12 July 2002

Nato warship 'wrongly told civilian plane to alter path'

By Paul Kelbie, Scotland Correspondent

An investigation was launched yesterday after the commander of an American Nato warship was reported to aviation authorities for ordering a scheduled passenger flight between islands in the Outer Hebrides to change course.

The 18-seat Jetstream aircraft – operated by the independent charter airline Highland Airways, based at Inverness – was flying from Stornoway, a town on Lewis, to the island of Benbeculaon Tuesday. An emergency warning flashed in the cockpit and the shocked pilot was told he was entering military airspace.

The pilot began to change course, but air traffic controllers who saw the aircraft switch direction on their radar screens intervened to force it back to its normal route.

The airline and air traffic controllers said they had made a formal complaint to the Civil Aviation Authority because the flight had never been in danger of entering a restricted area and should not have been ordered to change course.

A CAA spokesman said: "We have had a report from an airline that a flight from Stornoway to Benbecula was addressed over the radio by a ship, presumably a military ship, that it should leave the area." He said the authority had no record of closed airspace in that area at the time. "There is no indication that there was any firing under way. The airline's view is that it was entitled to be where it was and we are looking into it."

A large air and sea exercise involving British, American and Swedish warships off the west coast of Scotland, which began on 1 July, is drawing to a close.

The incident is the second in the past few days that has led in an official investigation over the same Nato operation.

The Ministry of Defence is already looking into how a British frigate fired a shell into a loch eight miles off target and just one mile from the village of Durness, near Cape Wrath.

The firing range at Cape Wrath is the biggest of its kind in Europe and is a source of concern and anger to many residents, who have to endure military manoeuvres and bombardments every summer.