A pilot aboard a Ryanair airliner forced to land in Belarus over the weekend repeatedly asked air traffic controllers about their request to redirect the plane to Minsk amid an alleged threat bomb, according to a partial transcript released Tuesday by the Belarusian government aviation agency.
The transcript has not been independently verified. Several pilots and security experts asked to review the accounting by the Wall Street Journal said it seemed genuine, based on the terminology and back-and-forth typical of these conversations. Some said Ryanair pilots, who repeatedly asked for clarification of the airport they were to land in, appeared surprised by the request for a diversion to Minsk.
Dublin-based Ryanair Holdings PLC declined to comment.
Belarus posted the conversation as part of an effort to support the country’s version of events in the unusual incident. President Alexander Lukashenko’s government said it had received a warning that a bomb was on board the plane, which was in Belarusian airspace at the time; notified the pilots of the aircraft; advised him to redirect to Minsk; and scrambled a jet fighter to escort him there.
On the ground, Belarusian officials arrested a prominent dissident journalist who was on the plane, a Boeing Co. 737-800 en route between Athens and Vilnius, Lithuania. When the plane turned around for Minsk, it was closer to Vilnius, which raised questions as to why it would fly the extra miles in such an emergency.
European officials have called a bomb threat improbable and the European Union has banned its carriers from flying over Belarus. EU and US officials condemned the detour as a brazen act of interference in commercial aviation and called for an investigation. Aviation industry and aviation safety officials say if the bomb threat was faked, it sets a dangerous precedent that could erode trust between commercial airlines and the countries they fly over.
Belarus said it acted in accordance with international protocols after receiving correspondence from Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, that a bomb on board was about to explode over Vilnius. Hamas did not respond to requests for comment.
The Belarusian Air Force said the fighter plane was sent only after the plane flipped and was not intended to intimidate the pilots.
The transcript published in Belarus is full of jargon and radio and cockpit ellipses, and several parts are transcribed as inaudible. But it also typically depicts 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 controllers in Minsk, for example, the severity of the threat and whether the plane could be patched at Ryanair’s operational headquarters. It is not clear from the story Belarus released whether the plane was able to communicate with Ryanair.
After relaying the bomb threat, air traffic controllers recommended the plane to turn around and land at Minsk National Airport, according to the account.
“For safety reasons, we ask you to land at UMMS,” an international call sign from Minsk airport, Belarusian air traffic control, told the pilots. A pilot recognized this, but asked for an alternative.
A few minutes later, a Ryanair pilot asked ground control to clarify the recommended airport by requesting a different call sign, the one assigned by the International Air Transport Association, or IATA. The controllers responded with Minsk’s IATA code, MSQ.
The pilot asked the controllers to repeat this. A pilot then asked: “Again, this recommendation to divert to Minsk, where did it come from?” according to the transcript. ” Where is he from? Company? Does it come from the departing airport authorities or the arriving airport authorities? “
“This is our recommendation,” replied a Belarusian controller.
“Repeat,” the pilot asked.
“This is our recommendation,” repeated the controller, before asking the pilot twice to give his opinion on a rerouting decision. After asking about the severity of the bomb threat, a pilot responded by saying the plane was declaring an emergency and would turn around for Minsk.
“Our intentions would be to divert us to Minsk airport,” said the pilot.
Belarusian aviation authorities said they attempted to contact Ryanair’s representative office in Lithuania through a phone number provided by the crew, but said they were unable to contact the company.
—Andrew Tangel and Alison Sider contributed to this article.
Write to Benjamin Katz at [email protected] and Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]
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