Tag Archives: Quick Reaction Alert

We Talk to Former Quick Reaction Alert Pilot About How The U.S. Air Force Responds to a Stolen Aircraft

Questions Remain in Stolen Airliner Crash: How Could It Happen? What is The Response?

Nearly 17 years after the 9/11 terror attacks the bizarre stolen aircraft, intercept and crash incident in Washington state on Friday raises serious concerns not only about airline safety but about national security.

How could a person – who is not a pilot- simply take a civilian airliner parked on the ground, get it into the air and create a serious national security risk? What does the Air Force do in an incident like this? And most urgently, after nearly two decades of taking our shoes off at TSA security checks, how could this have ever happened?

As information about the aircraft theft and crash in Washington continues to emerge there remain more questions than answers. In the wake of Friday’s incident TheAviationist.com spoke to two sources inside the airline service/security industry and the U.S. military about the incident and the security countermeasures to prevent incidents like this. We also asked about the U.S. military response to stolen/hijacked aircraft once they get in the air and their level of readiness to respond with lethal force to such an incident. Because both sources we spoke to continue to work in these fields and for the U.S. military they agreed to speak to us only on condition of anonymity.

In late 2016, this reporter visited a flight service provider at Detroit’s Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW). We were given a tour of flight line services provided to airline aircraft that included maintenance and aircraft interior cleaning, sanitation servicing (pumping out aircraft toilets after flights), ground traffic control and most significantly, security.

F-15C Rock 41 departing PDX (Image credit: Bill Shemley)

During our visit to Detroit’s Metro Airport we were notified in advance to park off the airport grounds in an outer lot and use an employee shuttle to enter the flight line service facility. We were required to provide both photo ID and clearance from an authorized person to board the bus used by employees to reach the flight line service provider’s building. Inside the facility, we were required to wear a “guest” ID tab and be escorted by a security badge holder at all times, including restroom visits. Each entry door we used to move from passenger spaces within the airport terminal to the service spaces required a card swipe and/or a security code. Each of these entries is logged in a central security system. Once past the security screen the area was full of employees performing everything from updating a massive spreadsheet that contained all aircraft movement in the airport to ground traffic control. Employees also moved massive volumes of prepared meals to airliners for passengers in flight. Trash was emptied from airliners and trucked off lift vehicles you see from the boarding gates. Chemical toilets on airliners were pumped out and cleaned.

As an ongoing part of security protocols and readiness testing the Transportation Security Administration was conducting unannounced tests of aircraft cleaners and their managers. The TSA would conceal false explosive devices on an airliner prior to cleaning and then covertly observe if the simulated bombs were detected by cleaning crews. In an alarming outcome, our source revealed that there had been numerous failures on the part of contracted aircraft maintenance and cleaning services to locate these simulated bombs. As a result, the contracted service provider at the airport was put on official notice of corrective action. Immediately following our inspection and orientation of the facility and the service provider, several upper level management terminations occurred as a direct result of the failures of these tests in 2016. One upper level employee, our contact, left the airline service industry for a position in financial security following the security test failures in 2016 at DTW.

Based on our examination of airport service provider security protocols, while there were substantial security measures in place including background checks and drug tests for employees, security badges and secure entryways that required a coded entry, all under video surveillance, there were still security breaches among the airport service providers on a fairly regular basis. The TSA maintained a database of the security tests and put the contracted service providers on notice when they failed security tests. This resulted in high employee turnover.

But what happens once the systems on the ground fail and an aircraft is able to get into an airspace without authorization?

We spoke to a former U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot and combat veteran who stood the domestic airspace alert mission in the United States. Because of continuing affiliation with the U.S. armed forces, he agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity.

Rock 42 scrambling from PDX (Image: Bill Shemley).

We asked our source within the armed forces if fighter aircraft responding to alert intercept calls carry live weapons:

“Aircraft are loaded with live AIM-9M and AIM-120B/C weapons. [There is a] full load of 20-millimeter cannon as well. There are thresholds for launching aircraft based on the unidentified tracks crossing borders or certain types of distress calls including hijacking or stolen airplanes. Likely the aircraft were launched with very little knowledge, potentially only that an uncleared aircraft took off. NORAD orders alert launches. Authorization to release an aircraft like that is typically in order to save lives or stop an attack once other attempts to communicate with the aircraft have failed. If that aircraft is turned toward a population center it would likely have been engaged. That engagement call comes from NORAD, at the O-7 (Brigadier General) level.”

Our source went to say, “It was a fun mission to take off in an instant and blitz across the desert supersonic at god-knows-what. But the responsibilities of what we may have to do was very heavy.”

Pilots flying fighter aircraft in the U.S. on alert for unresponsive aircraft are typically armed according to our USAF source. (Photo: White House via ABC)

On February 16, 2017, just such an intercept occurred over European airspace. A Jet Airways Boeing 777-300 with registration VT-JEX operating as flight 9W-118 from Mumbai, India to London’s Heathrow airport was underway at 36,000 feet (FL360) about 20 miles north of Cologne, Germany when the aircraft lost radio communication with controllers. It was intercepted by two German Luftwaffe Eurofighter Typhoons aircraft due to loss of communication.

Following the 2017 incident, a Jet Airways spokesperson told media in a release: “Contact between Jet Airways flight 9W 118, from Mumbai to London Heathrow, of February 16, 2017, and the local ATC, was briefly lost while flying over German airspace. Communication was safely restored within a few minutes. As a precaution, the German Air Force deployed its aircraft to ensure the safety of the flight and its guests.” Airline officials went on to report that, “The flight with 330 guests and 15 crew subsequently landed at London without incident.”

Similar episodes occur quite frequently in the skies all around the world. In Italy, for instance, there were as many as 8 scrambles of the Italian Air Force QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) Eurofighter Typhoons, due to loss of communication by civilian/general aviation aicraft since the beginning of July alone!

In another recent incident related to military aircraft flying armed security patrol missions a Spanish Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft accidentally fired (at least according to the details emerged so far – it’s not clear whether it “just” released) an AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) while flying near Otepää in Estonia, less than 50 km west of the Russian border.

In the case of Friday’s theft of an empty 76-seat, twin-engine turboprop Bombardier Q400, belonging to Alaska Airlines’ sister carrier Horizon Air, the aircraft may not have flown near population centers long enough to present a risk that required armed intervention from responding F-15s. Additionally, the person who took the Alaska Airlines Q400 was in communication with controllers and appeared to not openly demonstrate a terrorist agenda. Had they done so, it is possible the outcome of the incident may have included the Q400 being engaged by the responding F-15s.

The threat posed by aircraft being stolen from airports is clearly significant as evidenced by Friday’s incident. Perhaps a greater risk comes from general aviation aircraft and not large commercial aircraft. These aircraft are easy to access and bit easier to operate. Even the commercial, twin-engine turboprop Bombardier Q400 stolen on Friday could be flown by a “pilot” who, based on reports, had only practiced operating the aircraft on a home computer flight simulator. Similar home computer simulators were known to have been used by the 9/11 attackers according to the 9/11 Commission Report issued in July, 2004.

As of 2009, the CIA reported that there were approximately 44,000 “… airports or airfields recognizable from the air” around the world, including 15,095 in the US. Of these flight facilities, there are 5,194 with paved runways. The U.S. has about a third of all airports, and the most of any single country. According to the Airplane Owner’s and Pilot’s Association (AOPA) there are approximately 20,000 airfields in the U.S. without a control tower and only about 500 airports with control towers. Airfields without a control tower are still subject to air traffic control, but from a facility usually located away from the airfield.

In 2010, the Discovery Channel began airing a television reality show called “Airplane Repo” produced by Undertow Films. The show features often reenacted and dramatized stories about aircraft and boats that are being repossessed from debtors by a cast of specialty pilots and private recovery persons who “steal” the airplanes back for banks, creditors and private individuals. Aircraft shown in the series are frequently commandeered without authorization or clearance and flown out of small general aviation airports. In one episode, a helicopter was repossessed by being flown off the rooftop of a high-rise building. Another featured an aircraft repossessed in Mexico and being flown without clearance back into the United States. The producers claim the show depicts actual events that are often re-staged by actors for the series. A key takeaway from the documentary series, that ran on the Discovery Channel for three full seasons until 2015, and from Friday’s incident in Washington state, is that aircraft in the United States are not as secure as they perhaps should be.

“Airplane Repo” was a television reality show aired on the Discovery Channel that claimed to dramatize how easy it may be to repossess aircraft without authorization and get them into the air. (Photo: Discovery Channel)

Top image: Rock 42 scrambles from Portland to intercept the stolen Q400 on Aug. 10, 2018 (Credit: Bill Shemley)

Northern Italy Rocked By Double Sonic Boom As Typhoons Intercept Air France Boeing 777. Media Sent Into A Frenzy.

Two loud bangs were heard across northern Italy when two Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons accelerated through supersonic speed to intercept a civilian airliner that failed to respond to the ATC (Air Traffic Control). Routine procedure.

What we can consider a routine intercept made the news in Italy today after the loud sonic booms of two Italian jets in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) were heard across northwestern Italy. The two Eurofighter Typhoons, belonging to the QRA cell based at Istrana airbase, in northeastern Italy, were scrambled by the CAOC (Combined Air Operation Center) of Torrejon, Spain, after an Air France Boeing 777-300, registration F-GZNF and flying as AF671, failed to respond to the ATC calls. The two Typhoons intercepted the airliner near Aosta, close to the French border, managed to establish a radio contact with the crew and requested the French “wide body” to perform a 360° turn (clearly visible in the track recorded by Flightradar24) in order to verify that the aircraft was not being hijacked.

After the B777 complied with the interceptors request, the Italian Typhoons handed over the civilian aircraft to the French Air Defense and ATC, and returned home.

The route followed by AF671, with a pretty evident 360° turn performed close to the border between Italy and France. Credit: Flightradar24.com

This is not the first time a civil flight experiencing a radio failure is intercepted by the Italian Air Force QRA jets that “break” the sound barrier in the process. Supersonic intercepts are routine, when needed, all around the world. However, this morning’s incident sent the Italian media into a frenzy, especially after emergency agencies telephone switch boards started receiving reports of a large bang or “explosion” and some schools and a courthouse were even evacuated for safety reasons.

Nothing special then, just “the sound of freedom”…

 

RAF Typhoons to deploy to Romania to provide Air Policing in the Black Sea region

British Typhoons heading to southeastern Europe to provide QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) from Romania.

On Mar. 27, the UK MoD (Ministry of Defence) has announced that four Typhoon combat planes, belonging to the 3 (Fighter) Squadron will fly from RAF Coningsby to Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase in southeast Romania, to support NATO’s Southern Air Policing mission from May to September 2017.

During QRA tasks Typhoons typically fly with two 2,000-lt drop-tanks (although this option will likely not be needed for Romania, as noted by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly), four Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missiles (ASRAAMs), four AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs), along with the internal Mauser 27 mm cannon.

With the deployment to Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase, the Royal Air Force will become the first air arm to support NATO air policing mission to reassure local allies in the Black Sea region that is frequently “visited” by NATO  intelligence gathering and maritime patrol aircraft as well as Russian combat planes, some of those buzz U.S. warships and spyplanes operating in the area.

Some NATO members provide air policing tasks for allies that lack aircraft and radars to do so autonomously (Albania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia).

NATO has been protecting the Baltic skies since 2004, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the Alliance. The Baltic air policing mission started in April 2004 and has been executed continuously ever since. Slovenia’s airspace is covered by Hungary and Italy. Albania is covered by Greece and Italy.

The Italian Air Force covers Albania (sharing the task with the Hellenic Air Force) and Slovenia (with the Hungarian Air Force) and is currently supporting Icelandic Air Policing mission in Iceland; NATO’s BAP (Baltic Air Patrol) mission started in April 2004 and has been executed continuously ever since. It is supported by various air forces on a rotational basis and covers Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

Allied Air Command (AIRCOM) headquartered at Ramstein, Germany oversees the NATO Air Policing mission with 24/7 command and control from two Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs); one in Torrejon, Spain, and one in Uedem, Germany. CAOC Uedem is responsible for NATO Air Policing north of the Alps and CAOC Torrejon for the south. The CAOC decides which interceptors will be scrambled according to the location of the incident.

The mission of patrolling the skies along NATO’s eastern border was intensified following the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The arrival of the British Typhoons is the last of a series of measures “to deter a Russian aggression over the Black Sea.

Image credit: Eurofighter / Geoffrey Lee, Planefocus Ltd

Here are the first photographs of the Italian Typhoons arriving in Iceland to provide NATO Air Policing duties

The Italian Typhoons have arrived in Keflavik.

On Mar. 17, supported by two KC-767A tanker of the 14° Stormo (Wing) from Pratica di Mare airbase, six Italian Air Force Typhoons have arrived in Iceland to undertake QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) and NATO Air Policing duties.

The Eurofighter F-2000A jets (this is the designation of the single-seaters in accordance with the Italian Mission Design Seies) belong to the three units that operate the Typhoon: the 4° Stormo, from Grosseto; the 36° Stormo, from Gioia del Colle; and the 37° Stormo, from Trapani.

A Typhoon of the 18° Gruppo sporting the typical checkered tail.

An F-2000A from the Gioia del Colle-based 36° Stormo. Two Gruppi depend from this Wing: the 10 and 12° Gruppo.

The aircraft will operate until mid-April as part of a Task Force where personnel and equipment are completely integrated and interchangeable thanks to fully standardized procedures and training.

The images in this post were taken by photographer Eggert Norðdahl as the Typhoons arrived at Keflavik airbase for their second tour of duty in Iceland: in June 2013, as part of Operation “Icy Skies”, six Italian Eurofighters securing the airspace on the ally in the “High North.”

One of the Typhoons of the 4° Stormo. The Italians deployed to Iceland with three drop tanks, one AIM-120 AMRAAM and one IRIS-T air-to-air missile.

Image credit: Eggert Norðdahl

Salva

Listen to the loud bangs caused by RAF Typhoons during an alert scramble

This is the sound of a sonic boom.

Two loud bangs were heard across central eastern UK on May 2, as two Typhoon jets from RAF Coningsby were scrambled to intercept a Cityjet Avro RJ-85 that was flying as Air France 1558 from Paris Charles de Gaulle, France, to Newcastle, UK.

The RJ-85 failed to reply to the ATC (Air Traffic Control) calls prompting the British Air Defense to scramble two Typhoons in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) that intercepted the airliner and escorted it to landing.

To reach the “unresponsive civil plane” the two Typhoon fighters accelerated to supersonic speed causing the sonic booms that shocked several houses in parts of Yorkshire at around 21.50LT.

The following video was filmed by a surveillance camera in North Leeds. Turn your speakers on to hear the two loud bangs!

Image credit: BAE Systems (not a RAF Typhoon as it carries an IRIS-T)