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Pilot’s mayday call amid airport bomb threat

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Passengers on Sunday evening's British Airways flight to London Heathrow were evacuated over a bomb threat (File photograph)

The pilot of the British Airways flight at the centre of a bomb threat on Sunday evening issued a mayday call and said he would have to order an emergency evacuation of passengers after waiting 40 minutes for disembarkation apparatus to arrive.

The Royal Gazette heard two exchanges recorded between air traffic control at LF Wade International Airport and the pilot of BA flight 158 through the online aviation audio platform LiveATC.net

LiveATC.net provides live and recorded air traffic control radio data for almost all airports globally.

Bomb threats have targeted other Overseas Territories in the past few days including the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman and Anguilla, according to regional media.

Skyport, which manages LF Wade International Airport, said: "We are aware that this threat is part of a wider effort targeted at multiple airports and we are working closely with international aviation security authorities accordingly."

At about 9pm on Sunday, the airport received a bomb threat via e-mail threatening the BA flight to London Heathrow.

The threat prompted an evacuation of the terminal, with the plane sent to a remote site for safety.

Skyport told The Royal Gazette that the flight had already left the gate and was taxiing for departure when the threat came in.

On the recording, the pilot stated that 40 minutes had elapsed “since you give us a bomb threat”, adding: “You really should have fire engines surrounding the aircraft.”

The mayday call is reserved for the most severe emergencies.

The pilot said if he had to wait much longer, he would have to employ a “rapid exit” of passengers.

Bermuda ACT responded that the fire department’s protocol was to “stay as far away from the aircraft as possible until it is cleared by the police bomb crew”.

The pilot was told that if he ordered a rapid exit, the fire department would be on standby to escort passengers away.

The pilot advised ATC that he would deploy the slides to evacuate passengers for assembly under the wing of a nearby aircraft. He also requested ambulances.

Bermuda ATC then advised that the steps were now approaching via a taxiway, and the pilot gave instructions on where to position them.

There were 197 people on board, according to the recording, as well as 50 tonnes of aviation fuel.

Skyport said it took time for groundstaff to bring two sets of stairs across the airfield to the aircraft’s remote parking location.

Steps were sent from the north side of the airfield.

“Once clearance was given, the two sets of stairs were positioned, and the deplanement process, which lasted approximately ten minutes, commenced.”

A spokeswoman said protocols were followed in getting passengers off and at least 150 meters from the aircraft.

She said the decision on where to send passengers evacuated in an emergency came from the pilot in command and the head of emergency services.

“Those in command would weigh several factors when making that final determination.”

She said the Bermuda Police Service conducted a sweep of the vacated aircraft — and that the island had been prepared.

“International airports like LF Wade are mandated to conduct exercises covering multiple different scenarios annually which are designed to assess overall preparedness and to continuously identify areas for improvement.”

Skyport would give “whatever assistance is required” for a police investigation, she added.

The Royal Virgin Islands Police Force said in a press release yesterday that it was collaborating with Bermuda, and Turks & Caicos, to identify the offenders behind the threats.

Georgina Vestbirk, a passenger on board the flight, said she heard that the airline had initiated the mayday because passengers were not being evacuated quickly enough.

The former Bermuda resident was returning to London after visiting friends.

Ms Vestbirk said: “We were taxied down the runway and we sat there for a while. At about 9.30pm, the pilot said we have a problem, we are going to try to fix it.

“We sat there for another 20 minutes and then suddenly the pilot came on. He was speaking in a very different voice saying, ‘This is an important message; you need to leave the plane now, you can’t take any possessions’. He was speaking in a very authoritative voice.”

She said there was “not a panic”, but uncertainty. “We got off the plane maybe faster than normal and we were herded across the runway.”

She said it was just after 10pm once they were off, with about 20 emergency vehicles gathered and police cars nearby. Passengers waited about ten minutes.

“The pilot came on a tannoy and said there has been a credible bomb threat to the airport and the plane. He was speaking from one of the emergency vehicles.

“I didn’t see it, but someone said someone had a panic attack and had to be attended to. Generally, everyone was more bemused.

“There were lots of the SailGP people on the fight. Sir Russell Coutts [a world champion New Zealand yachtsman] was on the flight and the British and Australian skippers, and lots of crew.

“About 30 minutes later the head of the cabin crew came on the tannoy and said ‘We are bringing some buses to get you to the terminal’. First the terminal had to be checked and the buses so there was more standing around after that.”

Ms Vestbirk said she arrived at the terminal at about 12.15am.

After 1am, passengers were told the flight would be delayed 24 hours.

“There was a big groan from everyone,” Ms Vestbirk recalled.

They were told they could leave if they wished, but that hand luggage would take two hours to retrieve.

When Ms Vestbirk returned after sunrise for her luggage, having stayed at a friend’s house, fellow passengers said that others were at the airport until 4am and then taken to The Reefs Resort & Club in Southampton.

BA e-mailed passengers to tell them they were entitled to claim reasonable costs, adding: “Out of an abundance of caution following a security alert, we followed our standard procedures to disembark the aircraft.”

Lester Nelson, the chief executive at the Bermuda Airport Authority, said: “Currently the BAA is not involved in any police investigation into the airport security incident on May 5 involving BA.

“Whilst the BAA provides air traffic control services at the LF Wade International Airport, it is the aerodrome operator, Bermuda Skyport Corporation Limited, who coordinates the emergency response to any airport incidents.”

Ms Vestbirk said she had been talking with some of SailGP’s tech team and heard there were some sailors trying to reach regattas and sailing events.

SailGP spokeswoman said: “While it was an alarming situation, SailGP was grateful for the professional way it was handled by the airport and plane staff.

“The main thing is that all passengers were safe and our teams will be able to depart the island today after a fantastic Apex Group Bermuda Sail Grand Prix this weekend.”

Sunday’s cancelled flight was rescheduled to leave last night.

The Gazette approached the Ministry of National Security for comment, but did not receive a response by press time.

Recent bomb threats in other Overseas Territories

The bomb threat in Bermuda coincides with bomb threats made in the British Virgin Islands, the Turks & Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands, Tortola and Anguilla in recent days.

On May 3, TC Weekly News reported on “a series of bomb threats” at the JAGS McCartney and Howard Hamilton International Airports over the previous week which is under investigation by the Royal Turks & Caicos Islands Police Force, and its regional and international partners.

The first threat was issued on April 26, at the JAGS McCartney Airport in Grand Turk, causing an immediate shutdown by the Airports Authority. Two hours later, the all-clear was given by the police and the airport resumed operations.

However, the next day at 5.18pm, a second threat was made to the Grand Turk Airport. It was closed, inspected and reopened.

On April 28, both international airports, the Grand Turk and Providenciales airports, received threats causing disruptions.

On Sunday, Virgin Islands News Online reported that Terrance B Lettsome International Airport was temporarily closed owing to a bomb threat that day at 4.52pm. It said it received an e-mail purporting to be from a “Vika Melin” with the subject “Terrance B Lettsome International Airport will be bombed today”.

The BVI Airport Authority and National Security Council took action and closed the airport down. After a police sweep it was reopened at 7.30pm the same evening.

Virgin Island News Online is reporting that its news centre can confirm similar threats were made to airports in Anguilla and the Cayman Islands, and said “it appears as though the British Overseas Territories have been the target of the persons behind the e-mails”.

The Cayman Marl Road reported there were further threats made in Tortola and Anguilla on Sunday and Monday.

Loop reported yesterday that Anguilla had been given the all clear after a bomb threat was made yesterday.

BA to Bermuda Air Traffic Control

The Royal Gazette was able to listen to the 36-minute communications exchange recorded between Air Traffic Control at LF Wade International Airport and the pilot of British Airways flight 158 through the online aviation audio platform LiveATC.net

Seven minutes in, the pilot told ATC he was ready for departure. ATC then issued “cleared for take-off” clearance.

8.10: ATC abruptly cancelled take-off clearance and informed the pilot that the airport received a bomb threat. Pilot asked whether the aircraft needed to exit the runway. Pilot told to hold position by ATC on the runway.

9.42: Pilot requested an update. ATC said the airport received a bomb threat and that she was awaiting advice from the airport duty officer.

14 minutes: Pilot suggested the aircraft needs to urgently leave the runway. The ATC said there was a Hercules C17 aircraft on the apron which they were trying to relocate to make way for the British Airways aircraft.

15.37: Pilot seemed worried and suggested he needed to clear the passengers off the aircraft. ATC said she was contacting the airport duty officer on the issue.

18.20: ATC issued taxi instructions for the aircraft to taxi along the runway and exit to the designated Apron which was deemed the isolated area. ATC said buses being arranged. Pilot asked for steps, ATC replied “working on it”. Pilot said “you need to be quick with this.”

21 minutes: The pilot asked for update on apron ground marshals to guide the aircraft.

22 minutes: The aircraft arrived at the Apron (deemed the isolation area). Pilot requested update on the steps. ATC said they are working on it.

27 minutes: Pilot requested an update, asking for “full emergency services” and fire service assistance. ATC said all systems are being put in place.

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Published May 07, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated May 07, 2024 at 7:45 am)

Pilot’s mayday call amid airport bomb threat

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