5 Aug 2014

Why did the RAF scramble jets for a bomb hoax?

An airline passenger is arrested at Manchester Airport after the pilot received information that a “device” may be on board – but why did the RAF scramble fighter jets to escort the plane?

Police have taken a passenger off a plane which landed at Manchester Airport with an RAF Typhoon escort, and arrested him on suspicion of making a hoax bomb threat, a spokesman for Greater Manchester Police (GMP) said.

GMP confirmed that the A330 had been escorted into Manchester by the RAF “as a result of information received by the pilot about a possible device on board”.

The emergency alert began as the jet, a Qatar Airbus A330 flying from Doha into Manchester, began to approach the airport. It was then escorted by a Typhoon from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and met by emergency services at the airport.

A passenger was then escorted off the plane and arrested, and a GMP spokesman said that police were working to get the rest of the passengers off safely.

‘Prepared for all eventualities’

But why were two Typhoon fighter aircraft deployed to escort the airliner for what turned out to be a hoax?

Paul Beaver, an aviation consultant, told Channel 4 News that this kind of response is “all well-practised procedure” according to detailed contingency plans drawn up by the Royal Air Force (RAF).

“The priority is ‘eyes-on’ – it’s good to have two experienced aviators in the air,” he said.

The fighter pilots are prepared for the “full range of eventuality, all the way from total annihilation to bringing the aircraft in, as happened at Manchester today,” he added.

RAF pilots would watch an airliner to track what is happening in case communications are knocked out, or if a device explodes onboard, disabling navigation equipment, in which case the fighters could guide the plane to a safe landing spot, Mr Beaver said.

There are usually four aircraft on standby at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby.

Two would be deployed to an incident in case one of them encountered problems. But in this case the second aircraft may not have been seen by people taking photos or filming from the ground because it may have been flying much higher or far behind the first fighter, depending on the conditions, Mr Beaver said.

Josh Hartley was tweeting live from inside the plane and said emergency services were on the landing strip when the plane came in to land:

The one Typhoon pictured was carrying an “overboard” tank for extra fuel, which would have allowed it keep flying for longer before refuelling.

The decision to shoot down an aircraft can only come from “very high authority”, and all airline pilots are fully briefed on a set of “challenges and responses” that will be shared between them and the RAF in case of an emergency, Mr Beaver said.

And it’s not just fighters that are ready for fast deployment. A mid-air refuelling tanker will also be on permanent stand-by, along with and airborne radar aircraft – often know as AWACS – to track and report on aircraft which may be out of the range of normal radar tracking, for example if an airliner is out at sea.

The Ministry of Defence said Quick Reaction Alert aircraft were deployed on 17 days in 2013, down from 21 occasions in 2012 and 20 in 2011. These call-outs covered military incidents as well as civil aircraft emergencies.

Normal service

A Manchester Airport spokesman said that the airport had returned “back to normal” after the incident, but nine incoming flights had to be diverted to other airports, including five which landed at Leeds Bradford airport.

Qatar Airways said in a statement that crew had received a threat about a possible device on board and that “Qatar Airways immediately took all the necessary precautions to alert British authorities”.

They confirmed that the flight QR23 was en route from Doha to Manchester and landed at Manchester Airport ahead of its scheduled arrival time of 13:15pm.

There were 269 passengers and 13 Qatar Airways crew on board.

“The crew is now fully assisting police at the airport with their inquiries,” the statement read. “The safety and well-being of our passengers and crew is our top priority. As this is a matter of a police investigation, we cannot comment further at this time.”

The video below, appearing to show the flight being escorted into the airport by a jet, was uploaded to Youtube by Dennis Phillips.