KOLKATA: A Singapore Airlines flight with 225 passengers and 39 crew on board was forced to remain airborne for three hours after the captain was alerted of a bomb threat on Sunday evening.
The pilot of flight SQ 61, Johny Alberto, was somewhere over Amritsar when he received the LASP (land as soon as possible) message from Moscow air traffic control. His first option was to touch down at Delhi, the nearest airport for the wide-bodied Boeing 777-300 ER. But as the Commonwealth Games (CWG) opening ceremony was in progress, permission was denied and the aircraft directed to Kolkata nearly three hours away.
For the veteran commander and experienced cockpit crew who had made many long-haul flights across the globe, the 2 hour 45 minute journey to Kolkata seemed the longest of their lives. When the plane finally landed in Kolkata at 11.43 pm, Alberto heaved a sigh of relief. All along, the only thought that was haunting him was "what if...".
"Had there been a bomb on board the plane and had it exploded before reaching Kolkata, the authorities in Delhi would have had a lot to answer for. Though a Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) had been issued in view of the high security and restrictions for the CWG opening ceremony, an emergency landing should have been allowed," said an experienced captain.
According to former director general of DGCA Kanu Gohain, an emergency situation like this requires the pilot to land as soon as possible at the nearest available airport at which a safe approach and landing is assured. "If the pilot received the alert at 9 pm and was around Amritsar, Delhi was close by. It was directed to Kolkata due to closure of Delhi airspace. Had the NOTAM not been there, Delhi was the obvious landing choice," he explained.
Veteran pilots felt the NOTAM, issued to ensure that there was no panic among foreign participants and delegates at CWG, could have been extremely embarrassing for the entire nation had a mishap occurred with flight SQ 61.
On Sunday, the flight on the Houston-Moscow-Singapore sector departed on its last leg on time. Shortly thereafter, the customs office at Moscow airport received a call that claimed there was a bomb on board the plane. The message was immediately relayed to the Singapore Airlines headquarters. The latter alerted the pilots over the AirCraft Analytical System ( ACAS) on the aircraft.
When the pilot sought permission from Kolkata ATC, it was granted after a consultation with DGCA. With less than two hours in hand, the airport went into a flurry of activity. Central Industrial Security Force and other agencies like the Bomb Detection & Disposal Squad (BDDS) were notified. A remote bay at the Madhyamgram-end was readied and Singapore Airlines officials called to the airport. "Singapore Airlines did not have a flight from Kolkata on Sunday and hence the officials had to scramble from their home once they got the news," said Kolkata airport director R Srinivasan.
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