Sixty hours after they were first reported as “parachutes” by a pilot, causing a security scare, the Mumbai Police arrested two men, clearing the mystery surrounding the unidentified objects afloat in the airspace over Mumbai airport.
Investigations have found that they were helium balloons that were promotional merchandise to mark a cricket tournament organised by diamond trading firm, Dharmanandan Diamonds Private Limited. The Surat-based firm was last in news after it won in auction the personalised pinstriped suit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India.
Soon after the arrests Tuesday, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) shot off a letter to the Mumbai International Airport Private Limited to pursue a criminal case against the organisers. Officials said the aviation watchdog planned to summon the organisers for further investigation.
“Had the 3-4 feet large advertising balloons gone inside the engine, when the aircraft was at ‘approach level’ when the power of the engine is high, it would have caused major complications. Parachutes never go up like that. These balloons were launched and that is why it went up like that. We want to find out what kept them going up in that manner and plan to summon the organisers, as what they did was not allowed,” said an official.
Till Monday evening, several stakeholders to Mumbai’s airspace were yet to identify the ‘flying objects’, with some suspecting them to be weather balloons, while at least one probe was on to find out if they were manned.
On Tuesday, the Airport police arrested event organisers Kunal Shah and Nilesh Shrimankar under sections 188 (for disobedience to order promulgated by public servant) and 336 (act endangering life or personal safety of others) of the Indian Penal Code.
The company had Saturday organised a private cricket tournament in Kalina, in proximity to the Mumbai airport.
Five public sector banks, including State Bank of India, Union Bank of India and Bank of Baroda, too had participated in the event. The two were subsequently released on bail Tuesday afternoon.
Around 5.30 pm Saturday, the police said, the organisers sent up five balloons for advertising its brand marking the commencement of a night match that started around 6 pm. Around 5.58 pm, the air side staff (Apron Control) observed five ‘parachutes’ moving towards northeast direction (Powai-Kandivali) and informed the Air Traffic Control. The ATC, in turn, advised a Jet Airways flight 9W323 to abort take-off and another Jet Airways flight 9W-326 to perform a ‘go-around’. All controls were put into action immediately. Multiple agencies, including MIAL and ATC, submitted the incident report to the DGCA Sunday, with no concrete leads. The police, meanwhile, claimed that they dispatched two teams to look for any event, or wedding, organised around the airport premises where balloons could have been released.
Hitesh Patel, managing director of the firm, said that after reading media reports on spotting of ‘parachutes’, he rang up his office in Mumbai Monday. He claimed that he asked the office to share with police pictures of the balloons released by them on Saturday. The company’s representative then visited the local police station with the pictures. After corroborating the sequence of events, the police slapped a case against the organisers, said Patel.
“Since the news item mentioned suspicious objects being spotted on Saturday evening, which coincided with our event, I suspected it could be the helium balloons released by us and therefore asked my staff to share the pictures with the police,” Patel told The Indian Express. “Every year, we organise a friendly cricket match in Surat but this year the event organisers asked us to hold it in Mumbai and we obliged,” he added.
The Mumbai police, however, have a slightly different narrative. They claimed that one of the raiding teams learnt about a cricket tournament and after going through the pictures shared by the organisers concluded that the ‘parachutes’ were actually helium balloons. “The picture shared by airport officials clearly shows that the unidentified objects were balloons. One of the teams zeroed in on the cricket tournament and when we juxtaposed the two pictures we concluded they were the same,” said DCP Virendra Mishra. He added, “They had released 16 sets of helium balloons and five were spotted over the airport space,” he added.
The police plan to issue a prohibitory order under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) in the no-flying zone.
”Airport is a no-flying zone but after the incident we plan to issue a prohibitory order banning parachutes, gliders, Chinese lanterns and drones in the area,” Mishra said.
Though multiple agencies were on the job, the Anti-Terrorism Squad was not engaged to probe the incident. “Since we were sure from the beginning that it was not a security threat, we did not take any suo motu cognisance; neither were we contacted by any of the agencies to carry out a probe,” a senior ATS officer said.