The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In the air, US tastes own medicine

New Delhi, July 31: India today gave the US a mild taste of its own airspace defence mechanisms adopted after 9/11 when it forced a private cargo aircraft to land in Mumbai after the plane changed its call sign from military to civil.

The Boeing 747 cargo transporter for a company called Atlas Air was radioed to land in Mumbai failing which, it was warned, that Indian Air Force fighter aircraft from the South Western Air Command would scramble and “escort” it into Indian airspace.

The aircraft was at first identified as a US Air Force plane and when it was refused permission, it sought permission to enter Indian airspace as a civil aircraft.

The Indian response is much milder compared to what the US Air Force would do after 9/11, mainly because it was an American plane and the military-to-military relations have improved since 2002. Washington’s own rules ask for suspicious aircraft entering US airspace to be shot down or “escorted down”.

Earlier this year, the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared a new airspace and anti-hijacking security drill. Much of it is on the lines of the drill adopted by the US after 9/11.

The following is the timeline of events given by the Indian Air Force:

2205 hrs (10 pm Sunday night): Mumbai Movement Liaison Unit (MLU) calls Indian Air Force to confirm clearance for a USAF Boeing 747 flying from Nairobi to Hong Kong and entering Indian airspace at Orlid (reporting point) at 0047 hrs (12.47 am Monday)

2206 hrs: Indian Air Force confirms that there is no Air Operations Routine ' no permission ' for either this aircraft or any other foreign military aircraft on the route from July 27 to August 1

2210 hrs: MLU informs the Boeing 747 through Mumbai Flight Information Centre that permission is refused

2300 hrs: Mumbai MLU calls Indian Air Force again; says the aircraft is now seeking permission as a civil registered plane with Atlas Air. It claims it has got the clearance of the directorate-general of civil aviation and asked for advice from the operations room

0055 hrs (12.55 am Monday): Duty officer of the South Western Air Command (headquarters Gandhinagar) says he is refusing permission because of suspicious change in aircraft particulars from military to civil

0210 hrs: The aircraft is ordered to land in Mumbai for a check of antecedents failing which it will be “escorted” ' an euphemism for forcing to land

0303 hrs: The aircraft lands in Mumbai. Pilot says Nairobi Air Traffic Control had forwarded wrong aircraft particulars

The aircraft was still in Mumbai till this evening.

Atlas Air is mainly involved in air transportation of heavy freight cargo. Its aircraft are often chartered by the US Air Force’s air mobility command.

US aircraft have been detained in the recent past, too. Last year, a US aircraft carrying arms for the Royal Nepal Army to Kathmandu was detained and was allowed to leave only after a thorough check of the consignment it was carrying.

But that was possibly a diplomatic game because New Delhi does not take kindly to foreign military presence in its neighbourhood, particularly in Nepal, with whom it has an arms assistance pact.

In Mumbai, airport sources said the plane was empty of cargo and passengers. It is likely to be allowed to take off shortly after completing formalities.

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