Who’s Not Being Honest? Russia or Turkey? What the Science Says

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (Image: via  Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

The downing of a Russian military jet by the Turkish military along the border of Syria and Turkey had the two nations offering two very different accounts of what happened. Two astrophysicists have now decided to dig into the stories a little deeper.

The two astrophysicists, Tom van Doorsslaere and Giovanni Lapenta of the Belgian KU Leuven, used simple Newtonian mechanics to show how politics plays a more important role than the truth.

By using maps that were provided by Turkish and Russian officials, and a video of the incident, they were able to show that the events could have not have happened the way both countries have presented to the public. They wrote their findings on a blog by KU Leuven.

Russian Su-24M fighter jet shot down over Syria, by RT:

 The facts

  • The jet was shot down by Turkish military after the pilot was reported to have ignored several warnings about entering Turkish airspace.
  • Turkish officials reported that the military had warned the jets 10 times in a period of five minutes.
  • When the warnings were ignored, the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, gave the order to fire on the Russian jets.
  • According to Turkish officials, both jet fighters were in Turkish airspace for just 17 seconds.
  • Russian jets had not violated the Turkish airspace.

The science

In the video, which was posted online, you can see that one of the jets gets hit by a missile and starts plummeting to the ground. The jet falls for approximately 30 seconds before it hits the ground, the physicists wrote:

“Because the vertical movement is only dependent on gravity (g=9.81m/s², z=gt²/2), we can calculate that the plane was moving at a height of at least 14,764 feet (4,500 meters). That number is consistent with the Turkish statement of the jets being at an altitude of 19,000 feet (5,800 meters).”

Turkish claims

Maps provided by Turkish officials show that the Russian jet had crashed eight kilometers from where it was hit. So this means it had traveled the eight kilometers from the time it was hit to the time it had crashed.

Using a simple division it tells us the jet had an initial speed of 609 mph (980 km/h), which is a suitable speed for a jet traveling at that elevation.

The physicists then look at the speed the jet was going (609 mph) and compared it to the distance the jet traveled in Turkish airspace, which according to the Turkish map was around 2 kilometers.

If the Russian jet was flying at 609 mph, it would have covered the distance in seven seconds, not the 17 seconds reported by the Turkish officials. If it had taken 17 seconds, the jet would have been flying at 261 mph. The physicists wrote: “This is a very slow speed; therefore, 17s is an exaggeration of the real duration.”

Map provided by Turkey. (Image: Turkish officials)

The Turkish air force claims that it had given 10 warnings to the fighter jets in five minutes. A jet that is traveling 609 m/h would travel a distance of around 50 miles (80 kilometers) in five minutes.

With this in mind, the professors concluded: “How could the Turkish Air Force predict that the Russian jets were about to enter Turkish airspace? Military jets are very agile, and in theory, the Russian jets could have turned at the last moment to avoid Turkish airspace. The warnings issued to the Russian pilots were mere speculation at the moment they were made.”

Turkey military releases audio of “warnings” to downed Russian plane by euronews (in English):

The warnings that the Turkish Air Force had given are also under the spotlight, as issuing 10 warnings in just seven seconds seems, on the surface, to be highly improbable.

Russian claims

The Russian claims are just as unconvincing, according to the physicists.

On the map the Russian officials had given out, it shows that the Russian jets had not violated Turkish airspace. It shows that the jet had made a 90 degree turn when it was struck by the missile.

Map provided by Russia. (Image: Russian officials)

The physicists noted: “This is scientific nonsense; the direction of the plane can only change if a force is applied to it. The momentum (mass times velocity) of the rocket and the explosion is many times smaller than the momentum of the jet, and can therefore only produce a small change in direction during the collision. A change in direction of 90 degrees can only be caused by an object that is many times faster or heavier than the jet.”

Therefore, a surface-to-air missile could not have caused the jet to change direction, which implies the change was by the pilot’s own maneuvering. So despite Russia’s claims, the jet was likely not actively trying to avoid Turkish territory.

“According to our calculations, it is clear that both the story of Turkey and Russia should be taken with a grain of salt. Russia’s claim that the jets avoided Turkey does not correspond to the laws of mechanics,” the physicists concluded.

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