Sunday, September 18, 2005

Missile fired at US commercial jet?

There are still no details available as yet but there were rumors flying around yesterday about an alleged SAM attack on an America West flight headed into New York. I first saw the notice over at LGF with some additional follow-up from Michelle Malkin. Michelle, being a real columnist as well as a blogger, has access to sources the rest of us can't lay a glove on so she started making some calls. America West said that there was an incident and that the captain of the flight reported it. From Michelle's blog:

::::::::I just got off the phone with Phil Gee, associate manager of media relations at America West, who promptly returned my late evening call. Here's what he told me:

On Sept. 15 (Thursday), America West Flight 17 took off from JFK Airport at 6:05pm EDT [Update: The actual time of departure was 6:49 pm. -MM]. The captain "took the initiative," says Gee, and reported an "irregularity" to air traffic control as the plane was ascending. The plane continued to Phoenix and landed safely at 8:55pm MST. FBI and other authorities met and interviewed all of the crew and passengers on the plane. The investigation is continuing.

Gee would not say whether the pilot or other crew or passengers reported witnessing a missile firing.

"Nothing is confirmed," Gee said.

In an update that follows, she writes more:

::::::::Update: A government aviation official who asked me not to reveal her name says the "missile siting was [a] false alarm:"

"The sighting was reported near Colt's Neck, NJ, which is a major route south out of NY. FAA set up a small temporary flight restriction around the area while checking radar files. Turned out to be nothing more than birds, and [a] big game of 'telephone.'"

I respect Michelle Malkin a great deal, though we have our significant differences of opinion. However, I have to say that in this case I can't simply accept this explanation. First of all, it's an anonymous source to all of the rest of us. Michelle knows the government official, of course, but the rest of us don't. I can lend this explanation a bit of credit based solely on the fact that Michelle's the one who's reporting it, but I'm afraid that's not going to be enough. (Michelle, hopefully, understands that.)

Second, I worked in the commercial aviation field for a few years and the FAA simply does not move investigations that fast. Unless someone had the incident on video for the FAA to rewind and review, they've got to get eyewitness reports, pull radar logs, check to see who else might have been in visual range, coordinate with our military to see if this might have been a training accident, etc., etc., etc. To have an incident filed on Thursday and be able to tell by Sunday morning that what was seen was a flock of birds that most assuredly isn't sitting there to be investigated seems just a bit too pat an answer to me.

Third: I mean, come on, what did you expect them to say? Assume it had been a missle. How big a hit would the already ailing passenger air services have taken from that bit of news; that there's terrorists in Jersey with shoulder-fired SAMs taking potshots at passenger planes as they pass by and neither the FAA nor DHS have any idea who, where, or when they'll pop up again?

I'm not saying anyone's lying, here, or that we should be grounding aircraft along that corridor. I'm saying that we need lots more information before we hit the alert button or dismiss this as a weather ballon. (Or birds. Whatever.)