Chennai/New Delhi, Feb. 1: A top official of Chennai airport today confirmed that an “unidentified aircraft”, said to be a US Air Force Boeing 707, breached Indian airspace about 170 nautical miles east of the city airport yesterday.
A team of top civil aviation, home ministry and air force officials has rushed to Chennai for a spot inquiry into the foreign aircraft overflying without prior permission.
The airport official told The Telegraph this evening that an “unidentified aircraft appeared on the radar screen” between 11 am and 12.30 pm yesterday.
The aircraft took the air traffic control officials by surprise and they made futile attempts to get in touch before the aircraft went off the radar screen. “We could not establish communication,” the official said.
On such occasions when an unidentified aircraft is tracked “in our airspace, we immediately intimate to the military liaison unit”, the official said.
In New Delhi, civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain confirmed the Chennai air traffic control had informed the air force about the aircraft’s presence.
But official sources in Delhi declined to term the flight as either an “intrusion” or an incident of “airspace violation”.
Hussain pointedly said “planes do travel through our airspace but they need prior permission”.
Though some reports have suggested that the aircraft was a US Air Force Boeing 707, the airport official declined to comment. “That we cannot tell as the presence of an aircraft appears as a blip on the radar screen,” the official said.
Directorate-General of Civil Aviation officials confirmed that the aircraft had not taken permission to overfly Chennai region and ignored repeated radio signals from air traffic control.
Sources in the defence establishment said the air force normally comes into the picture when an airspace intrusion is suspected within 12 nautical miles of the mainland or “near strategic installations”.
The sources said the air force headquarters had asked for a report from Chennai on the incident. Prima facie, the sources said, an area 150 nautical miles east of Chennai would be covered by the Airports Authority of India and the navy.
The navy and the coast guard have bases and monitoring stations in Chennai and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The Chennai airport authorities started an “internal investigation” today to ascertain whether “there was any gap on our side”, the airport official said.
The directorate-general officials are not sure why the air force did not scramble to escort the intruder out of the airspace as should have been done.
“The drill is that the air force should escort any intruding military aircraft out of Indian airspace and even shoot it down if it proves to be a threat,” a directorate-general source said.
Air force and naval authorities declined comment on the intrusion. “I cannot comment,” said an officer at the air force station in Tambaram. A navy officer, too, declined comment.
The suspected US Air Force Boeing is said to be an airborne warning and control surveillance aircraft that could have been flying over the Indian coast for live data.
Directorate-General officials, however, said in all likelihood, it was headed for the Gulf and had simply crossed over from its designated route. They said the aircraft had not tried to mask its identity and kept its radio call sign on.
Last year, a sortie by a US helicopter from one of its warships engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom allegedly covered Kalpakkam nuclear station near Chennai. It had provoked a rash of charges of airspace intrusion and suspicion it was engaged in reconnaissance.
Later, it was clarified that the helicopter was on a “routine sortie” made before a ship docks. Aircraft aboard US vessels -- as also those of other Navy -- carry out such reconnaissance (usually anti- submarine and mine) ahead of the route the ships take.
Since last year, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have been carrying out joint patrolling with US vessels on the busy merchant route passing through the Straits of Malacca in south Bay of Bengal.