European countries on Monday moved to sanction Belarus and ban its state airline from flying to Europe as they sought to punish Alexander Lukashenko’s regime for forcing a Ryanair passenger flight to land in the country so it could arrest a leading dissident onboard, reported ABC news.
The international outcry has continued to grow over Sunday’s incident, in which Belarus is accused of having used a false bomb threat to divert the airliner to its capital, Minsk, in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a blogger who played a key role in last years’ mass protests against Lukashenko.
Forced Landing By Belarusian Air Force
“If a military aircraft intercepts you and gives you command, you obey”. That was the view of one pilot who spoke to the BBC, who said the decision of Belarus to force down a passenger aircraft was “absolutely reckless”.
Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to divert a Ryanair passenger plane – flying from Greece, bound for Lithuania – to land in Minsk on Sunday, claiming a bomb was on board. None was found.
Police then took opposition journalist Roman Protasevich away when the plane landed in the Belarus capital. It was an airport that the pilots did not have on their flight plans.
Those within aviation called this a “major diplomatic incident”, so serious that those we spoke to cannot remember anything similar.
When an aircraft flies through international skies, aircraft have the nationality of the state in which they are registered.
In this case, the Ryanair plane is understood to be registered in Poland to “Ryanair Sun”, a subsidiary of the Irish airline. When the plane is flying, regardless of its position in the skies, it remains of Polish nationality.
“To interfere with an aircraft in flight is a diplomatic incident involving the state of registration,” said a senior industry source from a major aviation business.
A pilot added that “this is a huge contravention of so many international agreements”.
The law allowing planes to overfly countries without the need to land is the “First Freedom of the Air” and these freedoms of the air are essential to enable passengers and traffic to move from one country to another around the world.
The decision by Belarus to intercept a passenger aircraft in the air and force it to land in a third country breaks this code. It’s for this reason the boss of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, has described the situation as “state sponsored piracy”.
But Belarus has not signed the International Air Services Transit Agreement, which is what embodies the “First Freedom of the Air” and a list of other codes.
EU and USA sanction Belarus
The United States and European countries have called it “air piracy” and “state-sponsored hijacking.”
At a summit in Brussels on Monday night, the 27 leaders of the European Union countries agreed quickly to drawing up fresh individual and targeted economic sanctions against Belarus. They also accepted calls to urge airlines to no longer fly over Belarus and for Belarus’ airlines to be banned from flying in Europe, reported Reuters.
In a communique, the EU leaders demanded that Belarus immediately release Protasevich as well as his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was arrested with him.
When can a military intercept happen?
A military escort or interception happens primarily for safety reasons, according to aviation experts. If passengers on board the flight, and those in towns and cities on the ground, are at risk then states will respond to protect accordingly.
If Air Traffic Control (ATC) temporarily loses radio contact with an aircraft, operators will immediately work to re-establish radio communication. But if that doesn’t happen and the flight deck crew fails to respond on its two frequencies, the military can be deployed.
“The fighter comes to attract your attention and [get you to] call in – and to make sure you’ve not been hijacked and about to crash into a capital city. ATC is very nervous when radio goes silent with aircraft after 9/11″,” explained one pilot.
Alternatively, if a captain calls over the radio with one of a number of “squawk codes” to signal that the aircraft is in distress, a military escort can also be deployed. There are a number of scenarios in which one of these codes might be used – including a mechanical emergency, a loss of communications or a discreet way to tell ATC you’ve been subject to unlawful interference.
What happens during a military escort?
If military jets are scrambled to escort a plane in the sky, the jets take up formation ahead of the passenger aircraft.
“The captain sits on the left-hand side of the aircraft. You’ll have a jet who’ll pull up on the left-hand side so there is a clear line of sight for the captain,” says one senior industry source. He adds if there is a second jet, they might take a position on the right-hand side or behind the plane.
At this point, the military jets will be trying to contact the passenger aircraft on an International Emergency Frequency. In the event that there are no comms because radios have failed, there is a booklet of interception signals which are manoeuvres that determine what you have to do.
“They flash their lights at night. By day they rock their wings which means follow me, and you have to follow,” explains the pilot.
On Monday, private Facebook groups for pilots were alive with discussion about the interception, with many talking about criticisms levelled at pilots for following the military jets to Minsk instead of continuing to Lithuania.
“If a military aircraft intercepts you – and gives you command – you obey. You can’t not obey command. You have no option but to follow orders. It’s like on the ground, when police tell you to do something,” the pilot added.
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