'You Have Bomb On Board': Belarusian Transcript Of Ryanair Pilots Raises More Questions Than It Answers
By Mike Eckel May 26, 2021
Just after 12:30 p.m. local time on May 23, flying at an altitude of around 12,000 meters, Ryanair's Vilnius-bound flight FR4978 from Athens crossed into Belarusian airspace and made contact with air traffic controllers in the capital, Minsk.
"For your information, we have information from special services that you have bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius," the Minsk controller says.
"Ok," the pilot responds, "could you repeat the message?"
"I say again we have information from special services that you have bomb on board," the controller responds. "That bomb can be activated over Vilnius."
Nearly 16 minutes later, the pilot informs the Minsk controllers: "We are declaring an emergency MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAYâ€¦ Our intentions would be to divert to Minsk airport."
The conversation, detailed in an uncorroborated and incomplete transcript released by Belarusian officials, is a key piece of evidence in the evolving mystery surrounding Flight 4978, whose journey included an escort by a Belarusian Air Force fighter jet.
When the plane landed in Minsk, Belarusian authorities found no bomb. But they detained a Belarusian opposition journalist, Raman Pratasevich, and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, both of whom have been jailed and could face years in prison on charges that supporters and Western governments say are politically motivated. Several hours later, the plane resumed its journey to the Lithuanian capital.
Multiple countries and agencies are conducting investigations now. Lithuania and Poland have criminal probes open, and the UN aviation authority is looking into it. The European Union and several Western governments are considering new sanctions against Belarus and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the long-ruling strongman who has cracked down violently on protests after claiming victory in an August 2020 election opponents say was blatantly rigged.
Several EU members have called the diversion of the commercial flight between two EU countries a "state hijacking" aimed to deliver Pratasevich, the former editor-in-chief of a Telegram channel that has documented the protests and crackdown, into Lukashenka's hands. Others have accused Belarus of "piracy." Ryanair's chief executive called it "state-sponsored hijacking."
Lukashenka's government has sought to use the transcript to bolster its own narrative, with the Transport Ministry portraying it as proof that the Ryanair pilots were "not pressured, threatened, or coerced."
But what exactly happened in the 16 minutes between the time the crew was first notified of an alleged bomb threat and the decision to declare an emergency and divert to Minsk? What went on during a two-minute gap in the transcript immediately preceding that declaration? And what about the contradiction between the Belarusian claims that the pilots made the decision and the exchange in the transcript, in which the pilots repeatedly ask about the source of the information they were getting and air traffic controllers appear to all but order the plane to divert?
And why was a Belarusian MiG fighter jet scrambled -- on Lukashenka's direct orders, according to his press service -- to meet the Ryanair plane and escort it to Minsk?
The transcript's "got holes in it so big that you could drive an airplane through it," said John Cox, a retired commercial airline pilot who now runs an aviation safety consulting business in Washington, D.C.
"It reads like something written by someone who has a limited bit of knowledge, someone who has some kernels or facts and was trying to interweave it with things that may not be factual," he told RFE/RL.
For the moment, the only public insight into what transpired in the cockpit of the Boeing 737-800, and what led to the decision to divert to Minsk, comes from the uncorroborated transcript. Belarusian state TV has released what it says are recordings of the conversation between pilots and Minsk air traffic control, but those have not been independently verified and the accompanying translated subtitles were erroneous.
Flight tracking data shows that Flight 4978 was close to the Lithuanian border, and approximately 10-15 minutes away from the Vilnius airport, when it made a U-turn and eventually headed toward Minsk, which was much further away.
Lithuanian officials, who reportedly also have possession of data from the plane's flight recorders, have not released radio recordings or transcripts. Vilnius airport officials did not respond to multiple calls and e-mails from RFE/RL.
Ryanair, meanwhile, has also not released any recordings or transcripts. Asked by RFE/RL to do so, the company replied: "Ryanair is fully cooperating with EU safety and security agencies & NATO and we cannot comment further for security reasons."
The Ryanair jet was about 2 1/2 hours into its journey from Athens to Vilnius when it crossed from Ukraine into airspace overseen by Belarusian civilian radars.
After initial greetings, the air traffic controllers informed the pilots of a possible bomb on board the flight.
At 12:33 p.m. (9:33 a.m. GMT), according to the transcript, the pilot asked the controller to identify the source of the threat and was told it "was received by airport security from security services."
The pilot asked whether it was airport security in Vilnius or Athens.
The controller did not specify, saying only: "This e-mail was shared to several airports."
Athens airport authorities directed queries to the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority, which did not immediately respond to e-mails from RFE/RL.
Belarusian officials later made further claims about the alleged bomb threat, saying the e-mail was sent in English via an encrypted e-mail service, purportedly by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Hamas angrily denied the assertion.
Lina Beisiene, a spokeswoman for the Lithuanian airports, told the Baltic News Service on May 23 that Lithuanian officials had been notified that the plane's diversion was prompted by a conflict between passengers and the flight crew.
However, she said, Lithuania received no information about a bomb threat or other details from Belarus.
'This Is Our Recommendation'
At 12:41 p.m., the pilot enquires for at least the second time about the recommendation for the plane to land in Minsk instead of Vilnius.
"This recommendation to divert to Minsk, where did it come from? Company?" the pilot asked. "Did it come from departure airport authorities or arrival airport authorities?"
According to the transcript, the controller replied: "This is our recommendation."
Those exchanges clashed with remarks by Belarusian authorities on May 24 -- after the incident but before the transcript's release emphasizing the purported role of the Ryanair crew.
On May 24, transport official Artsyom Sikorski said the decision to land in Minsk had been made independently by the pilots and that the jet still could have flown on. Major General Ihar Holub, the head of the Belarusian Air Force, also asserted that the pilots took the decision to divert on their own.
On May 26, the head of Lithuania's Criminal Police Bureau, Rolandas Kiskis, told reporters: "The decision was made by the captain of the liner after consulting with Ryanair management."
According to the transcript, at 12:45 p.m., after receiving notification from the controller that the "code is red" -- indicating a serious threat -- the Ryanair pilot then says he will hold the jet's current position. Two minutes later, the pilot declares "MAYDAY" -- an emergency -- and says the "intentions would be to divert to Minsk airport." The aircraft lands at 1:15 p.m.
Cox, the aviation safety consultant, cast doubt on the assertion that the Minsk air traffic controllers would be allowed to recommend that the plane land in the Belarusian capital.
"I've never heard controllers make a recommendation like that. We recommend you come to Minsk? That's not your call. That's not your call," the retired pilot said.
"Here's the other thing that's very, very odd: if you're going to divert your plane, because of an interception or a bomb threat, for them to say 'Mayday, Mayday, Mayday'? That's not something I would expect, it would be very uncharacteristic for a professional pilot to say," Cox said.
The Russia Factor
At the time the passenger jet made its U-turn, it was much closer to the Vilnius airport than it was to Minsk. Flight tracking data show the plane was also at a higher altitude than most airliners are when they approach Vilnius.
Among the other unanswered questions: When and why the Belarusian Air Force MiG-29 was scrambled to meet the passenger plane. There is no mention of the fighter jet in the transcript.
Holub told reporters that the warplane was sent to escort Flight 4789 only after it turned to fly towards the Belarusian capital.
But Cox said it was strange the transcript would make no mention of the presence of a fighter jet. Moreover, he asked, why would a military commander send a fighter jet in proximity to a passenger jet where a bomb was purportedly about to explode?
"If you're the captain, and you saw a MiG pull up alongside, isn't it likely you'd say something about it?" he asked. "And why would you put a MiG-29 up in there in the first place, when there's a bomb on board? What are they going to do? Watch it explode?"
In a speech before lawmakers on May 26, Lukashenka added further confusion to the narrative, saying he could have ordered the plane to be shot down, since it was flying near Belarus's nuclear power plant. He also called the incident a "planned provocation" and claimed that the threat was e-mailed from Switzerland.
The Swiss Foreign Ministry said on May 27 that "Swiss authorities have no knowledge of a bomb threat on the Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight."
Also missing from the transcript, and from Belarusian public statements, was any indication of communications with Russian military or civilian officials.
Given how closely integrated Belarus's military and intelligence agencies are with Russian counterparts, scrambling a fighter jet to participate in a forced diversion of a civilian passenger plane would likely involve notification of Russian counterparts, experts say.
Many observers have raised the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin's government, which has supported Lukashenka amid the continuing crackdown and appears to be using it to seek further sway over Minsk, may have given its consent for the diversion of the flight.
Asked about the incident, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on May 26 that Russia has "no grounds not to trust" the Belarusian account -- a statement that seemed to fit in with the tenor of ties between Minsk and Moscow and their tense relations with the West.
The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization said Belarus may have violated a longstanding treaty known as the Chicago Convention, which has governed international air travel since the 1940s.
The Ryanair jet finally landed in Vilnius at 9:25 p.m. -- more than seven hours after its scheduled arrival.
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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