Vulnerable estimates surrounding the crash of a Russian transport plane

Vulnerable estimates surrounding the crash of a Russian transport plane

The Ilyushin-76, shot down over Russia on January 24, was still smoking in a snow-covered field when work began on the Wikipedia entry describing its fate. At 11:01 AM Dutch time, Aqeccac started the work from China, at 11:19 AM Aydoh8 joined him from Australia and at 11:41 AM S5A-0043 also contributed from Singapore.

Meanwhile, researchers of the osint species (open source intelligence) to find out exactly what happened. The case was spectacular: the Il-76 is a huge cargo plane and the Ukrainians had managed to take it down more than 60 km behind the border. They claimed the plane was taking weapons to the front, but the Russians claimed it was headed to Belgorod with 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Appeared on Telegram a video of 27 seconds that depicted the dive of the already burning plane and the subsequent impact. It turned out that filming had taken place from a lawn next to a shop in the village of Jablonovo and that can be viewed with Google Streetview. The camera was pointed north. About 12 seconds after the distant crash, the smartphone registers a short ‘crack’. The filmmaker lets out a scream and a car alarm goes off. If the speed of sound was 330 m/s (it was freezing), those 12 seconds represent a distance between camera and impact of approximately 4.0 km. Various osinters emerged from this. In reality, the distance was 4.7 km as CNN showed on January 25 using radar images from an Umbra Space satellite. Perhaps digital manipulation increased the playback speed of the video a bit.

In a snowy corn field

The Umbra images combine well with the drone footage which the Russians released on January 25. You see that the Il-76 crashed through a group of trees in a snow-covered corn field and left a trail of 600 meters. The plane broke up before it landed: you can also see wreckage in front of the impact crater in drone images. Only two or three fatalities are shown.

One problem is that the crash track of the Il-76 runs from southwest to northeast, that is, away from Belgorod and not towards it. The now completed Wikipedia entry mentions it as a conclusion of The Moscow Times but doesn’t go into it. It only notes that the Russians would have deduced from radar observations that the cargo plane had been hit with two missiles from Lyptsi, Ukraine. The New York Times (February 8) had learned from ‘officials who spoke privately’ that there was only one: a Patriot missile. That rumor has been going around for some time.

The Russians have too actual photos showing a snow-covered field with remains of a Patriot missile but no confirmation of the location. If it was indeed the Patriot in question, it was one from the PAC-2 series, which, with a diameter of 41 cm, is more robust than the more modern Patriot PAC-3. The PAC-2 has a fragmentation warhead reminiscent of the warhead of the Boek missile that downed the MH17 Boeing. A few fuselage parts of the Il-76 are just as riddled as the Boeing.

The video contains a lot of information. For example, using the height of the small church tower of Jablonovo as a measure, it can be estimated that the Il-76 is only flying 150 to 200 meters high when the video starts. Four seconds later he crashes.

The video, which originally appeared on Telegram, has also been widely posted on Twitter.

The cloud of smoke that appears halfway through the video (after 0:20) is interesting. It is not the end of the Patriot missile’s smoke trail, as has been assumed, but the cloud created when the warhead explodes. We know the typical clouds of the Tamir interceptor missiles of the Israeli Iron Dome and, for example, of the Sidewinder missile that shot the Chinese spy balloon out of the sky. Striking feature: they stand virtually still in the air, no matter how fast the supersonic rocket came. They rise a little due to their heat and then drift with the wind.

The three locations on a Google Earth image: camera, cloud and crash.
Image Google Earth

The cloud in Jablonovo therefore roughly marks the place where the Il-76 was when it was hit and it is possible to get to that place. Meteorological sites report that at the time of the explosion there was a south-westerly wind at a speed of about 16 km/h. (The wind direction is also evident from the soot marks around the wreckage in the snow.) At higher altitudes this would not have been more than double. Yet the cloud appears to move quite a bit in the 1.7 seconds that it is in view, an estimated angle of 35 arc minutes. The HBS teacher then calculates that the cloud was not much further than about 2 km from the camera. On the other hand, the likely height of the building above which the cloud hangs (8 meters) shows that it is not closer was than one kilometer (otherwise it would be less than 250 meters high).

These are fragile estimates, but it still seems likely that the Il-76 was hit well south of the later crash track. It cannot therefore be ruled out that it did indeed fly towards Belgorod at a very low altitude, but veered sharply to starboard due to the effect of the explosion. RFERL’s Mike Eckel has described something similar, apparently drawing on Telegram communications. A supporting clue comes from the observation that the Ilyushin, just like the MH17 Boeing at the time, was hit in the front part of the fuselage by the fragments of the warhead. Given the operation of the detonation mechanism of the PAC-2 warhead (the ‘proximity fuse’), this is especially to be expected when the rocket and aircraft are flying towards each other. The old MH17 reports show this well.