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Thursday, 8 December 2011

Earth shaking ...

Yesterday there was a tremendous double bang over a large area of the Rhinelands. Given the drama in Koblenz on Sunday, most people here were understandably very edgy. The ground shook, windows rattled and the horses in the paddock behind the Monk and Mausi's home were startled enough to get very nervous and fidgety from some time afterward. Police, Fire and news switchboards were jammed by people calling to know what had happened.

To give some idea of how big the bangs were, it was heard in Köln and in Mainz and everywhere in between - a distance of nearly 200 kilometers. Here in the Taunus it felt like a small earthquake. So what was it?

It was caused by a pair of Belgian F-16s breaking the sound barrier over Rüdesheim, about 15 km from where we live. They were flying at 11,000 metres, roughly 34,000 feet in pursuit of an Oman Air airliner that had broken radio contact in Belgian airspace. Under NATO rules this means the immediate launch of fighters to find the aircraft, make contact, and find out what it is up to. As the incident began in Belgium, it was their aircraft launched to intercept.

It is reported today that the flight was intercepted somewhere over Frankfurt/Darmstadt, the fighter pilots making 'visual contact' with the airliners Captain and then re-establishing radio contact. We are not told what the passengers thought when they looked out of the windows and saw two fully armed F-16's on the wingtips ... I suspect the cleaning crews at their destination may have had to work overtime.

Since the end of the Cold War, the sound of 'sonic booms' has become very rare over Europe, so this event was a sharp reminder of what could happen all to easily. It is reassuring to know that the NATO alert system works and that nothing like this goes unnoticed. There are, apparently, around 30 cases a year where airliners lose radio contact with air traffic control. It is usually due to a 'pilot error' such as setting the wrong frequency or to weather which affects the transmission and reception of VHF and UHF radio signals.

The double bang yesterday was a sharp reminder of the vigilance needed in these uncertain times ...

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