NOTAMs and Malaysia Airlines MH17


NOTAMs.gif

Or, perhaps, an explanation of what the no-fly areas are in and around Ukraine, when they were established and what it all has to do with Malaysia Airlines MH17. Much discussion earlier today suggested that the plane was flying in a restricted airspace it should not have been in. Every bit of documentation I’ve found so far suggests that is not the case at all. And so I present the three NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) which cover the area and try to explain how it all relates.

SFAR 113

First up is Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 113 covering the Simferopol region. This NOTAM was issued on 23 April 2014 for a period of one year. Around noon EDT today multiple reports suggested that this NOTAM prohibited flights in the area where MH17 was last reported flying. That is simply not the case. I’ve mapped out the waypoints identified in the NOTAM and also shown the last airborne location reported by the aircraft.

Crimea NOTAM zone
Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

As you can see, the plane (red dot on the map) was not in the restricted space.

A1492/14 @ UKDV

On 14 July 2014 a new NOTAM was issued specific to the Dnipropetrovsk region. In that NOTAM the eastern edge of Ukrainian airspace was marked as off limits, but the NOTAM also was only applicable for FL260 – FL320 meaning for operations between 26,000 and 32,000 feet. The Boeing 777-200 operating as MH17 was approaching the specified area for this NOTAM but was flying at FL330, above the restricted space. It was not violating the NOTAM restrictions at that time.

The newer NOTAM restriction zone
Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

A1507/14

At 14:56 UTC today another NOTAM was issued with the exact same coordinates as the one from earlier in the week. The new NOTAM extends the prior one by including all operations from FL320 up to “UNL” meaning unlimited altitude. Essentially eastern Ukraine is now a no-fly zone. This NOTAM was put in place after MH17 went down.

NOTAMs

I certainly don’t know all the answers to what happened with MH17 and I’m pretty sure no one else does quite yet either. But these are a few facts which I hope help clarify the questions surrounding the NOTAMs and which areas were restricted from commercial traffic or not.

UPDATE 10:00pm EDT 17 July 2014:

A1517/14

At roughly midnight UTC the FAA issued a new NOTAM for the UKDV and UKFV regions (same areas covered by prior NOTAMs) in which all flight activity is prohibited. The published version I can locate is numbered A1517/14 while the FAA press release indicates names FDC 4/2182 and A0025/14; I cannot find reference to those in any systems online. The A1517/14 NOTAM expands the footprint of the prohibited access region previously defined in eastern Ukraine and also extends from the ground to unlimited altitude. It truly is a closing of the airspace for commercial US flights. And while the rule officially only applies to US carriers many others respect those rulings as well.

NOTAM-A1517-14

Note the expanded no-go area (purple) versus the earlier footprint (black)
Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Also as part of this update A1507/14 appears to have been removed as it is superseded by the new filing.

[end updated text]

On a more personal note, tragedies like these are always tough to process. The part where it turns out I am closer than I would have ever guessed to knowing people who were on the plane and who should have been on the plane but were bumped because it was overbooked makes it even harder. This is a pretty messed up world we live in right now.

Also, thanks to Stephan, Ron and others for helping me clarify the NOTAMs. I was pretty sure I understood but I very much appreciate the extra explanation.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

22 Comments

  1. Great post Seth, thank you. You should contact each of the major networks and explain how accurate reporting is critical when events like this happen.

  2. MH seems to have all the bad luck this year. Two terrible tragedies in a short time.

  3. MH has been very unfortunate this year indeed. From checking http://www.flightaware.com and looking at other flights from Europe to SE Asia, like SQ317, LH778, SQ25, MH21, etc. all of them pass through Ukraine and, in my opinion, could have easily been the unfortunate one today.
    I’m sure there are others, but I did notice that British Airways and Garuda, in particular BA11 LHR-SIN and GA89 AMS-CGK, always went out of their way NOT to go within Ukraine airspace on all their flights this past week.

    1. Another airline that chose to avoid all of eastern Ukraine before this accident (at least as late as last week) is Delta.

      I wonder why DL and BA chose to avoid it while airlines considered very safe like LH kept going? One explanation could be that LH has a lot more flights going over Ukraine and the cost in extra fuel and time to take an alternative route is substantial.

      Do I need to start checking flight plans of my future flights to make sure they don’t cross conflict zones?

  4. Those poor people didn’t have a chance. No one should be targeting public transportation. I feel so terrible for the deceased and their families. May God comfort the hearts of those left behind.

  5. Interesting in that the NOTAM that went out 3 days ago appears to be in response to the downing of a Ukrainian AN-26 cargo plane from 21,000 feet in that region. Almost all of the possible Russian manufactured SAMs that could down a plane at 21,000 feet are capable of downing aircraft at much higher altitudes than the 32,000 feet in the original NOTAM.

    @Rye, the Ukrainian conflict is rather unique because the separatists initially could have stolen high end military weapons early on due to the disorganization of the Ukrainian government. In most other “hot zones” the insurgents don’t typically have access to those type of powerful weapons. Each airline has it’s own risk groups that make the best decisions they can based on the information they had, Delta and BA were probably more conservative than the others.

    @seth, like Lucky’s post it always has more impact when you know someone who was aboard or someone who had a “near miss” like the overbooked passengers.

  6. Another safety aspect that comes to mind for me if staying only 1000 ft above the upper limit of a no-fly zone is what happens if you lose an engine for some reason? I don’t fly or dispatch the 777 but most twin engine planes could not maintain altitude and would have the drift down effect if they had to shut down an engine. I’m guessing this plane was still almost fully loaded at this stage in the flight so it wouldn’t have a chance to maintain at or above FL320. For that safety reason (along with more obvious concerns!), I don’t think this flight should have been dispatched on this route. Maybe my technical knowledge is not correct but I think it is.

    1. That is a really valid observation sir. Im starting to wonder the same too.

      1. It’s the same principle as ETOPS, just on a verticle measure, they should have considered it. In a literal sense they were legal, but the decision wasn’t smart. Route your plane elsewhere and take a tech stop if necessary. I’m not at all suggesting this disaster was MHs fault but the risk could have been mitigated in my view.

        1. u’re right, aircraft cannot maintain level during emergency like engine failure or rapid decom. similar to high terrain operation, there r escape routes by pilot or ATC n priority will be given to clear d area ASAP.

  7. It may be a weird question, but i cant find the NOTAM A1492/14 on notams.aim.faa.gov, where did you get the infomation?
    I searched for all NOTAMs released in UKDV area on the database mention above, and there were neither A1492/14 nor A1507/14.

  8. Some of my thoughts on this despicable event. It is always easy to be wise after an event occurred. Any respectable airline will weigh risk before operating any route. Very clearly that risk has changed significantly with this event and the airlines and authorities are taking the necessary action. The above article by Seth puts the restricted flight areas into a good and clear chronological order. As mentioned in other comments, MH17 was not in any restricted area so it becomes a pointless argument to argue that they should have avoided the area. Some reputable operators did detour around Ukraine however we don’t have a confirmed reason why, and others, also reputable did not. As said earlier, hindsight gives you 20/20 vision, a luxury not always available looking forward.

    Although not mentioned in Seth’s post, the April NOTAM was issued to cover Crimea and most of the Black Sea for Air Traffic Control reasons rather than the risk of getting shot at. The potential ATC problem was 2 authorities controlling the same air space. The net result is the same but for significantly different reasons. This should not be used to confuse the MH17 tragedy.

  9. A further thought on the authorities and the airlines actions around the MH17 crash. A few years ago Euro-Control closed most of Europe’s airspace because a volcano in Iceland had erupted and volcanic ash was blown over Europe. At the time the Euro-Control was hammered for their action, especially when stuck travelers looked out and saw clear blue sky. Did that action prevent any incident or accident? We will never know for sure. Was the action too conservative? Again we will never know for sure. But, what would the world have said if they did not take that action and an aircraft crashed? “Why did you not close the airspace when you knew about a volcano and it is well known that volcanic ash can endanger an aircraft.” One can’t win!

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