Belarus Airspace Incident

28 May 21 20 Comments

On the 23rd of May 2021, Ryanair Sun flight FR-4978 departed Athens, Greece for a scheduled passenger flight to Vilnius, Lithuania with 126 passengers and six crew on board. The aircraft was a Boeing 737-800, registered in Poland as SP-4SM.

While crossing Belarus airspace en-route to Lithuania, shortly before its arrival, the northbound aircraft squawked 7700 and turned east to divert to Minsk, Belarus, according to some reports it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29.

It is interesting to note that the aircraft was said to be at FL390 (39,000 feet) at the time, that is, it had not begun its descent to Vilnius while still in Belarusian airspace.

Ryanair quickly released a statement which stated that the crew were notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.

The crew on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius today (23 May) were notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security thread on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.

The flight data on flightrader24 shows that the aircraft was closer to Vilnius than Minsk at the point of its diversion.

The Boeing 737 remained in Minsk for about seven hours before departing for Vilnius. Five of the passengers who had been on the scheduled flight did not continue with the aircraft. The flight landed safely at Vilnius International Airport at 18:25 UTC with 121 passengers on board.

Initial Reports

Belarus media reported that a MiG-29 had escorted the jet to Minsk in response to a bomb scare but no explosives were found. Belta, the state-owned news agency, reported that President Alexander Lukashenko had personally given the order for the aircraft to land in Minsk.

Nexta, a Belarusian media outlet based in Poland, broke the news that their ex-editor, journalist and dissident Roman Protasevich, who was wanted by the Belarusian authorities, had been on the flight returning home after a holiday in Greece with his girlfriend but they had not arrived in Vilnius with the aircraft.

Arriving passengers confirmed that Protasevich had been detained in Minsk and looked “super scared”.

One of the passengers who was identified as Raselle is cited in numerous articles of having posted photographs and videos to Instagram showing the diversion. Her Instagram account does not have any such content that I can see although some of the photographs have been republished on Twitter.

Belarus denied accusations that they diverted the aircraft in order to make the arrest. Officials claimed that they’d received an emailed bomb threat from Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), a Palestinian fundamentalist militant group considered by most of the Western world to be a terrorist organisation. Hamas have denied any connection to the event.

Missing Passengers

Roman Protasevich was well-known as the ex-editor-in-chief of Nexta and Nexta Live, which offer political news over social media (Telegram, Twitter and Youtube). Their primary Telegram channel shows over 1.3 million subscribers. Nexta’s encrypted Telegram channels became a main source for organising and exchanging information about the mass protests after the presidential elections last August, which the opposition believe to have been rigged. Protasevich is now the editor of Belamova, another Telegram channel, which has been outlawed in Belarus as an extremist organisation. According to RT.com Belarus previously asked Poland to hand over Protasevich for inciting social enmity and discord but Poland did not respond. Protasevich is Belarusian but has been working from Poland and more recently Lithuania. He is on a terror list distributed by the KGB, the Belarusian secret service.

President Lukashenko said that Nexta consisted of western strategists plotting against Russia. “Their goal is to dissolve the Belarusian people and move on to smothering their arch-enemy: the Russian.” He went on to say that he had considered shooting down the Ryanair flight for fear of a bomb on board exploding near a Belarusian nuclear power plant but that the seven-hour delay was not enforced but was the result to the Ryanair crew not wishing to leave.

The opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against the standing president and is currently in exile in Lithuania, said that Protasevich would face the death penalty as a terrorist. She has called for Belarus to be expelled from the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Protasevich’s Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also detained.

Micheal O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, called the incident “state-sponsored hijacking” and broke the news that a further three passengers did not return to the aircraft at Minsk. He claimed that Belarusian secret service agents (KGB) were offloaded at the airport. The Irish Foreign Affairs Minister made a similar statement.

Only one or two people were actually arrested so that certainly would suggest that a number of the other people who left the plane were secret service. We don’t know from what country, but clearly linked to the Belarusian regime.

The Greek prime minister responded that they have no evidence that any secret service, Belarusian or otherwise, boarded the aircraft in Athens.

We have no indication there were KGB agents or any security service agents on board the plane. None. Zero. And we investigated it very carefully.

Belarusian state television stated the three passengers, two Belarusian and one Greek, simply elected to stay in Minsk rather than continue to their original destination of Vilnius. Bloomberg contacted the Greek national, who confirmed that he had chosen to stay, although he said he wasn’t aware of the arrest at the time.

“I was flying to Minsk anyway, with an evening connection in Vilnius,” Zisis said on LinkedIn. After the interruption, as passengers lined up to return to the aircraft, “I stood at the back of the queue and I asked to stay, and they allowed me.”

He told Bloomberg that the journalists were the first to contact him and no one from the Greek government had confirmed his safety after he failed to arrive at Vilnius.

Lithuania’s police chief has stated that they are working to confirm the identities of the three passengers in question.

Bomb Threat Email

The CAA Belarus released a statement quoting an email received via ProtonMail, an end-to-end encrypted mail service based in Switzerland.

Newlines Magazine reported that they had obtained a copy of the email which, they say, is time-stamped after the crew was told of the threat.

Lukashenko’s Crazy-Stupid Hamas Headfake

“Allahu Akbar” runs the subject line of the email, the sender of which was [email protected] “We, Hamas soldiers,” the email continues, “demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union abandon its support for Israel in this war. We know that the participants of Delphi Economic Forum are returning home on May 23 via flight FR4978. A bomb has been planted onto this aircraft. If you don’t meet our demands the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius.”

Adding to the fact that the message was sent after the mid-air bomb theatrics unfolded, the sought-for cease fire referenced in the email had already taken effect on Friday, two days before this communique was sent.

Although some news sources have cited ProtonMail as releasing the information that the email was transmitted after the crew had already initiated the diversion, ProtonMail have responded that the email was not leaked or obtained from ProtonMail. The statement continues only to say that ProtonMail are supporting the European authorities in their investigations as required legally on the basis of an official request from the Swiss government.

Transcript

The Belarusian CAA has released a transcript of the interactions between the flight and Minsk control which has as yet not been confirmed by any other sources.

As an evidence of the fact that the pilot-in-command took his own decision to land at National Airport Minsk without any pressure from Belarusian side, we published the extract of ATC-pilot radiotelephony.

The following is a formatted version of the transcript as released by the Belarus CAA (unconfirmed). You can see the original transcript on the CAA statement (scroll down for English): http://caa.gov.by/ru/news-ru/view/1-203/:

09:28:58 Pilot Minsk, Good day, RYR 1TZ, FL390 approaching SOMAT
09:29:04 ATC RYR 1TZ, Minsk Control, good afternoon, radar contact
09:30:49 ATC RYR 1TZ, Minsk
Pilot Yes, go ahead
ATC RYR 2TZ for your information, we have information from special services that you have bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius
Pilot 1TZ Standby
09:31:17 Pilot OK RYR 1TZ could you repeat the message?
ATC RYR 1TZ, I say again we have information from special services that you have bomb on board. That bomb can be activated over Vilnius
Pilot Roger that, standby
09:31:42 ATC RYR 1TZ for security reason we recommend you to land at UMMS
Pilot OK…that..it..understood give us alternate please
09:32:59 Pilot RYR 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ
Pilot The bomb….direct message, where did it come from? Where did you have information about it from?
ATC RYR 1TZ standby please
09:33:42 ATC RYR 1TZ
Pilot Go ahead
ATC RYR 1TZ airport security stuff informed they received e-mail
Pilot Roger, Vilnius airport security stuff or from Greece?
ATC RYR 1TZ this e-mail was shared to several airports
Pilot Roger, standby
09:34:49 Pilot Radar, RYR 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ
Pilot Could you give us frequency for (unreadable) company so that we would be able to (unreadable)
ATC RYR 1TZ say again what frequency do you need
Pilot We just need to quawk with the operation of the company, if there any frequency for that (unreadable)
ATC Do you need RYR operation frequency?
Pilot That is correct 1TZ
ATC Standby please
ATC RYR 1TZ Standby please
Pilot Standing-by
09:39:30 Pilot RYR 1TZ Any adverts?
ATC RYR 1TZ Standby, waiting for the information
Pilot Could you say again that I have to call for the airport that authorities …(unreadable) to divert to.
ATC RYR 1TZ I read you THREE, say again please
09:39:57 Pilot Radar, RYR 1TZ
09:39:57 ATC RYR 1TZ Go
Pilot Can you say again the IATA code of the airport that authorities recommended us to divert to?
ATC RYR 1TZ roger, standby please
Pilot OK, I give you (unreadable) can you say again IATA code of the airport that authorities have recommended us to divert to?
ATC RYR 1TZ Standby
Pilot Standby, Roger
09:41:00 ATC RYR 1TZ
Pilot Go ahead
ATC IATA code is MSQ
Pilot can you say again please?
ATC IATA code MSQ
Pilot MSQ, thanks
09:41:58 Pilot RYR 1TZ Again, this recommendation to divert to Minsk where did it come from? Where did it come from? Company? Did it come from departure airport authorities or arrival airport authorities?
ATC RYR 1TZ this is our recommendations
Pilot can you say again?
ATC RYR 1TZ this is our recommendations
Pilot unreadable.
Pilot Did you say that your recommendation?
ATC RYR 1TZ, Charlie-Charlie
ATC 09.42.49: RYR 1TZ we have ground stuff frequency for Vilnius 131.750
Pilot 131.75 and we have contact…(unreadable)
09:44:38 ATC RYR 1TZ advise your decision please?
Pilot Radar,RYR 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ advise your decision please
Pilot 09: 44:52: I need answer the question what is the code of the (unreadable) green, yellow or amber red.
ATC Standby
09:45:09 ATC RYR 1TZ they say code is red
Pilot Roger that, in that case we request holding at present position
ATC RYR 1TZ Roger, hold over your position, mantain FL390 turns at own discretion
Pilot OK holding at our discretion at present position mantaining FL390 RYR 1TZ.
09:47:12 Pilot RYR 1TZ we are declaring an emergency MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY RYR 1TZ. our intentions would be to divert to Minsk airport
ATC RYR 1TZ MAYDAY, Roger.Standby for vectors
Pilot Standby RYR 1TZ
09:48:10 Pilot RYR 1TZ request descent to 10000 feet
ATC RYR 1TZ, descend FL100
Pilot descend (unreadable) RYR 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ from present position cleared direct point KOLOS : Kilo Oscar Lima Oskar Sierra
Pilot Direct to KOLOS RYR 1TZ
09:50:15 ATC RYR 1TZ how do you read me?
Pilot I read you 5 RYR 1TZ
ATC Roger
09:50:24 ATC RYR 1TZ do you need any aerodrome details and weather information?
Pilot We can (unreadable) ATIS from Minsk …enough.
ATC RYR 1TZ do you need ATIS frequency?
Pilot We got it. It is 128.850, 1 TZ
09:51:50 ATC RYR 1TZ
Pilot 1TZ, go ahead
ATC RYR 1TZ KOLOS 2H arrival, RW in use 31R and if you need vectors advise
Pilot OK, KOLOS.. could you say the (unreadable)
ATC KOLOS 2H arrival
Pilot KOLOS 2H arrival, RW 31R, RYR 1TZ
ATC And ATIS frequency is 128.850
Pilot 28.85
09:52:29 ATC RYR 1TZ and advise passengers on board and if any dangerous goods on board
Pilot No dangerous goods, standby…and we need 130 to avoid
09:53:00 Pilot RYR 1TZ turning heading 130 to avoid
ATC RYR 1TZ roger heading 130 report clear of weather
Pilot WILCO
09:54 45 Pilot: : RYR 1TZ persons on board is 133
ATC Persons on board 133 copied thank you
09:55:33 ATC RYR 1TZ when ready report estimating time of arrival
09:56:48 Pilot RYR 1TZ request descend 9000 feet
ATC RYR 1TZ descend FL90
Pilot Descend FL90, RYR 1TZ
09:57:12 ATC RYR 1TZ now contact Minsk approach on 125.9
Pilot 125.9, RYR 1TZ
09:57:22 Pilot Approach, Hallo, RTZ descending to FL 90 on the heading 130
ATC RYR 1TZ Minsk Approach good day expect vectoring for ILS RW 31R descend to altitude 6000 feet QNH 1010
Pilot 6000 feet QNH 1010 vectors for ILS 31R, RYR 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ turn left heading 070
Pilot Heading 090 RYR 1TZ
Pilot (unreadable) Confirm ILS 31R
ATC RYR 1TZ Affirm ILS Approach RW 31R
Pilot 31R thanks
ATC RYR 1TZ do you need any data information about Minsk 2?
Pilot Stand by
Pilot RYR 1TZ request heading 060 (unreadable) turn to avoid
ATC RYR 1TZ cleared heading 060
Pilot 060 degrees (unreadable)
Pilot To correction that’s may be (unreadable) 1TZ
ATC 1TZ Roger
Pilot RYR 1TZ actually request heading 040 for avoid for 20 miles may be (unreadable) 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ heading 040
Pilot Heading 040 RYR 1TZ (unreadable) 1TZ
Pilot RYR 1TZ request heading 030 to avoid for 10 miles
ATC RYR 1TZ heading 030
Pilot Heading 030 RYR 1TZ
10:01:14 ATC RYR 1TZ do you need any assistance upon arrival?
Pilot Negative RYR 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ Roger
10:02:46 Pilot RYR 1TZ are you aware of nature of our (unreadable) urgenty
ATC RYR 1TZ yes we have information
Pilot Roger (unreadable) location (unreadable) the aircraft should be parked on in the airport (unreadable) doing this event
10:03:15 ATC RYR 1TZ say again your message please
Pilot RYR 1TZ Do you have (unreadable) a nature the civic area in the airport where the aircraft should be parked on in this kind of event?
ATC RYR 1TZ yes we have special area
Pilot Roger that RYR 1TZ in this case no other assistance needed
ATC RYR 1TZ roger
10:04:14 Pilot RYR 1TZ request
ATC Go ahead
Pilot Just wanted to know if our company was informed about about this case about this event
ATC RYR 1TZ stand by
Pilot RYR 1TZ (unreadable) сomplete and now we are ready to commence approach
ATC RYR 1TZ Roger turn right heading 080
Pilot 080 degrees RYR 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ we will try to pass information to your company during 5 minutes
10:06:45 ATC RYR 1TZ descend to altitude 4000 feet
Pilot Descending 4000 feet RYR 1TZ
Pilot RYR 1TZ Confirm QNH
ATC RYR 1TZ QNH 1009
Pilot 1009 QNH RYR 1TZ
ATC RYR 1TZ turn left heading 050 descend to altitude 3000 feet
Pilot Left heading 050 descending 3000 feet RYR 1TZ
10:10:23 ATC RYR 1TZ turn left heading 010 cleared ILS Approach RW 31R report establish localizer
Pilot Turn left heading 010 cleared ILS 31R report establish RYR 1TZ
10:11:21 ATC RYR 1TZ you’ve just passed the final
10:12:26 ATC RYR 1TZ do you have contact localizer?
Pilot Affirm
ATC RYR 1TZ contact Tower 130.4
Pilot 130.4 RYR 1TZ

Precedent

This isn’t the first case of an aircraft being diverted for political reasons. In 2013, Bolivia President Evo Morales’ aircraft was on a flight from Moscow to Bolivia amid rumours that American dissident Edward Snowden was onboard. The aircraft landedin Austria with a low fuel emergency after having been refused entry into French, Spanish and Italian airspace. It is unclear if the aircraft was searched but certainly, soon after it landed, the Austrian president greeted Morales in the plane and shared breakfast with him, after which the flight was allowed to continue on its way, with all of the involved countries sending apologies and official explanations to the Bolivian Government. Morales accused the US of crimes against humanity. Two years later, Julian Assange of Wikileaks claimed that he had deliberately leaked the false information that Snowden was on the aircraft. A longer piece comparing the two incidents has been written by Glenn Greenwald; I am unfamiliar with him and I personally feel the two situations are not as equivalent as he makes out, but he gives a fair amount of detail on the sequence of events and the international reaction: As Anger Toward Belarus Mounts, Recall the 2013 Forced Landing of Bolivia’s Plane to Find Snowden

Meanwhile, a PDF supposedly from Ryanair OpsGroup to its crew offers a quick rundown of the event and makes the point that the event is not unprecedented.

It’s not a routine event for a country to force an overflying aircraft to land, but it’s also not as rare as you might think. Usually, a forced landing and/or fighter intercept occurs because of unpaid navigation charges, or the lack of an overflight permit. Each country publishes intercept procedures, so that pilots know how to respond to a military interception. Indonesia is well known for this, and it doesn’t usually make headline news, but it did in 2019 when they forced an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft to land in Bantam. In 2016, Iran forced a Fly Dubai aircraft to land in Iran, following confusion about its flight plan. Peru is also known for forcing enroute aircraft to land because of issues with overflight permits.

International Response

EASA, the EU aviation safety agency, immediately published a Safety Information Bulletin recommending that operators avoid the UMMV/Minsk FIR.

US President Joe Biden condemned the diversion and the arrest.

This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.

The UK, Lithuania and France immediately denied the Belarusian national carrier entry into their airspace. Poland’s Prime Minister said, “Hijacking a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism that cannot go unpunished.” The Latvian Foreign Minister called for Belarusian airspace to be closed for all international flights.

The following day, the European Union agreed to prohibit EU-based airlines from flying through Belarusian airspace and Belarusian carriers from flying into EU airspace. A number of other countries have since followed suit.

Two European carriers (Air France and Austrian Air) attempting to avoid Belarusian airspace en route to Moscow found Russia witholding clearance for the revised flight plans.

The ICAO confirmed yesterday that they are undertaking a fact-finding investigation as to whether there has been a breach of international aviation law, citing Article 55 (e) of the Chicago Convention.

The Chicago Convention was signed in 1944 and set the purpose of the ICAO to allow for international air navigation standards. Article 55(e) states:

The Council may:
Investigate, at the request of any contracting State, any situation which may appear to present avoidable obstacles to the development of international air navigation; and, after such investigation, issue such reports as may appear to it desireable.

The question is whether this could lead to the expulsion of Belarus from the ICAO.

Summary

Wow. What a mess.

20 Comments

  • Greenwald has a point but seems to me to be over egging it a bit. There’s a significant gap between making an up-front refusal for a non-scheduled flight to enter your airspace and allowing in a scheduled flight then causing it to divert under (presumably) false pretences.

    I wonder if there’s any way that the Ryan Air crew could have preserved their side of the conversation in the CVR before their later flight to Vilnius.

  • If I understood the press reports properly, the Ryanair flight was on a scheduled flight and on its proper, authorised flight path. There is no suggestion that it had made an unauthorised deviation from its flight plan prior to the holding as described here, and the subsequent diversion to Minsk.
    There are strange things in the transcript. The request for a holding in Belarus airspace does not really make sense, if I had been the captain I would have preferred to continue as per my flight plan, and if deemed desirable enter a holding over or near the destination. Surely, the aircraft was based in Poland which is an EU country. So is Lithuania. Belarus is controlled by a pro-Putin puppet regime after Lukashenko actually lost the elections, probably by a large margin. It cannot have been unknown to presumably Polish pilots that there have been protests in Belarus that have been suppressed by the authorities, violently so
    That aside, as a former Ryanair captain, albeit in the early days when the company operated if I remember correctly, 10 aircraft, I never heard of a crew who had the company “legal agreements” at hand when deciding to hand over passengers to presumably hostile authorities during a hijack. Which is what allegedly happened.
    The flight, at FL 390, might well have been in radio range of Vilnius. There can be little doubt that the crew had all relevant radio frequencies at hand, including that of their own base ops. No need to ask Belarus ATC for them.
    Last but not least, the crew – according to the transcript in this blog – were very cooperative when it came to accepting a diversion to Minsk.
    If I had been the captain, I would at least have told ATC that I would prefer to continue to my destination. From the first news reports it was clear to me that a diversion to Minsk – not a regular destination – would not have made sense for the reason stated: a bomb alert.
    The transcript does not make any mention of an intercept by fighters. Surely, the crew should have preserved the CVR recordings. I cannot really find any concrete evidence that a MIG 29 had been near the Ryanair flight. On a flight that I once made in Soviet airspace with the Cessna 310 we were told to “climb now to flight level “faif tousant meters”. in those days in Eastern Europe they used metres, not feet. 5000 metres equals15000 feet. When we protested because we were not pressurised and had no oxygen on board , ATC retorted: “You now climb to faif tousant meters or you see MIG – verry close”. ATC made it very clear that, unless I complied, I would be intercepted. The transcript of the ATC conversations with the Ryanair crew makes no mention, no threat, of a possible intercept. I see no mention of a MIG, “Verry close” or not anyway.
    Which makes me suspect that the transcript that Sylvia published here has been heavily “edited” by the Belarus authorities.
    Although there is little evidence that the flight was intercepted by a fighter aircraft, it is the only explanation why the crew complied so readily. And I even suspect that the CVR recordings have been erased on the ground at Minsk – but not by the crew.
    Putin has no doubts about the weakness of the West. He was a KGB man himself who grabbed power, probably for life. Trump was very submissive to him. During a visit of Mrs. Merkel, the German Chancellor, to Moscow, Putin kept a big dog at his side during the conversation. It is known that Angela Merkel is afraid of dogs. Russian missiles shot down a Malaysian Airbus on a scheduled passenger flight over Ukraine. Putin denied all involvement, even though satellite photos showed the mobile launching units on their way back to Russia. Russian agents have poisoned dissidents in other countries.
    The only question is whether or not Lukashenko acted with Putin’s consent. Either way, Putin can as per usual shrug it off.

    • I always find it intriguing how many people only consider something to be political when they disagree with it. This website has often had to deal with political details, especially when an airline from one country has an incident or an accident in another country.

      But why not tell us, in this instance, which bit of the piece above you consider to be “political” as opposed to documenting the details and context around the incident?

    • The FAA certification for the 737 MAX is plitics. Iran shooting a Ukranian jet out of the sky is poitics. France choosing to believe that Nungesser and Coli made it to Maine is politics so old it’s now called “history”.

      Air travel is often international, and thus by its nature often involves politics; and therefore, so does this blog.

      ‘Fear of Landing’ this weak simply addresses fear of landing in a country where you absolutely don’t want to.

  • Politics have a lot to do with this article. Unavoidably, unfortunately.
    Of course it depends what side you are on. There are still 45+ million Americans who believe in the lie that Joe Biden “stole” the election.
    Without politics, it is unlikely in the extreme that Lukashenko would have remained in office. I don’t even say “won” the election because for all that it is worth, he probably lost by a landslide.
    So without the support of Uncle Vlad there would now be a very different regime in Belarus and the state-sponsored hijack would not have taken place.
    So sorry “Admin user”, politics and this incident are intrinsically interwoven.

    • Rudy, Biden’s people DID steal the election just as surely as Belarus violated the law by forcing an overflying passenger aircraft to land. I could get into why I believe the first part is true in detail (and it’s rooted in statistics and specific voting patterns) but this is not the place for such a conversation. Let’s make an agreement: you leave the US politics out of the comments and I will as well.

      • Bring your evidence to metabunk.org and I will reply there. I suggest you do a search first, though, it may already have been discussed there. The statistical claims examined so far have not held water.

  • Absent CVR data, I would assume that the Belarusian CAA’s transcript is an amusing forgery just like the email. (And I’d be picky about CVR data; unless there’s a proper chain of custody, another forgery followed by an overwrite is possible — we’ve had other discussions about recorder data being too volatile to be useful.) I’m less than amused by the claim that there was no fighter plane involved; if not, what caused the pilot, after a couple of minutes’ silence, to declare an emergency? Did he really believe the bomb was sensitive to global location rather than altitude?

    I have seen reports in reputable sources (New York Times, BBC) that Protasevich was nervous over a couple of goons taking many pictures of him in the Athens airport; the Greek citizen could be innocent or could be deep cover, but the Belarusians who deplaned sound very suspect.

    I’ve noticed how most governments are reported as calling this a state hijacking; I’m not sure why they don’t all call it state piracy, given the widespread reports that the plane was approached by a Belarusian fighter.

    Is there any way to identify where “Admin User” was posting from?

  • Chip,
    Yes absolutely, as I stated I agree that it is highly probable that CVR recordings have been erased deliberately, and most probably not by the crew.
    I also indicated that I believe that the Ryanair flight was indeed intercepted and escorted by a MIG fighter plane and forced to divert.
    Minsk was absolutely not the most logical choice for a diversion.
    It is indeed strange that “… the pilot, after a couple of minutes of silence, to declare an emergency?”
    And, I repeat, if I had been the captain I would at least have told ATC that, yes, thank you for your information and your concern, but I would prefer to stick to my original flight plan and contact my company ops to discuss the options. I strongly suspect that, either the MIG was already close to the 737 – although, why are there no photos taken by any of the passengers? Or, the second option: the pilots did make their intentions clear and that part of the ATC tapes has also been overwritten and the transcript forged.
    And I still do not understand where claim originates from that a cabin attendant told Protasevic that they had to hand him over “because it is in Ryanair’s legal agreements”. That is total and absolute b..sh..t. There cannot be a “legal obligation” to simply hand over a passenger to authorities, not without a proper warrant. There was no mention of Protasevic being a terrorist, involved in a bomb threat. A cabin attendant is not in charge, it would have been the decision of the captain. And what was the “legal agreement”? In the captain’s on-board library would have been a copy of the airline’s basic operations manual. It should contain a section about how to act in the event of a hijack. This part of the story sounds totally made up, it does not have the ring of truth, but carries the smell of something very rotten.
    State hijacking or piracy? Never mind the semantics. Whatever it is called, it was a gross breach of international aviation law.
    And Chip, I was also wondering who Admin User” is. This blog is used mainly to discuss aviation stories. Most if not all bloggers have transparent aliases. I am using my own name. No disguise.

    • Sylvia’s report does not say what the crew told the passengers. “We have a bomb onboard and will divert to minsk” sounds likely to induce a panic? So if they announced the diversion with a white lie (“technical trouble”), the cabin attendant could not have told Protosevic “we were told the bomb is GPS-coded, therefore we can’t fly to Vilnius” and would have needed to make something up on the spot.
      The attendant might have said that it is company policy to always divert to closest airport, and somebody may have misunderstood this to indicate a legal requirement.

  • I asked a friend who’s a retired flight-data-recorder engineer the question I asked above about preserving the CVR contents. His reply:

    “Hi Ed, not sure what the configuration of the latest B737 is, but you can usually trip the circuit breaker to the CVR to preserve the last 2 hours of data. This used to be something suggested at , and I remember one incident where it was done. No other way, like event marker, to capture the data. Best bet is to have an MP3 recorder on the flight deck! Trouble is that if you then do another sector who is to say that something wouldn’t happen that is also needed on the CVR. A very grey area, but the probability of second event is pretty low. They could have asked for a replacement CVR and carried the old one home by hand of captain, but that would be tricky at an unknown airport.”

    • “This used to be something suggested at , and I remember…” should have included a marker to show where I redacted the name of the airline he worked for but the WordPress HTML sanitization dropped it completely. Silly me for using angle brackets instead of square brackets.

  • Mendel,
    I would think that the usual company policy would be to fly to the nearest SUITABLE airport. Insofar as I can see from the graphs, Minsk was probably not even the nearest airport, by the looks of it Vilnius would have been just as close. Maybe even closer. Suitable? I don’t know, Minsk may have been a designated alternate but the way the ATC transcript is presented, there are many questions. The Polish crew must have been aware that the political situation in Belarus is not a very stable one. Very sinister that Belarus suddenly came with this bomb scare.
    It may be interesting to hear the official reactions of Ryanair. Usually crews have ways of communicating with their HQ Ops. HF radio can provide cover world-wide. I have been based in Lagos, Nigeria in the early ‘eighties. I flew a Learjet 25D, but the company also operated Falcon 20s. There had been a fire in the main telecoms building, and phone communications were very difficult. The Falcons had HF, so if we wanted to call home (like ET), we cranked up the Falcon’s APU, switched on the HF and asked Bern Radio to give us a phone patch – to virtually any country in the world. This was on the ground, in Africa. Technology has made strides so I am convinced that the Ryanair crew would have been able to talk to their own company, certainly at FL 390.
    The news reports mentioned that Protasevic and his girlfriend were escorted off the flight by a few goons who did not re-board either.
    It is crystal clear that this act of terrorism had been planned beforehand.
    Yesterday there were some clips on the news showing Putin and his buddy Lukashenko having dinner together on board of a large yacht.
    No doubt they had a good laugh about the impotent frustration of the West.

    • The problem with Vilnius is this:

      ATC RYR 2TZ for your information, we have information from special services that you have bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius

      Trusting law enforcement, if there really had been a GPS-activated bomb aboard the aircraft, Vilnius was not a “suitable” airport, but Minsk was. They could possibly have diverted to Kaunas (in Lithuania), but that would not have been “nearest suitable” and still somewhat risky; however, I suspect that that’s what aircraft will do in the future in similar situations.

    • I meant to comment when you put this up; this is very interesting. Shame it doesn’t seem like there will be much follow-up on the details (not unreasonable when it comes to bombs and terrorists) but I’d love more information as to how the threat manifested itself.

      Just that it seems to be an extremely convenient example of an aircraft landing in a foreign country in regards to an unproven threat.

  • A tiny niggling question still bothers me: If a bomb “can be triggered over Vilnius”, who or what pulls the trigger?
    ATC (in this case, the goons behind the conversations) must have guessed – correctly – that the crew would have been rattled by this message. Who wouldn’t? When did they come into possession of that information – not knowing that it was false ? The disclosure so late in the flight did not give the crew much time to consider their options.
    Transcripts of conversations must have been doctored, maybe we will learn a bit more detail about what really went on.
    Of course, only the details are uncertain.
    The core of the story is simple and clear enough: A Russian puppet regime wanted to arrest a prominent dissident.
    This open act of state terrorism seems calculated to send a message to ALL dissidents: No matter where you are, we will get you. We will do so by any means, even criminal, We will even breach international law. And we do not care about it, no matter how loud other toothless governments protest.

    • One way to trigger a bomb over Vilnius would be to have a radio transmitter in Vilnius triggering the bomb once the aircraft comes in range. Another way would be for a smartphone in the luggage to play a sound once GPS shows it reaches a certain region (or crosses a certain latitude) and to use the voltage from that sound to trigger an attached bomb that has been smuggled aboard the plane. Both of these mechanisms could be prevented from triggering by not flying to Vilnius.

  • Technically of course it is possible to trigger a bomb by GPS, or by mobile phone.
    But these solutions, solutions of course as seen from the viewpoint of a terrorist, are unnecessarily complicated.
    Sometimes there is a simple timing device, or a barometric trigger that is primed when an aircraft climbs to cruising altitude and triggers the explosive device when descending.
    The bomb that brought down the PanAm 747 over Lockerbie in Scotland in the ‘eighties was triggered by a timer. The intention of the terrorists had been to bring the aircraft down over the open Atlantic. A delay on departure meant that it was still over land.
    But anyway, the whole scenario of the false bomb alert and the subsequent diversion to Minsk only makes sense if the intention was to force the Ryanair flight to divert to Belarus in order to arrest a dissident (I would actually consider him to be a man of high courage and integrity).
    The flight crew could in theory have worked out for themselves that they were being set up. In reality of course, the whole process was intended to get them rattled enough to follow “ATC” instructions.
    They did not have time to figure out what was going on, that was part of the plan: to wait until the final segment of the flight, probably just before top of descent into Vilnius, in order to deprive them of the time needed to analyse the situation and either continue to their destination, or divert to another airport in a less unstable state.
    Would I have been fooled in the same situation? Probably, yes.

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