June 15, 2021

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Ryanair Pilots Questioned Request to Land, Transcript Released by Belarus Shows – The Wall Street Journal

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A pilot aboard a Ryanair jetliner forced to land in Belarus over the weekend repeatedly questioned air-traffic controllers about their request to reroute the plane to Minsk amid a purported bomb threat, according to a partial transcript released Tuesday by Belarus’s government aviation agency.

The transcript hasn’t been independently verified. Several pilots and security experts asked to review the accounting by The Wall Street Journal said it appeared to be genuine, based on the terminology and back-and-forth typical of such conversations. Some said the Ryanair pilots, who repeatedly asked for clarification about the airport at which they were being asked to land, seemed surprised by the request to divert to Minsk.

“They definitely hesitated,” said Ben Berman, a retired U.S. airline captain and former accident investigator who is now an airline safety consultant. “They didn’t just accept the statement of the controller.”

Dublin-based Ryanair Holdings PLC declined to comment.

Belarus released the conversation as part of an effort to support the country’s version of events in the unusual incident. The government of President Alexander Lukashenko has said it received a warning that a bomb was aboard the plane, which was in Belarus airspace at the time; notified the plane’s pilots; advised it to reroute to Minsk; and scrambled a jet fighter to escort it there.

Belarus authorities arrested opposition activist Roman Protasevich on board a Ryanair plane, which had been flying from Greece to Lithuania, after diverting the aircraft to Minsk. Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary called the incident “a case of state-sponsored hijacking,” further raising the global aviation industry’s alarm over the diversion. Photo: Onliner.by/AFP/Getty Images

On the ground, Belarus officials arrested a prominent dissident journalist who was on the plane, a Boeing Co. 737-800 en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania. When the plane turned around for Minsk, it was closer to Vilnius, raising questions about why it would fly the extra miles in such an emergency.

European officials have called a bomb threat improbable, and the European Union has restricted its carriers from flying over Belarus. European and U.S. officials have condemned the detour as a brazen act of interference in commercial aviation and have called for an investigation. Air industry and aviation safety officials say if the bomb threat was faked, it represents a dangerous precedent that could erode trust between commercial airlines and the countries they fly over.

Belarus has said it acted according to international protocols after receiving correspondence from Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, that a bomb aboard was set to detonate over Vilnius. Hamas hasn’t responded to requests for comment.

The Belarus air force has said the jet fighter was dispatched only after the jet turned around, and wasn’t meant to intimidate the pilots.

The Belarus-released transcript is full of radio and cockpit jargon and ellipses, and several parts are transcribed as inaudible. But it also generally portrays a cockpit crew calmly responding to air-traffic controllers’ information about the bomb, and asking lots of questions about that information. A pilot asked to hear how the bomb threat was communicated to Minsk controllers, for instance, the seriousness of the threat, and whether the plane could be patched into Ryanair operational headquarters. It is unclear from the account that Belarus released whether the plane was able to communicate with Ryanair.

After relaying the bomb threat, air-traffic controllers recommended the plane turn around and land at Minsk National Airport, according to the account.

“For security reasons we ask you to land at UMMS,” one international call sign for Minsk airport, Belarus air-traffic control told the pilots. A pilot acknowledged that but asked to be given an alternative.

A few minutes later, a Ryanair pilot asked ground control to clarify the recommended airport by asking for a different call sign, that assigned by the International Air Transport Association, or IATA. Controllers responded with Minsk’s IATA code, MSQ.

The pilot asked for controllers to repeat that. A pilot then asked: “Again, this recommendation to divert to Minsk, where did it come from?” according to the transcript. “Where did it come from? Company? Did it come from departure airport authorities or arrival airport authorities?”

“This is our recommendation,” a Belarus controller responded.

“Say again,” the pilot asked.

“This is our recommendation,” the controller repeated, before asking twice for the pilot to advise on a decision about rerouting. After asking about the severity of the bomb threat, a pilot responded saying the plane was declaring an emergency and would turn around for Minsk.

“Our intentions would be to divert to Minsk airport,” the pilot said.

Belarus aviation authorities say they attempted to contact Ryanair’s representative office in Lithuania via a phone number provided by the crew but say they were unable to get hold of the company.

Write to Benjamin Katz at ben.katz@wsj.com and Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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