Swiss Fighters Stay On Ground During Hijack

 - February 18, 2014, 11:13 AM
Swiss Hornets played no part in the hijack drama as an Ethiopian 767 landed at Geneva. The defense ministry is working to secure funds to allow a reinstatement of 24-hour air defense coverage. (Swiss Air Force)

On February 17 the copilot of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 hijacked the aircraft single-handedly and flew to Geneva airport to seek political asylum. Although both Italian and French military aircraft were scrambled to escort the 767, the fighters of the Swiss Air Force remained firmly on the ground. A Swiss air force spokesman confirmed that no interceptors were on alert at the time, as the air force operates to office hours only, or by special notification. However, the air force was keen to point out that it could have generated interceptor sorties given more warning. Moreover, the country has agreements with France and Italy that allow fighters from those countries to enter Swiss airspace in such circumstances, but they are not permitted to fire weapons.

The drama began as the Ethiopian Airlines 767, with 200 passengers, was flying over Sudan, en route from Addis Ababa to Rome via Milan. With the captain in the restroom, the copilot locked the cockpit door. According to passengers, the captain knocked persistently on the door until the copilot announced he would crash the aircraft if he did not stop. Air traffic control received a hijack call, and as the 767 approached Italian airspace it was intercepted by two Eurofighters. As the aircraft headed for Geneva, the fighter escort was handed over to Mirage 2000s of the French air force, which accompanied the airliner to a safe landing. The hijacker exited the aircraft through a cockpit window and was arrested.

Had the Swiss air force maintained a round-the-clock air defense alert, the final stages of the 767’s journey would have been made with Swiss F/A-18 Hornets in attendance from the base at Payerne. Instead, those aircraft remained on the ground, hampered by both budgetary restrictions and noise considerations. The incident occurred a few days after the defense ministry had warned that by 2016 Switzerland could no longer guarantee a round-the-clock readiness. Such a warning came in advance of a referendum, scheduled for May 18, in which the Swiss people will decide whether to purchase a new fighter (Saab Gripen E) or not.