Fighter jets escort Cathay plane to Vancouver after bomb threat

A CF18 Hornet fighter jet intercepts a Cathay Pacific passenger plane headed for Vancouver on Saturday, May 15, 2010.

VANCOUVER—Passengers on board a Hong Kong flight to Vancouver looking out over clear blue skies Saturday noticed something was wrong about an hour before landing when two fighter jets appeared and began shadowing their plane.

A bomb threat received by the RCMP two hours before the plane’s scheduled arrival led to a dramatic day at Vancouver’s airport with fighter jets launched to track the Cathay Pacific flight.

After the plane landed safely at the Vancouver International Airport, sniffer dogs went through the plane and luggage and found nothing suspicious.

Passengers on board Cathay Pacific CX 838 were kept in the dark about the whole incident.

“I saw fighter planes with us when we were 80 miles away from the airport,” said one passenger speaking to reporters after the 283 passengers and 14 crew members were released Saturday afternoon. “I was scared.” Another passenger said there was no announcement made about why fighter planes were escorting the 747 into the airport. Passengers were not allowed to retrieve their luggage but were told their items would be shipped out at a later date.

RCMP Corporal Sherrdean Turley said the local detachment learned about the threat on the plane shortly before 11 a.m. PST, about two and a half hours before the scheduled arrival of the plane.

The flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver is about 10 hours long.

Sniffer dogs found nothing after the plane landed on the airport tarmac.

“The threat is being taken very seriously,” said Cpl. Turley. “I’d like to assure the travelling public that there is no threat to them at this time.” The plane was towed to a secure area of the airport where investigators continued to search for anything suspicious.

The RCMP informed North American Aerospace Defence Command headquarters about the potential threat and the decision was made to scramble the two CF-18s, one Buffalo and one Cormorant out of Comox.

Major Holly Apostoliuk with NORAD in Winnipeg, the Canadian headquarters, said the fighter jets have the ability to respond with lethal force if required.

Emergency crews were put on standby and the RCMP and other officials were waiting at the tarmac and airport when CX838 arrived around 1:40 p.m. PST.

Vancouver airport spokeswoman Alisa Gloag said passengers were allowed to disembark and RCMP questioned passengers while the plane was towed to a separate area.

The airport remained opened and flights departed and arrived Saturday despite the threat.

“The airport and all the flights continued operations,” said Gloag.

Lieutenant-Commanded Gary Ross with NORAD in Colorado Springs, Colorado said that the two fighter jets returned to their home base in Comox on Vancouver Island after shadowing the plane for about two hours.

The jets did not land on the tarmac and returned to their base once the Cathay plane arrived at the airport without incident.

“The two CF-18 Hornets intercepted Cathay Pacific 838 this afternoon after intercepting a potential threat,” said Ross Saturday.

Ross said for security reasons NORAD is not releasing exactly when and where the fighter jets began shadowing the Cathay plane.

“We don’t like to disclose all of the timing of the events so people can’t put one and one together,” he said.

But he did confirm the jets were launched and were in the air within an hour or so before the scheduled 1:30 p.m. landing. The plane landed on schedule at Vancouver airport.

“We intercept about 200 times a year on average,” said Ross. “We are the last line of defence and often we are called as a precaution.” Ross said that NORAD jets are launched for various reasons including improper flight plans filed by pilots, passenger disturbances and planes unknowingly attempting to land in places that have been closed temporarily for special events.

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