Orders to intercept an IcelandAir Boeing 737 - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Orders to intercept an IcelandAir Boeing 737

This page was written on 24 July 2010.

This morning, 24 July 2010, I have just seen on BBC Breakfast TV's Press Preview that The Sun newspaper is reporting a story about the RAF practising shooting down an aircraft suspected of terrorist activities. It reminded me of a worrying order I was given 39 years ago when I was captain of a 214 Squadron Victor tanker operating over the North Sea on 20 October 1971 on a routine maritime reconnaissance sortie.

Above: My pic off the TV of The Sun's front page of 24 July 2010
As the clip from my official flying Log Book shows (below), my crew was diverted from a normal training task to fly north immediately to escort an Icelandair B737 that had declared an emergency because it was thought to have a bomb on board. That message certainly grabbed the attention of my crew. I was still the most junior captain on the Squadron so I thought the RAF must consider me and my crew expendable. (Chambers Dictionary: expendable, adjective. 1: that may be given up or sacrificed for some purpose or cause. 2: not valuable enough to be worth preserving.)

Above: Clip from my flying log book for October 1971
We were ordered to transfer to a discrete frequency to contact an RAF Air Defence station. Older readers will remember that in the 1970s the North Sea was bristling with Soviet “trawlers” whose crews spent their time monitoring NATO radio traffic, so air-to-ground communications were always kept brief and to the point. The Air Defence Controller told us that our “target” was about 60 nautical miles to the north east of our position and at the same height (were we at 31,000 feet). In fact, it later transpired that the Icelandair was much further away than that. I asked what our instructions were. Our Victor tanker, carrying about 60,000lbs weight of aviation fuel at the time, and being totally devoid of any armaments, was not an ideal aircraft for dealing with aerial bombs on another aircraft, let along a passenger aircraft!! We were to told that we would be vectored into a position where we could shadow the B737 and "escort it to the nearest suitable airfield if necessary - probably Prestwick". The "if necessary" part of our instructions was not very comforting. I wondered idly whether, if the worst came to the worst, I would be instructed to ram the aircraft and should I order the other four members of my crew to abandon our aircraft before I did my lone duty!

Fortunately, before we reached the Icelandair, or even had it in visual contact, we were told that the “situation” had been resolved and that we could resume our original task. The Controller would not tell us over the radio how the situation had been resolved. We learned later that the telephone call which caused the Captain of the Icelandair to declare an emergency was a hoax, and we, in a Victor Tanker, had been sent to deal with the situation because the Defence Controller thought we were a Lightning interceptor from RAF Leuchars.

I trust the UK Air Defence organisation is better prepared now for such an eventuality than it was 39 years ago.

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