A potentially panic situation occurred on Friday when Male air traffic control (ATC) reported that there was uncertainty pertaining to the safety of the Indian Air Force aircraft flying Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to Mauritius from Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday evening after it lost radio contact with the VVIP plane for 14 minutes. The aircraft, however, landed safely later in the day.
“Indian Air Force Flight IFC31 carrying Ms. Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs, departed from Thiruvananthapuram at 1408 IST for Mauritius. Aircraft changed over from Indian airspace to Male ATC which then established contact with the aircraft at 1644 IST. However, IFC31 could not contact Mauritius ATC after entering Mauritius airspace. Mauritius ATC then activated INCERFA (the uncertainty phase). Later at 1658 IST, IFC 31 came in contact with Mauritius ATC and landed,” Airports Authority of India, the parent organisation of Indian air traffic management, said in a statement.
Typically, as per guidelines laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organization, there are three emergency phases when an aircraft loses radio contact with ATC — the uncertainty phase (identified by the code word INCERFA), the alert phase (identified by the code word ALERFA) and the distress phase (identified by the code word DETRESFA). These phases are initiated depending on the duration for which an aircraft has been out of contact.
The INCERFA phase is initiated when a flight is out of contact for 10 minutes. However, when it is in oceanic airspace, the ATC waits for up to 30 minutes to declare the safety of the aircraft and its occupants uncertain. The ATC at Male initiated the INCERFA after 12 minutes of not being able to establish contact with the aircraft carrying Swaraj. “Mauritius ATC activated INCERFA (uncertainty phase) without allowing the stipulated time period of 30 minutes to lapse from the time when aircraft last contacted ATC. This was perhaps done because the flight was carrying (a) VIP,” the AAI statement said.
Officials pointed out that it isn’t highly abnormal for aircraft flying over large water bodies to lose contact with ATC for short durations given the lack of radar coverage in certain sections but the Mauritius ATC would have reacted as there was a VVIP on board.