RAF scrambles fighter jets after passenger flight terror alerts

Aircraft shadowed twice this month as threat of 9/11-style attack grows

Terrorist alerts on passenger jets have led to RAF fighters being scrambled more than a dozen times in the last 18 months, amid increasing intelligence reports of Islamist groups focusing on hijacking airliners.

Two of the incidents took place this month, with warplanes shadowing transatlantic flights.

Scrambled British fighters have a variety of options, including shooting down the airliners, if they are deemed to be an immediate threat. The decision on a course of action will be taken, on a chain of command active 24 hours, at "the highest level of government".

Details of the RAF's role in "homeland security" emerges in the wake of the plot to blow up a series of flights to America and the arrest on board a plane of the Nigerian "underpants bomber".

Warnings that al-Qa'ida was plotting to carry out another 9/11-type "spectacular" was one of the reasons behind the UK upgrading its security-alert status two months ago.

While the introduction of measures like body scanners at UK airports will help detect would-be hijackers, say the security agencies, the role of the RAF is essential in monitoring flights coming into British airspace.

While the emphasis is on guiding suspect flights to an airfield where further action, through negotiations or military action, can be taken, the eventuality, in an extreme case, of a flight having to be shot down, means, say defence officials, that a clear decision-making chain is necessary.

On 2 March this year, British authorities received a request for help after a passenger attempted to get into the flight deck of an American Airlines plane from Dallas to Heathrow. Tornado F3s from RAF Leuchars in Fife and Typhoons from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire were sent on an interception operation while Downing Street was informed of the possible emergency. Armed police were sent to an airport – the location of which cannot be given for security reasons – where the flight may have had to be diverted. On that occasion, however, it transpired that the passenger who was trying to get into the cockpit, a woman, had become distressed after a member of her family had become ill.

On 22 March, Typhoons were scrambled again from RAF Coningsby after UK air-traffic controllers picked up phrases including the words "ransom" and "hostage" on another flight from the US. The flight crew also asked for permission to carry out a sudden descent in order to "test" an auxiliary power unit, a procedure deemed highly unusual and thus suspicious.

The Typhoons shadowed the American flight across UK airspace into Belgium, where it landed. According to defence officials, "the matter was resolved", but no further information has been released as to what happened.

An RAF officer said: " What we have learned is that in the current climate we have to be ready for any eventuality. There are a variety of options one can take before going kinetic."

RAF jets have also been flying an increasing number of missions to counter "probing" flights by Russian aircraft – including a "Blackjack" capable of carrying a nuclear payload off the Hebrides on 10 March.

While the resumption of the Russian flights to test Nato reaction, following a post-Cold War thaw, is a sign of new belligerence by Moscow, "it is absolutely nothing like as dangerous as the prospect of al-Qa'ida taking over a plane and crashing it into a population centre", said aviation security consultant Alan Pilton.

"The point of origin of many of these flights are from places where the security is not so good, and that is the reason we have to face the nightmare scenario of a hijacked passenger air-liner flying into UK airspace," he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Special Needs Support Worker

£12 - £14 per hour: Recruitment Genius: We are looking for someone to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

£15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Sewing Technician

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This market leader in Medical Devices is...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence