The latest incident in the aviation world from the past week comes to you courtesy of the Hellenic Air Force and Delta Air Lines. According to The Aviation Herald and Mirage News, a Delta 767-400 widebody airliner at FL330 (33,000 feet) entered Greek airspace without establishing contact with Greek air traffic control (ATC), resulting in a pair of F-16 Fighting Falcons scrambled to intercept the “ghost” aircraft. The flight, Delta 8957, was chartered by US Transportation Command, and had originated from Frankfurt Hahn Airport in Germany and was headed to Kuwait, possibly carrying US military personnel on a routine transfer/ferry flight.
At about 19:10 local time, on Thursday last week, right on the heels of the loss of Egyptair Flight 804 earlier in the day, Delta 8957 casually flew into Greek-controlled airspace from Albanian airspace without contacting ATC. Uncertain of the aircraft’s intentions, afraid of the possibility of a terrorist attack, and also concerned about a potential repeat of Helios Airways Flight 552, the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority informed the country’s Ministry of Defense, which then forwarded immediate orders to the Hellenic Air Force to scramble fighters to intercept and identify the aircraft.
At around 19:49 local time, the two F-16s reached the Boeing 767 above the island of Santorini, with one aircraft staying on the airliner’s flank and the other next to the cockpit. The lead F-16 reported that both pilots were clearly strapped into their seats and upright, but appeared to be asleep and immobile. In 2005, Helios 552, a Boeing 737-300, was lost in Greece en route to Athens with 121 fatalities – the deadliest air crash in Greek history. The aircraft experienced onboard oxygen starvation, resulting in the incapacitation of the two pilots, one of whom was strapped into his seat and clearly knocked out cold, while the left seat was empty. Fighters were also ordered to intercept Helios 552, but were unable to do anything but watch as the aircraft gradually ran out of fuel and crashed. Delta 8957 seemed to echo Helios 552 at a first glance.
Observant passengers quickly alerted flight attendants to the presence of an F-16 hanging off the aircraft’s wing, the latter of whom were able to wake up the pilots by knocking on the cockpit access door. Delta 8957 subsequently made contact with Greek ATC at 19:55 local, and departed Athens airspace fifteen minutes later. The flight was reported to have safely landed in Kuwait. The aircraft maintained its heading, speed and altitude thanks to its autopilot, which was evidently engaged. Long-haul flights tend to be fairly monotonous, and very little flying is actually done by the pilots themselves; the computers on modern airliners handle most of it under the watchful eyes of the captain and first officer. Regardless, you can expect Delta to perform an investigation and review of the pilots in question.
According to Mirage News, Greece has officially billed Delta Air Lines for the fuel costs involved from the scramble/intercept with the two F-16s, along with convenience charges tallied. Talk about a bizarre week for aviation worldwide…