The RAF fighters intercepted Pakistan International Airlines flight PK757 as it neared UK airspace. The flight was originally scheduled to fly from Lahore in Pakistan to Heathrow but was instructed to divert to Stansted. UK authorities were quick to deny that the aircraft was diverted due to a potential terrorist or hijack related incident.
RAF Typhoon FGR.4
Early reports stated that a passenger had become disruptive but another passenger speaking to LBC radio while he was still on the plane at Stansted denied that this was the case and that the flight had been uneventful until the announcement that they were diverting. The passenger also said that they were only aware of armed fighters being sent to escort them after they had landed implying that the RAF Typhoons stayed out of visual range of the aircraft.
Scotland Yard has since released a statement that a 52-year-old man who was on the flight has been arrested and detained at a London police station on fraud offences. A Stansted Airport spokesperson has said that the aircraft will likely continue on to Heathrow later this evening.
Airlines could face hefty financial penalties by the Department of Transport if one of their airliners fails to identify itself to ground controllers causing the Royal Air Force to launch Typhoon interceptors. A report published in The Times states the fine could be as high as £100,000 in order to deter such activity which happens with alarming regularity.
In the last year, the RAF has had to launch Typhoon fighters at least twice a month to investigate so-called “silent” airliners. As well as being an expensive nuisance, the fact the RAF aircraft are heavily armed and that the MoD is constantly faced with having to address the potential for terrorism adds a dangerous element to the situation.
It’s not just airlines that are guilty of failing to adhere to proper flight regulations however. Private pilots have been just as problematic for air traffic controllers when it comes to adequately identifying themselves. Earlier this year two Typhoons raced at supersonic speeds across central England and Wales to intercept a private business jet which failed to respond to radio calls and appeared to be heading out over the Irish Sea without clearance.
The Department of Transport currently imposes a £5,000 fine for airlines and pilots guilty of such acts but this has failed to be an adequate deterrence hence the plans for such a dramatic increase.
UK defence firm Thales recently flew its Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in civil airspace for the first time having been granted clearance from the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The drone took off from West Wales Airport on a three-and-a-half-hour flight of which around one hour was through civilian airspace with the craft being managed by air traffic controllers on the ground. This is the first time a UAV has been flown in non-segregated airspace along with commercial aircraft in the UK.
The test run has been hailed as a success with operators saying it brings the UK one step closer to using unmanned aircraft for various applications including border security and search and rescue roles. Thales believes this first foray into civilian airspace will lay the foundations for developing the required operational and regulatory conditions to allow widespread use of UAVs in UK air space.
The flight was good news for the Watchkeeper program which has come under criticism in recent years for being well behind schedule.The drone is based on the Elbit Hermes 450 UAV and in March of last year the Ministry of Defence finally granted Watchkeeper a Release of Service enabling the British Army to commence flight training with the aircraft. However the program has been further delayed by reports that there aren’t enough operators being trained to keep the drone at an operational level although the Army has said it is addressing this problem.