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Turkish Airlines bomb scare: sketchy details, unanswered questions

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 8 July 2015, 8:12 IST

Just past 1.30 pm Tuesday, a Turkish Airlines flight came in to land at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. It had barely touched ground when a swarm of security forces surrounded the plane and guided it to an isolation bay. For this was no ordinary aircraft.

Forty minutes earlier, the pilot of the Bangkok-Istanbul flight TK 65 had relayed a disturbing message to the Air Traffic Control at Nagpur: there could be a bomb on his aircraft.

Apparently, a crew member had found a scrawl, made with lipstick, on a mirror in the aircraft's toilet: 'Bomb in CGR', it read referring to the aviation shorthand for the plane's cargo hold.

In the isolation bay, the aircraft was searched, every one of its 134 passengers and crew frisked and questioned and their bags checked. Fortunately, there was no bomb.

The scare dissipated and the aircraft was allowed to take off. But questions were raised as sketchy details of the incident started to came out. Several of the questions are still unanswered.

*** Who wrote the message on the toilet mirror and why? "The language of the threat indicates someone with aviation industry background was involved. We have questioned the crew members," said an investigating official. The Delhi Police had detained some passengers and crew members for questioning but let everyone off later.

*** After the threat was found, the aircraft remained airborne for 40 minutes till it reached Delhi. The pilot's decision to fly all the way to Delhi and not land in Nagpur or somewhere nearby seems rather odd.

A crew member found a scrawl, made with lipstick, on a mirror in the aircraft's toilet:'Bomb in CGR'

According to an official of the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security, the agency responsible for formulating and implementing security policies for the Indian airspace, a standard operating procedure (SOP) is in place for just such a scare.

"As soon as the aircraft is found to be in danger, it is allowed to land at the nearest airport. Arrangements are made to provide all assistance. However, the final call on where to land stays with the flight commander," the official said.

Only in this case, the pilot decided to proceed with the flight and land at the country's most sensitive airport. An Air Traffic Controller explained the decision thus: "If the pilot decided that the threat was not real, it made sense to land in Delhi because there was more assistance available in form of immediate bomb detection units and commandos for quick reaction. Also unlike at the airport in Nagpur, an Airbus A330 can land and take off easily at the Delhi airport."

But how sensible was the decision considering that a potentially bomb-carrying aircraft flying over Delhi puts millions of lives and several critical installations at risk.

Lt General (Retd) Anil Chait, former head of the Integrated Defence Staff, an exercise must be conducted to see if, and how, the SOP was violated. "I don't have the details with me but from what I have heard, I can say an assessment needs to be conducted to find out if our SOP was violated. Any violations of our airspace security cannot be taken lightly."

Assuming it was a potential attack, was the response of the security agencies adequate? It was

Turkish Airlines did not respond to questions about their pilot's decision to land in Delhi. But a statement issued by Dr Ali Genc of the airline's media relations department said the aircraft was "diverted to Delhi following a possible bomb threat on board".

"Necessary safety checks are currently taking place. Furthermore, precautions have been taken to reposition the aircraft in line with standard safety procedures. This is currently in progress."

*** Assuming that it was a potential attack, was the response of the Indian security agencies adequate?

From the accounts so far, it indeed was. NSG and CISF commandos immediately rushed to the aircraft along with bomb detection units and dog squads. Sources said senior intelligence officers were also sent to verify whether it was an actual threat or merely a prank. Officially, the incident hasn't been declared a hoax yet.

Soon after the plane was contained, Minister of State for Civil Aviation Mahesh Sharma called a press conference to assure the public. "We are prepared and all the necessary arrangements have been made. All the passengers have been offloaded."

The government, however, needs to share more information to put any fears to rest.

First published: 7 July 2015, 23:05 IST
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.