How Dutch Investigators Used Science To Reconstruct MH17's Last Moments

The Dutch Safety Board has issued its final report into the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. The cause of the crash has been identified as a BUK surface-to-air missile fired from the Ukraine. The forensic study of the wreckage took months, and saw investigators literally piece together a plane that had been peppered with missile fragmentation to determine exactly what happened in those final moments.

On 17 July, 2014, MH17 dropped out of radar contact over Ukraine. Authorities quickly determined that the plane had been shot down by a missile fired by rebel forces, but couldn't accurately determine the timeline of the incident and how the plane came down following the explosion.

The Dutch Safety Board was brought on to spearhead the investigation, along with representatives from several other international bodies, including the Australian Federal Police.

Investigators initially struggled to retrieve the wreckage of MH17 for study, due to its location inside an armed conflict zone in the Ukraine.

In late-Autumn and early-Spring, the investigators were able to retrieve the wreckage over three separate recovery missions, where it was then taken by train back to the Netherlands for study. Once it arrived, the wreckage fragments were tagged and photographed in front of a green screen so it could be digitally reconstructed by investigators.

Once the investigators determined that a missile had in fact been the cause of the crash, they issued a preliminary report, before working to determine the exact series of events. That's where the hardcore forensics came in.

The first job was figuring out what the missile did to the plane at 33,000 feet, and where it went off. Investigators knew what time the flight went off radar, and knew where the explosion took place, but they didn't know what the missile exactly did to the plane once it exploded, nor did they know where or how the missile had detonated around the plane.

After the black box flight recorders had been flown to Farnborough in the UK for analysis, investigators played all three tapes at exactly the same time to listen for the explosion. Four microphones in the cockpit all picked up the missile's detonation outside the plane.

Using just the audio captured by those four microphones, investigators were able to analyse their waveforms down to the millisecond to determine which of them detected the explosion first. They then traced the sound of the shockwave back through the cabin to infer where around the plane the missile detonated.

That's how investigators double-confirmed (along with the peppered fuselage) that the BUK missile exploded above the cockpit's left-hand side.

To aid visual interpretation, the photographs snapped when the wreckage came into the hangar were reconstructed against a digital 2D representation of the plane to piece together exactly what the fuselage looked like pre- and post-explosion.

In the same way police would reconstruct a crime scene, the then team built an exact replica of a Boeing 777 frame in its hangar, and worked hard to recreate the jet with the pieces they had recovered from the crash site.

The real-life reconstruction and subsequent 3D scan served to further validate the forensic team's findings.

800 of the tiny bowtie- and block-shaped fragments perforated the cabin when the warhead exploded, shearing the cockpit from the rest of the plane, and killing the pilots instantly. The plane fell from 33,000 feet to the deck, disintegrating on the way down, killing all 298 on board.

Forensic digital reconstructions of the detonation along with data collected about the damage to the cabin found that the missile detonated less than a metre from the cockpit.

The job of the forensic investigators is finished, but the questions about exactly where the missile was fired from and who fired it remain unanswered. The Dutch Safety Board go to some length to explain that such political questions fall outside of their investigative remit.

You can watch the full video report below.