News reports say the Malaysian jumbo jet was flying at 33,000 feet when airline officials lost contact with it because the plane with 295 people aboard had been shot down by a Russian-designed SA-17 surface-to-air missile fired from a Buk missile launcher.
There were no survivors; it's likely that everyone aboard was dead before the first pieces of wreckage hit the ground. The tragedy happened Thursday coincidentally on the final business day of the 2014 Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, England.
If the Malaysia flight was at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, it would have been well within the range of an SA-17 missile, which flies at three times the speed of sound. That weapon is designed to hit targets as high as 82,000 feet and as far away as 29 miles. It's designed to hit maneuverable targets like jet fighters and incoming missiles, so a lumbering passenger jet flying straight and level at 33,000 feet would have been no match for the SA-17.
The SA-17 is a radar-guided missile, while the Buk launcher looks like an armored personnel carrier with radar tracking gear inside. The missile is 18 feet long -- about the size of a telephone pole -- and has a 154-pound fragmentation warhead designed to detonate near its target and spray hundreds or thousands of pieces of sharp metal fragments that would have ripped through the Malaysia 777 in hundreds of different places.
It would be like hitting the jumbo jet with several machine guns at once. The plane was pressurized at 33,000 feet, most likely would have sustained violent decompression in many places, and disintegrated in mid-air. Picture a balloon popping; that's essentially what would have happened.
This tragedy comes just four months after another aviation disaster involving a Malaysia 777 jumbo jet, made by the Boeing Co.
Malaysia 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia early in the morning of 8 March 2014 en-route to Beijing. That plane with 227 passengers and 12 crew members simply disappeared. Some are still searching for its wreckage in remote areas of the Indian Ocean.
There's no word on who might have shot that Malaysia flight down, or why. Everyone who might be involved apparently is blaming someone else. At this stage it's not confirmed what actually happened. Still, it sounds like another piece of devastatingly bad news for a beleaguered airline.