The case of the mysterious small aircraft that violated Hungarian airspace

June 13. 2022. – 10:35 AM



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We spoke with retired pilot and accident examiner György Háy regarding the Lithuanian airplane which flew across Hungarian airspace unauthorised last week. He said that there is not much that can be done with an airplane in such a case. At the most – if it is acting dangerously – it can be shot down.

A Lithuanian small aircraft flew across the airspace of seven countries, including Hungary without authorisation last Wednesday. The aircraft had previously been registered under the name of Lithuanian retired captain Bronius Zaronskis. Hungarian, Romanian and American fighter jets were alerted in the case, but neither was able to contact the passengers of the small aircraft. All they could do was to follow the low-flying mysterious plane.

Why didn’t they force the small plane to land?

According to György Háy, it's not like in the movies, where the fighter flies over and forces the irregularly flying plane to land even if it doesn't want to do so. Protocol dictates that in such cases air traffic control should be the first to contact the pilot and tell them that they are flying unauthorised and should land. If there is no answer, there is a special emergency frequency where they can also send a message. (They tried this with the Lithuanian plane, but there was no response from the cockpit.)

The next option is to use so-called visual signals. It is at this point that the air force fighter jets step in. One of the fighter jets flies to the left of the unauthorised aircraft (in bigger planes, the captain is sitting on the left), and rocks its wings – this is a sign that it is trying to contact the plane, as well as an invitation to be followed. It may even release its landing gear to signal that the airplane being followed should land. This is called “intercepting”. At such times, the pilot becomes aware that there is also another plane behind them, ready to shoot.

However, the Lithuanian lieutenant – if indeed he was the one piloting the aircraft – knew exactly how far he can go. It was clear that he also knew that in this cultural area a plane is not going to get shot for flying illegally. There is essentially nothing the fighter jets can do in such a case. If they don’t want an international scandal over shooting down a civilian plane, all they can do is to follow the plane. But even following is not easy, given that it is quite difficult for large fighter jets to fly at the speed of a smaller aircraft. This is most likely what they did on Wednesday as they waited for the plane to land – which did happen eventually.

Why didn’t they force it to stay put once it landed?

The small Lithuanian plane landed at the airport in Hajdúszoboszló, near Debrecen early Wednesday afternoon. The two male passengers got off, threatened the airport’s caretaker, and quickly filled the plane’s tank. By the time the police arrived, they had taken off and fled.

In György Háy’s opinion, it is likely that more things happened at the small airport than what was reported by the press. On the one hand, given that they filled up the tank and left as quickly as they did, it is possible that their landing was pre-organized to some extent. If this were not the case, then the airplane’s passengers must have produced a severe, emphatic threat, most likely with a weapon. This is what likely stopped the airport workers from driving a car in the path of the departing plane on the runway – which is something they could have otherwise very easily done.

“We still don’t know what the point of this whole thing was, as the pilot could have easily flown legally as well. It might be that they were carrying something”

- György Háy said, adding that he suspects that there won’t be much more discovered about the case after this. When asked if this means that we can count on something similar happening at any time, and whether an unknown plane – even one loaded with explosives for example – might fly into Hungarian airspace, the expert said that in such cases something must be done to protect the reputation of the authorities.

Háy said that at this point, the ball is in the Bulgarians’ court, as according to information from the Balkan country, that is where the plane was found, and it is where the passengers disembarked. There may be lots of trace evidence on the aircraft itself, and according to local reports, there was a functioning camera aboard. If this is true, the recordings may help the authorities find out exactly what happened. The expert added that it is not common practice to have a camera record the events on the airplane. He said that it is used in case of more interesting flights, or if someone would like to use the recording to prove something.

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The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.