Qatar Airways flight QR23 from Doha to Manchester, UK was just an ordinary flight until it was quite close to its destination. At that point the window passengers in the Airbus A330 noticed that the flight had been intercepted by an RAF Typhoon fighter. It was shadowing them in loose formation.
QR23′s crew had been told there was a bomb threat, the pilots told ATC, and ATC called in the RAF. The on-board story of QR23 is in the previous blog.
But why an intercept? The Typhoon crew can do nothing about an on-board bomb threat.
On-board disruption to flights is usually caused by drunk or emotionally unstable passengers. If that was clearly all it was, there would be no intercept.
But if somebody makes a bomb threat, or any threat that could be construed as having a terrorist motive, the aviation system is set up to react as if the flight were part of a full scale terrorist action.
They do so just in case the bomb threat is the first act in an escalating plan to take over the aircraft and use it as a missile to hit a target on the ground. Remember that, on 9/11 (11th September 2001), terrorists did that with four airliners over New York and Washington DC.
Now back to today’s imaginary intercept scenario.
If the pilot of the escorting fighter observes that the airliner is disobeying both ATC orders and intercept signals and then heads for a high profile inhabited target on the ground, he will be ordered, when the intent becomes unmistakable, to shoot the aircraft down.
The shoot-down order would be given on the basis that the loss of those on board has become inevitable, so saving lives on the ground is the priority. At 9/11, nearly 3,000 lives were lost on the ground, most in the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
This plan exists despite the fact that, since 9/11, flightdeck doors have been bullet-proofed and are kept locked, so taking the aircraft over from the cabin is impossible provided the crew follow the drills.
Part of the drill is that any messages to the pilots from hijackers threatening to harm cabin crew or passengers unless they are granted cockpit access are ignored. The pilots have one aim only: get the aircraft on the ground as fast as possible and have it met by expert security services.
Meanwhile the cabin crew, with the aid of passengers, will act to overwhelm those who threaten them. Cabin crew carry handcuffs on all flights and are trained to deal with passenger disruptions.
There are some acts against which there is no defence. MH370 is one of them. The only comfort for nervous passengers there is that such an event is incredibly rare.
The MH17 shootdown, unintentional though it almost certainly was, has made airlines review the safety of flying through airspace near conflict zones, so that risk has been lowered now.
But for nervous passengers everywhere, despite the recent headlines and the misfortunes of Malaysia Airlines, the truth about aviation today is that it is so safe the numbers are difficult to explain to anyone who isn’t a statistician. You can check out this safety conundrum here.