On May 23 last year, the captain of a Kolkata-Mumbai Indigo flight spotted five unidentified balloon-type objects in the air minutes before he was to land. He quickly contacted air traffic control in Mumbai, was told to “go around” and was allowed to land 30 minutes later.
Two months later on July 27, the same thing happened at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport. But this time, the concerned air force officer alerted ground forces and deployed choppers to identify the objects.
The back-to-back incidents set alarm bells ringing in India’s security establishment, especially after a western intelligence agency indicated that terrorists may use “sub-conventional aerial platforms such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to launch an attack”.
But the source of panic was something far more innocuous: hot air balloons, the kind that are used in millions of homes across the country to mark a festival or a wedding.
Mumbai Police soon found out that the unidentified objects that had spooked the Indigo pilot were six balloons with thermocol sheets released during the inauguration of a local cricket tournament at Kalina, adjacent to the city’s airport.
Otherwise harmless, Chinese sky lanterns and hot air balloons are increasingly being treated as a serious security threat.
In December alone, 39 balloons were spotted inside the IGI airport.
To tackle the menace, national security adviser Ajit Doval recently convened a high-level meeting, attended by senior officials of the Intelligence Bureau, Bureau of Civil Aviation Security ( BCAS), Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Indian Air Force.
An intelligence assessment traced the hot air balloons to nearby farmhouses in Chhatarpur, Mehrauli and Kapashera, released during marriages and celebrations. The BCAS wanted permission to shoot down these balloons, sources said but others objected to the suggestion due to concerns about the bullet hitting planes while landing.
A move to amend the aircraft act to prohibit the use of air vessels in the vicinity of airports remains stuck but the air force occasionally scrambles a team to survey these flying threats whenever spotted.
But the police have begun cracking down on laser beams, balloons and lanterns. Last week, authorities lodged an FIR against a marriage party at the Tivoli Garden resort in south Delhi for using laser beams late at night. Laser beams have emerged as a source of distraction for planes flying at low altitudes in Delhi with four such complaints by pilots about to land in December alone.
“We have already informed all farmhouse owners about the prohibitory order regarding use of sky lantern, hot air balloons, laser beams etc. Last week, one of our constables noticed laser beam light emanating from a farmhouse. We immediately flung into action and traced the origin of these beam lights from Tivoli. We have filed an FIR against Tivoli under Section 188 which deals with disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant,” said a police source.
The prohibitory orders have been in place for a few years but with little effect. But after the recent spike in sightings of hot air balloons and lanterns, the deputy commissioner of police (airport) held a meeting with assistant commissioners of police of areas in the airport’s vicinity and asked them to step up vigilance.
“I personally held meetings with concerned police stations and asked them to ensure all measures to stop such incidents. We have also distributed pamphlets and asked representatives of local villages to cooperate with us. We are extremely vigilant since October last year when a suspicious UAV was spotted near the IGI airport,” said Dinesh Kumar Gupta, DCP, IGI airport.
But sources said none of the four police stations near the airport— Mehrauli, Vasant Kunj (North) Vasant Kunj (South), and Kapashera — registered any case for use of sky lantern and hot air balloons in past few years.