-M2E TELAR control system.

From Sean Connery to Daniel Craig: The more recent upgrade to the Buk-M2E TELAR control system.

Or in this case, not seeing him. Those poor guys never knew what hit them.

My point is that given the tensions (aka war) in Eastern Ukraine, the heavens must be saturated with spy satellites, NSA comms espionage, and not a few spooks on the ground. It is therefore unimaginable that the U.S. doesn’t know exactly where the warring parties located their Buk missile batteries, before, during, and after the strike—three vehicles (and that’s only part of the batallion) are not easy to hide.

And if the U.S. knows, so does the U.K. And France. And Germany. And Israel, because they know everything.

It’s eminently possible that satellites filmed the actual missile launch, given this was one of a series targeting high altitude overflights. They most certainly filmed any subsequent vehicle movements attempting to displace the battery from the launch spot.

A highly trained crew of four inside a TELAR doesn’t come from the rebel ranks. By all accounts, the rebel fighters are militiamen, some of whom are ex-army, but the notion that a highly sophisticated missile battery is operated by the kind of bozos you saw blocking the access of investigators to the crash site is some sort of Russian joke.

Where does that leave us? With the two ‘P’s, Putin or Poroshenko. Roll on the denials, the protracted technical investigation. Time forgets—as the Soviets used to say, a committee is an animal with four back legs.

The only mugs in this game are the citizens of the world, who are kept in the dark in a political powerplay, while children fall from the sky.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.




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