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Chill of 9/11 as Kuwait plane heads for PM house

New Delhi, Nov. 13: For six chilling minutes today, a Kuwaiti airliner kept heading towards the Prime Minister’s residence, reviving memories of 9/11 two days after an FBI alert about a possible hijack from an Indian airport.

Although the pilot’s “mistake” was quickly corrected, officials were left aghast that the Indian Air Force’s emergency response mechanism had failed to react.

The Kuwait Airways Airbus came close to but did not breach the no-fly zone over 7 Race Course Road, an Airports Authority of India official said.

Yet, with a perceived threat to a seat of power, fighter jets should have been scrambled, AAI sources insisted. They blamed the lapse on a lack of alertness on the part of a cell manned jointly by the air force and civil air traffic control (ATC).

The plane had just taken off from the Indira Gandhi International Airport at 6.15 am when the pilot misunderstood an ATC instruction to turn right, apparently because he was a Mongolian not well versed in English.

He turned left and the plane darted towards the no-fly zone.

It was a group of Special Protection Group commandos on the ground who noticed the plane’s deviation with their naked eyes and alerted the ATC. The pilot was immediately asked to make another left turn.

“The no-fly zone starts from the north of Safdarjung airport. The plane had not crossed it when its course was corrected,” an AAI official said.

Sources said the air force officers at the joint coordination and control (JCAC) — manned jointly with the ATC — had failed to alert the western air command’s operational readiness platform (ORP) at the Hindon airbase.

Set up after the IC-814 was hijacked to Kandahar in 1999, the ORP is supposed to act immediately in an exigency, with fighters scrambled within 90 seconds.

A decision had also been taken at the highest level after 9/11 that the IAF should be prepared to force-land a plane and even shoot it down in extremely urgent situations.

Such instances would presumably include a plane heading towards Rashtrapati Bhavan or the Prime Minister’s residence despite repeated warnings.

“The ORP was either not told or was lacking in preparedness. We would have been caught napping had the plane been under the control of terrorists,” an official said, asking not to be named.

An air force source said, “This is primarily in the area of responsibility of civilian air control. There has to be good time in which the air force is contacted in the event of such circumstances.”

Any drastic action, however, would have meant heavy collateral damage. Unofficial reports said the plane was “within kilometres” of 7 Race Course Road, so shooting it down could have caused a large number of deaths in populated areas on the ground.

Aviation authorities have advised all foreign airlines to avoid no-fly zones and assign pilots well versed in English. Sources said Kuwait Airways had apologised and “the chapter is closed”.

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