The Indian Air Force on Monday ordered a US-based cargo aircraft to land at the Mumbai international airport, after its call sign did not match with the one registered with the Mumbai Air Traffic Control.
The Boeing 747-200 belonging to Atlas Air, a cargo airline, and its four-member crew were detained at the Mumbai airport. The crew was questioned by the IAF.
According to reliable sources, the jet with no cargo took off from Nairobi on Sunday night and was heading for Hong Kong. Its flight path included the Indian air space, specifically the Mumbai air corridor. Initially, it had sought the Airports Authority of India’s (AAI) permission to enter Indian airspace as a US military aircraft. When this was rejected by the IAF, the airline filed an adjacent Air Operations Routine (AOR) notice asking that it be allowed to over-fly, this time as a civilian cargo plane. This was granted.
As per ATC records, the plane's code was GTI-8106, but when the ATC contacted the pilot, he gave the call sign of a US military plane. This aroused suspicion.
"We immediately alerted the South Western Air Command, which in turn got in touch with defence headquarters and asked us to direct the pilot to go back to Nairobi or land at the Mumbai airport for verification of antecedents," said M.G. Junghare, General Manager ATM, AAI (western region).
"Our ATC contacted the pilot and he preferred to land here. The forced landing was done at 3.00 a.m. and soon after IAF personnel took over investigation," he added.
Though airport officials felt it was just a matter of mistaken identity, the IAF is taking no chances. Till the time of going to press, the plane was not cleared for take off. "The pilot is yet to submit his fresh flight plan," said Junghare.
"We still don't know the motives behind the wrong call sign. The Air Force can't take it lightly and can't close the issue half way," said sources.
An IAF spokesman said in Delhi: "The aircraft was asked to land at Mumbai to verify its antecedents. The aircraft is still in Mumbai and is yet to file its further flight plan for its Hong Kong flight." The pilot claimed that there was some mix-up by the Nairobi ATC in forwarding the particulars, including the plane code and flight path.
Atlas Air’s planes often visit Indian airports, especially Mumbai. What might have caused suspicion is that Atlas Air's parent company, Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, also offers US Military Charter Services, in addition to ACMI leasing, global scheduled service and commercial charter services.