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Jet Airways Boeing 777-300ER VT-JEG performing flight 9W117 from London approaches Mumbai airport
Jet Airways Boeing 777-300ER VT-JEG performing flight 9W117 from London approaches Mumbai airport.

Forgetful Jet Airways pilots lose contact with European ATC, Indian media melodrama

March 13, 2014, the entire aviation world was generally concerned due the recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 a mere five days earlier. In this mix, add two very absent minded pilots of Jet Airways who were flying the airline’s flagship, the Boeing 777-300ER, registration VT-JEG, performing flight 9W 117 from London Heathrow to the airline’s main hub in Mumbai, India.

Having taken off from London around 9pm (21:05 UTC), at FL330 (33,000ft above main sea level) when flying over the Netherlands, approaching Germany near Muenster, the pilots removed their headsets, a common practice on long duration flights. Except, in this case, the two pilots forgot to turn up the volume on their cockpit speaker system. Consequently they did not hear the ATC trying to contact them for about 25 minutes.

Flight path Jet Airways 9W 117 March 13, 2014. Courtesy www.FlightAware.com
Flight path Jet Airways 9W 117 March 13, 2014. Courtesy www.FlightAware.com

At 11:01pm local time (22:01 UTC), the air traffic control centre controlling the airspace, the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC), a part of EUROCONTROL (European Organization for the safety of air navigation) reported a “loss comm” (loss of communication) situation to the German ATC organisation, the DFS. At 11:05pm local time (22:05 UTC) the DFS reported this “loss comm” to the German air force, the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe did not scramble any aircraft to intercept the Jet Airways Boeing because of there was a positive radar contact and flight was following its planned flight track and remaining within ATC clearance. The Polish Air Force was put on alert. We have requested comment from the Bundeswehr, but are yet to receive a reply.

As per Indian media reports, the MUAC, informed Jet Airways operations control, which sent an alert message to the plane’s cockpit via the ACARS data-link system (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) fitted on board the Boeing aircraft. The alerted pilots established contact with MUAC at 11:23pm local (22:23 UTC). The flight continued without incident and landed at Mumbai.

Confusion over “incident”

There is confusion on this “incident” and its aftermath. One has to smile at the bureaucratic run-around. Media reports and Jet Airways statements indicate the two pilots were removed from flying duties for two weeks, and a investigation report has been sent to the German ATC organisation, the DFS.

A spokesperson for Jet Airways said “

The Jet Airways flight 9W 117 was between London and Mumbai where communication was lost over German airspace as the crew overlooked increasing the speaker volume after removing the headphones.

This was investigated by the Regulator and the pilots were off flying for two weeks. Based on the investigation report, Jet Airways has ensured strict disciplinary action towards the concerned pilots. The report has been sent to the German authorities for closure.

At Jet Airways, we endeavor to maintain the highest standards of safety for our guests, at all times.

When we contacted the DFS, a spokesperson said

“DFS was not involved. And DFS did not receive the report you are mentioning or any such report.”

The DFS referred us to MUAC indicating

the incident happened in the Upper Airspace over the Northern part of Germany. This airspace is controlled by the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC) by EUROCONTROL (European Organization for the safety of air navigation). This control centre provides air traffic control services for the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern Germany.

When we contacted MUAC, a spokesperson said

We have checked our records and it appears that no incident has been recorded in our airspace with regard to this specific flight.

Sources also indicate, the Bundesstelle für Flugunfalluntersuchung or BFU, (German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation) had not received any notice of this “incident” till noon local time April 10, 2014.

The German Air Force (GAF), the Luftwaffe, public affairs office spokesperson said

1.) The GAF did not scrambled any aircraft to intercept.
2.) The GAF did not received any reports from Jet Airways.
3.) The GAF has controlled the situation very well and masterfully.

So if the DFS, MUAC, or BFU did not report this incident to the DGCA, to whom in Germany did Jet Airways send the report to? We asked the airline and a spokesperson confirmed the investigations report was sent by e-mail to Germany with a copy to the DGCA; but to who in Germany? the spokesperson is still trying to find out.

Indian media melodrama

As usual Indian media went gaga and right over the top with the melodrama. The Indian Express reporting Jet flight ‘vanished’ for 30 mins over Germany, Rediff.com reports Pilots of Jet flight that vanished for 30 minutes grounded, even the normally sober The Hindu Business Line reports Lack of response from Jet Airways flight causes panic, pilots taken off roster , for theatrics one has to always tip the hat to The Times of India who ran not one, but two headlines “Pilots unplug headsets, flight vanishes from German radar” and “Jet pilots go ‘missing’, give Germans MH 370 scare”. Personally we were shocked to see The Business Standard running the story with the headline Lack of response from Jet flight caused panic, till we noticed they were quoting the private wire service Press Trust of India.

Panic? when the ATC organisations have not even treated this as an incident? Vanishes? when the plane was on radar the entire time? Paraphrasing Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor of CNN-IBN, it is not important to be first, but crucial to be right.

Accuracy in reporting builds credibility, especially in the aviation world. We at Bangalore Aviation accumulated all the date and responses from the various agencies and source only past midnight, and hence our report this morning. It is unfortunate, when it comes to aviation, for some unknown reason, Indian newspapers don’t seem to realise the need for accuracy and it is truly disheartening, since that has made Indian airline spokespersons mortally afraid of speaking to any Indian media for fear of being misquoted in the mindless rush for sensationalism driven ratings which further perpetuates the speculative reporting.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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