Plane Hijack Scare Over Denmark Last 1 May

An interesting incident of the beginning of last May is just now coming to light, initially out of reporting from the Spanish newspaper El País but then picked up by the major Danish dailies. All this makes sense, since it concerns a Boeing 727 from the Spanish charter-airline Air Europa which started to misbehave last May 1 as it crossed Danish airspace. Specifically, it did not respond to attempted radio contact by the Danish flight-control authorities, something that is a big no-no in this post-September 11 world. Alarms were sounded; military fighters were scrambled.

A good place to go for a first comprehensive report is the coverage in Berlingske Tidende (Mess-Up in Cockpit Sets Off Danish Terror Alarm). The aircraft was presumably flying Norwegian vacationers – 186 passengers – from Bergen down to Palma de Mallorca, when personnel from the company charged with monitoring and controlling Danish civil airspace, Naviair, found they couldn’t contact that Air Europa flight. So they informed both the Danish air force and the German civil airspace authorities. The Germans also couldn’t get in contact with the airplane, nor could the Dutch, and the result was that a total of six fighter-jets (two each from Germany, the Netherlands, and France) scrambled within fifteen minutes to get to that flight and see what was going on.

We all know why an airplane these days that won’t respond to radio communication is a worrying phenomenon. But last May 1 everyone had particular reason to be concerned since (I would politely remind you) that was a historic day, the day of EU enlargement by ten new member-states, when among other things EU leaders were all gathered together to celebrate the event in Dublin. Was that where the terrorists wanted to crash? Or maybe Brussels, or Paris?

Of course, it all turned out to be nothing of that sort at all – or else you would have already heard about this! Things finally got under control when personnel in one of the French jets managed to get visual contact with the Air Europa pilots. The effect was basically along the lines of “Earth to pilots: Could you please rejoin society?”, as it turns out that the radio in the cockpit had been on all along, but none of the Spanish pilots had noticed that all that heavy commo traffic they were half-heartedly listening to (perhaps while concentrating on their Nintendo?) was specifically addressed to them! Naturally, they have been charged with neglect (and are presumably grounded), while the full investigation into the incident continues.


Politiken adds some spicy details to the story (Silenced Flight Did Not Call Out Terror Alarm in Denmark). Yes, according to reporter Lea Wind-Friis (and maybe her name makes her particularly suited to be an aviation reporter, eh?), the Danish authorities didn’t issue a terror alarm over the incident, even as the Dutch, German, and French authorities did. This was despite the fact that the problem with lack-of-communication was first picked up when the airplane was in fact in Danish airspace. The Danish flight-control authorities also did not notify the police, which is what procedure prescribes if they think they are dealing with a hijacked aircraft.

In hindsight, they were right not to notify the police. They did notify the Danish air force, as I noted above – but it’s interesting that no Danish fighters scrambled. Why? Was it too late before the aircraft would be out of Danish airspace again? Or does Denmark just not have fighter assets available? What’s more, this accompanying article, published on-line by Politiken on the very same day as Ms. Wind-Friis’ piece, does say that there was a “terroralarm,” but if you read it closely (in Danish) you might be able to interpret that “alarm” as merely the notice the Danish airspace authorities gave to both the Danish and German air forces.

Finally, the Politiken articles collectively reveal that it took a full fifteen minutes of being escorted by fighter jets for anyone on board that 727 to notice that something strange was going on – and that it was in fact passengers looking out the window who noticed the jets. That must surely have been some intense Nintendo session – or whatever it was – taking place up in the cockpit! By that point, the renegade aircraft was already approaching Brussels.

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