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“Over oceanic airspace, air traffic control (ATC) globally waits for 30 minutes to declare a plane missing if it does not contact it on entering its airspace of flight information region. In this case, the Mauritius authorities pressed the alarm button 12 minutes after the flight IFC-31 entered its airspace and contact could not be established with the plane,” said a senior official of Airports Authority India (AAI), the parent organisation for ATC here.
On its part, the external affairs ministry denied knowledge of the scare.
Mauritius then declared “INCERFA” alarm, which in aviation parlance means an uncertainty phase wherein it is not known if the aircraft and its occupants are safe. They contacted the Chennai air traffic control, which was the last flight information region (FIR, a specified region of airspace in which a flight information service is provided and it is the largest regular division of airspace globally) to be in touch with the Embraer ERJ135 named “Meghdoot”.
The plane had taken off from Trivandrum at 4 pm. “The local ATC passed it on to Chennai FIR which later passed it on to Mauritius FIR. (A plane passes through several FIRs and remains in touch with the ATC of that FIR). Once the alarm was sounded, everyone gets vigilant for the plane for which it has been sounded. The Indian ATC may also have tried to contact the plane on VHF,” said the AAI official.
The pilots of the Embraer, for which the alarm was sounded at 4.44 pm, contacted Mauritius ATC at 4.58 pm, after which everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The Embraer does not have a long range and Sushma, who is flying it from India to South Africa to attend a BRICS and India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) ministerial meetings, had to take three refuelling or technical stops — Delhi-Trivandrum-Mauritius-South Africa.
A senior ATC official said communication over oceanic area is often problematic due to erratic VHF communication. “Sometimes pilots are unable or forget to contact the Mauritius area. That oceanic area has no radar coverage and everything depends on VHF/HF communication. Such places where VHF coverage is not good are known as dark zones,” said the official.
The 14-minute long uncertainty phase (INCERFA) is first of the three emergency phases under International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Chicago Convention. The second is “alert phase” (ALERFA) in which apprehension exists as to the safety of an aircraft and its occupants. The third is “distress phase” (DETRESFA) wherein there is a reasonable certainty that an aircraft and its occupants are threatened by grave and imminent danger and require immediate assistance.
Luckily, the 14-minute-long scare involving Swaraj’s VVIP plane ended with the first stage itself.
“Air Traffic Services (ATS) or the responsible Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC), as appropriate, will make the Emergency Phase declaration within the timeframe specified for the trigger event. As an example, loss of radio contact with an aircraft under ATS control could result in declaration of the Uncertainty Phase within 10 minutes, the Alert Phase within 20 minutes and the Distress Phase within 30 minutes of the event whereas loss of radio contact with an aircraft not under ATS control might not trigger the Uncertainty Phase declaration until 30 minutes had lapsed with Phase upgrade occurring at 30 minute intervals,” said aviation website SKYbrary.
Swaraj used the brief stopover in Mauritius to meet the dignitaries there. The external affairs ministry said in a series of tweets on Saturday evening: “On her way to South Africa during transit halt in Mauritius, EAM @SushmaSwaraj was warmly received by Foreign Minister of Mauritius, Seetanah Lutchmeenaraidoo… Connecting with our maritime neighbour! EAM @SushmaSwaraj called on the Prime Minister of Mauritius Pravind Kumar Jugnauth. Enhancing our bilateral relationship was the focus of the meeting.”
After these meetings, Swaraj left for South Africa. On June 6, she will visit the Phoenix settlement where Mahatma Gandhi had developed his philosophy of non-violence. On June 7, she and 300 other dignitaries will undertake a symbolic train ride from Pentrich station to Pietermaritzburg station to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s eviction from the train on that day in 1893.
“The year 2018 is an important year for India-South Africa relations as it marks 25 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations, the 125th anniversary of the Pietermaritzburg railway station incident and the 100th birth centenary of South African iconic leader, Nelson Mandela,” the Ministry of External Affairs said.