DUBAI: Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled after a Middle East Airlines flight from Madrid to Beirut with 145 passengers on board failed to respond to radio messages, aircraft-tracking site IntelSky said on Monday.
“There were reportedly several attempts to contact the aircraft but no response had been received over the radio, something that was particularly worrying,” IntelSky said in a series of tweets about the incident, which happened on Aug. 10.
As a result, the NATO air traffic control center in Spain sent an alert to Greek authorities. A “Code Renegade” was issued, which is a distress signal usually used to signify that a plane has been hijacked, according to media reports.
Greek authorities sent two F-16 fighters to intercept and check on the aircraft. They did so and determined there was no problem to be concerned about. A video clip posted by IntelSky appeared to show one of the fighter jets flying alongside the passenger jet.
IntelSky said it is thought that the pilot, Abed Al-Hout, the son of the chairman of Middle East Airlines, Mohammed Al-Hout, forgot to tune cockpit instruments to the correct frequency and this was why he failed to respond to hails. The incident did not go unnoticed by residents in the Argos area of Greece, IntelSky said, some of whom reported to the fire department strange noises that sounded like explosions.
In a message posted on Twitter, one of the passengers on the flight, Maria Sfeir, said that after the fighters departed, the “cabin crew reassured us from the captain that these were regular trainings that were notified in advance by the airline.”
However, when other users pointed out that such training activity was unlikely with passengers on board, she said she had not believed the crew’s explanation.
Other Twitter users also commented on the incident. “Why would NATO send armed F-16s on a civilian aircraft unless it’s kind of a political” message, one person asked. Several accused the pilot of negligence.