A US-hired military cargo plane that intruded into Indian airspace and was forced to land at Mumbai, took off for Kandahar in Afghanistan on Saturday following government clearance after a 24-hour detention.
The External Affairs Ministry and the IAF in the capital approved the AN-124 aircraft's flight plan designating it as a foreign military cargo aircraft at 1530 hours and it flew out at 2240 hours, IAF spokesperson Wing Commander T K Singha told PTI in New Delhi.
The US military had hired the Russian company Volga Dnepr-owned AN-124 to carry military medical recovery vehicles and medical aid equipment to its troops engaged in anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan from its military base in Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean.
"The AN-124 had obtained Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) clearance with a mandatory Air Operations Routine (AOR) authority to fly as a foreign civilian aircraft, but later switched to US military call sign while entering Pakistani airspace. Hence, the IAF immediately activated its air defence mechanism and forced the plane to land," Singha said.
The Ukrainian Antonov-make world's largest transport aircraft with NATO code name Condor, which had been operating on the same flight plan for the last few days, had goofed up by using a civilian transport aircraft call sign VDA 4466 while in Indian airspace, IAF officials said.
However, it switched to military call sign REACH 813 while entering Pakistani airspace, which attracted the suspicions of the IAF's air defence units, they said.
"Since obtaining military clearance for using Indian airspace by foreign military aircraft is cumbersome, it has to go through Ministry of External Affairs, Intelligence agencies and then IAF. The operator resorted to the short-cut of obtaining a DGCA clearance as a civilian aircraft," an official said.
On Friday night, the unscheduled AN-124, with 18 persons on board, repeated the flight plan and entered the Indian airspace around 1730 hours.
Around 2000 hours, as it was nearing the Pakistani airspace, it changed its call sign. Immediately, the IAF's air defence Movement Liaison Unit in Mumbai activated its standard operating procedures and through Air Traffic Control radio calls forced the aircraft captain, Vladimir Ustelemov, to land it at the Chatrapati Shivaji International airport at 2240 hours.
No IAF fighters were scrambled to escort the aircraft as it clearly followed ATC radio calls to land, Singha said. After Indian authorities carried out a thorough check on the aircraft and its crew members, the US and Russian embassies in New Delhi approached the MEA and obtained fresh AOR authority with a defence clearance for it to fly out, IAF officials said.
"The US has admitted that it was a mistake of the operator from whom they had hired the aircraft not to have obtained a military clearance in the first place from the Indian authorities," they said.