Thursday, April 12, 2007

Close Call

The Jerusaleum Post is reporting that Israeli fighter jets were scrambled against a U.S. airliner yesterday afternoon, after the passenger jet failed to make contact with Israeli air traffic control, and follow specified procedures for entering that country's airspace.

Four Israeli Air Force fighters--two F-15s and two F-16s--intercepted the jetliner (a Continental Airlines Boeing 777) over the eastern Mediterranean, and escorted the flight to its intended destination, Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. A senior IAF officer told the Post that air defense forces went on "high alert" due to the "suspicious" incoming aircraft. "This was the closest we ever came to intercepting a civilian airplane," an IAF officer told the Post.

"Intercept" is the operative word here. In 1973, the Israelis actually shot down a Libyan jetliner that strayed into their airspace, killing 108 of the 113 persons on board. In that incident, pilots of the Libyan jet failed to heed communications attempts from Israeli controllers. The airliner's flight path was apparently close to Israel's Dimona nuclear complex in the Negev Desert, which may have accelerated the Israeli response.

Three decades later, it's still unclear as to why the Libyan aircraft strayed so far off its "intended" flight path; some theories suggest the airliner may have been attempting an intelligence collection mission (don't laugh: the Soviets used Aeroflot jets for that purpose for many years); other experts believe it was just another example of poor airmanship by the Libyan pilots, never exactly noted for their flying proficiency. Years ago, I remember seeing satellite imagery of a Libyan MiG-25 Foxbat, sitting on a dirt road near the country's western border. The MiG-25 had a huge internal fuel capacity (and an external tank to boot), but according to our intelligence information, the pilot simply ran out of gas, and had to make an emergency landing in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, the guy had some flying ability (getting that Foxbat down on that remote road was no mean feat), but fuel management wasn't his strong suit.

Thankfully, the incident with the Continental flight had a happier ending. The airline claims that the pilots of that aircraft (Flight 90 from Newark), spoke with Israeli controllers when they were about 160 miles from Ben-Gurion. But after that initial exchange, radio contact was lost, prompting the IAF to scramble its fighters. It must have been quite a sight for the passengers on that Continental 777; F-15s and F-16s escorting their flight into Ben-Gurion. I wonder how many times the flight attendants had to tell departing passengers: "no, that's not something the Israelis normally do for airliners entering their airspace."

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