Was The Government Prepared To Shoot Down A Delta Regional Jet?

Filed Under: Delta, Security/TSA

This past Wednesday afternoon a Delta regional jet, operated by Compass Airlines, was diverted to Tucson. The plane was enroute from San Antonio to Los Angeles, when the flight attendants notified the pilots of a disturbance. This led to two F-16 fighter jets being scrambled to “escort” the plane. Per ABC News:

NORAD confirmed to ABC News that it scrambled two F-16 fighters to intercept the jet, which was carrying 80 people, including passengers and flight crew. The plane’s flight crew notified the captain and copilot of the disturbance, leading to the F-16 fighter escort. The NORAD spokesman did not have details on the disturbance itself but said whatever it was met the criteria to launch the fighters, which monitored the plane until it landed in Tucson. Citing “operational security”, they won’t say where the F-16s launched from.

A source tells ABC News one passenger accused another passenger of having a firearm, but when the aircraft was swept and passengers re-screened, no weapon was found. According to another source with knowledge of the investigation, the passenger reported to have a firearm was detained, but authorities later discovered he did not have a weapon on him. The man had a history of mental illness, the source said.

Twitter user @ryanhealy was live Tweeting the whole situation, including a video of the passenger in question being removed from the plane:

While there aren’t many details officially being released, it seems like the passenger made a “verbal threat to the aircraft.”

That brings me to the part I don’t understand — what’s the point of having two F-16s escort the plane?

As the Twitter user who was on the flight bluntly points out, the only thing they could do is shoot down the plane in case it gets hijacked.

Unless we’ve been lied to all along, the pilots had full control of the aircraft, and nowadays we have reinforced cockpit doors, no? If so, there’s no way the passenger could have gained access to the cockpit. So even if he was able to blow up the plane, does the US government just want to do it on their terms own instead, or…?

It’s not uncommon to see F-16s scrambled in situations like this, but it’s something I’ve never been able to rationalize.

Can anyone make sense of that?

  1. It’s an added measure of security. If, god forbid, the plane actually gets hijacked and diverted to a high profile target, the F-16s can take care of it to save the lives of potentially thousands of others. The security threat must have been deemed high enough to warrant it.

  2. It’s a real-world training opportunity for the fighter pilots and their controllers.

    If the regional jet stopped communicating or diverted from controllers instructions, it may have escalated to the fighters performaning more aggressive maneuvers.

  3. It is mostly so they can tell the unruly passenger to look out the window and understand the seriousness of the situation. It is also so the jets are there if the situation escalates and actually becomes a hijacking. You don’t want them to be an hour away if that happens.

  4. If so, there’s no way the passenger could have gained access to the cockpit.

    On longer flights they do open the door from time to time.

  5. The fighter jets are there to say, “Mr. Hijacker, ultimately you’re NOT in control of the situation. So don’t behave as if you are.”

  6. Security involves managing risk, and theater plays a role in that (just ask TSA) as does readiness.

  7. I was wondering about this issue some time ago and I read somewhere that the main purpose is to report back the plane’s movements (if it is going off course, change of altitude… etc). I do not think that a shoot down order can be taken lightly. In 9/11 the authority to shoot down (which did not occur though) came from the President himself.

  8. @John Not to mention that there is a keypad with a code on some aircraft, which could conceivably be determined, or a pilot could go rogue … there are all sorts of scenarios where the cockpit could be in the hands of a bad guy, sadly.

  9. @A Even if the aircraft was to turn of its transponder which would not make it visible on secondary radars, they would still be visible and tracked on primary radar. I believe the reason F16s are scrambled to intercept the aircraft, are several – though tracking the aircraft might not be one of the more important.

    Visual contact with the cockpit and the added security net if things (god forbid) were to turn to the worse are probably the main reasons. In this industry, the security level is so high, that one rather have this added layer of security 1000 times too many, than one time too little.

  10. You and Gary need to stop using this stupid headline, there’s a myriad of reasons to get actual eyeballs in the vicinity.

  11. @A…you are right. This is primarily about situational awareness. Depending on where/when the fighters launched, they might not even be armed. It is one thing to have a blip on a radar screen that a controller can interpret (with transponder signal or just the primary return), but there is a lot more situational awareness if another pilot actually has eyes on the aircraft and can describe exactly where it is and what it is doing. Fighter aircraft are used for this because the pilots are trained (and the aircraft designed) for air-to-air interception. Would be much less safe to send an FAA pilot in a Gulfstream to do this.

  12. I understand something happened in the UK yesterday which may effect currencies & travel within Europe? Nothing, no….never mind.

    Regarding the F-16’s being scrambled, wasn’t that the same protocol on 9/11/01? I remember fighters being scrambled for golfer P Stewart’s ill-fated flight in 1999. Just asking since nary a single fighter jet was to be found that horrible morning.

  13. I think this entire thing is an overreaction and ridiculous! Again a poor guy with Mental Health issues is not only treated like a criminal hes treated like a terrorist! This is STUPID! You idiots that are scared to fly STAY HOME and stop this… Your scared of people that dont look or sound or act like you and your causing so many headaches for those HUMANS as well as the rest of us.. Again this was not necessary and it cost untold amounts of thousands of dollars, problems for that boy and delays for everyone else.

  14. The US Air National Guard has a lot of F-16s based at Tucson Airport, they run training operations for US pilots and international allies on a daily basis. They probably had the aircraft running maneuvers nearby and decided to use it as a training opportunity. If you’ve ever flown out of Tucson airport you probably saw 3-4 F-16s taking off or landing together while you waited for your flight.

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tucson_Air_National_Guard_Base

  15. @RoloT – If you read the accounts of the P. Stewart crash, the fighter pilot was already flying nearby for unrelated reasons and the intercept still occurred almost an hour and a half after contact with the plane was last made.
    You can read the 9/11 reports for more detail, but basically the NORAD/USAF/FAA wasn’t prepared for a 9/11 type scenario.

  16. Fuss about nothing. Some of these FAs need to contemplate retirement or alternative employment. They make Nurse Ratched look professional and caring.

  17. It’s all about making visual contact with the aircraft, as others have noted above. A fighter pilot in a military aircraft can safely fly close enough to the other aircraft to see into the cockpit (understand who’s in control) and to a limited degree into the cabin. They can also observe small changes in course, altitude, etc, which wouldn’t necessarily be obvious over radar.
    The visual deterrent to the unruly passenger is a helpful secondary benefit.

  18. Thanks. I had the same question mark over my head. Seemed to be a fairly benign situation. ^ Comments make sense.

  19. “Was The Government Prepared To Shoot Down A Delta Regional Jet?”

    My first thought was that finally the government had gotten serious about disciplining the airlines for constantly shrinking legroom and seat width.

  20. Was I the only one thinking that two first class seats just opened up on the flight and how are they going to know who was supposed to be upgraded? 🙂

  21. Ok, after reading the article and the various comments back and forth, I have a question !
    Remember a while back there was a jetliner that “overshot” the airport by about an hour and ten minutes and was over Eau Claire Wisconsin before they noticed their mistake because both the pilot and copilot were fiddling with their computers?? They never responded to the airport tower or the company when they failed to land and no one could reach them. I do not recall any mention of fighter jets sent to escort that plane!!
    I would have thought that would have been one case that called for it!
    Am I mistaken??

  22. Not sure who wrote this headline but it is salacious and the author is an asshole. Let me help you out. No, they were not going to shoot down the plane. Did you get confirmation/proof that was the intent, or did you just make this up to pull in additional readers? The former is journalism, the latter is click bait. Which was it?

  23. These are the people I usually see in DL’s F Cabin…

    Sociopathic airline, sociopathic passengers.

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