Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Israeli fighter jets intercept Continental flight near Tel Aviv

Continental B777Israeli Air Force warplanes intercepted a Continental Airlines Boeing 777 as it approached Israeli airspace today, after communication between the airliner and Israeli ground control was temporarily lost. Continental Flight 90, a scheduled flight from Newark to Tel Aviv, had nearly 300 people on board.

Israel National News described the incident this way:
Israeli fighter jets came close to shooting down a Continental Airlines plane that lost contact with Ben Gurion Airport’s air traffic control as it approached Israeli airspace.

The IAF jets were scrambled when a Boeing 777, Flight 90 from Newark, New Jersey, failed to make radio contact with the requisite security codes prior to approaching the airport. The fighter jets forced the plane to change its course, at which point the pilot renewed contact.

When it was ascertained that no foul play was involved, the plane, escorted by two F-15s and two F-16s, was allowed to land. All 273 passengers disembarked safely.

Israel Radio quoted an unnamed IAF officer who said the pilots treated the incident as a terror attack in progress and came the closest they ever had to shooting down a civilian airliner.
Israel's daily news magazine Israel Insider adds some details:
Following established anti-terror procedures, two Israel Air Force F-16s above and two F-15s below intercepted Flight 90 from Newark and forced it back over the Mediterranean until communications were restored.

The Transportation Ministry said it was checking whether there was a technical reason for the initial lack of communication between the plane and Israeli ground control. It was suspected that the pilot did not switch to the correct frequency.

A senior Air Force officer said that the IAF went on high alert due to the suspicious incoming aircraft, the Jerusalem Post reported. He said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz were updated about the event and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as well as IAF chief Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy were placed "online" in case an interception order was needed. "This was the closest we ever came to intercepting a civilian airplane," the officer said. The implication of an interception was that the plane would have been forced down, or shot down.

According to the officer, the pilot contacted Ben-Gurion Air Traffic Control from a distance of 200 miles from Israel but then contact was lost. After the plane reached a 40-mile distance from Israel -- five-minutes to Tel Aviv -- the IAF dispatched its fighter jets.
Back in January of this year I posted a story about a new Israeli security program called Code Positive. The system, intended to prevent 9/11-style terrorist acts using aircraft, might have obviated the need for an interception such as the one today. As far as I know, the Code Positive system is still in preparation, but is not yet operational.

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