Page last updated at 01:07 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 02:07 UK

RAF fighter jets scrambled amid terror plot fears

By Jonathan Beale
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Typhoon scrambled. Picture supplied by the Ministry of Defence
Fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a United Airlines flight

RAF Typhoon fighter jets have been scrambled twice this month amid fears of possible terror threats in UK airspace, the BBC has learned.

One week ago - on 22 March - the RAF was alerted to a conversation overheard on the airwaves, believed to have come from a plane travelling through UK airspace.

It included the words "ransom" and "hostage".

Soon afterward a Delta Airlines plane - on its way from the US to Frankfurt - made what is described as an "unusual request" to descend just as it was flying south of Reading.

Within minutes, two Typhoon fighter jets were scrambled from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

The fighters circled over Kent as the civilian flight, which had raised concerns, cleared UK airspace. It was, thankfully, a false alarm.

It is the latest incident to trigger counter-terrorism measures - first introduced after the attacks on 11 September 2001.

Difficult decision

On average the alarm is raised every month - perhaps no surprise given that there are three million flights through UK airspace every year.

Whenever an alert is issued, Downing Street is immediately informed.

One of a small group of senior ministers is kept abreast of developments.

In this case, he or she would have been woken up in the middle of the night.

Ultimately the minister would make the difficult decision to intervene or, if all else fails, to shoot an aircraft down.

A Russian TU-160 Blackjack aircraft, above, escorted by a Tornado F3, says MoD, picture supplier
Tornado F3 fighters intercepted a Russian Blackjack bomber

So far it has not come to that, but the procedures are in place.

Typhoon jets were also launched from RAF Coningsby on 2 March, in another incident which has already been reported.

They went to "assist" an American Airlines flight travelling from Dallas/Fort Worth to London.

It followed reports that a passenger had tried to enter the flight deck.

In this case, a female passenger had become distressed during the flight, but the flight crew had managed to calm her down.

But the speed of the interception by the RAF Typhoons gives a sense of how seriously these incidents are taken.

We are not allowed to report precisely how soon the fighters were at the scene, but again it took a matter of minutes to intercept the American Airlines flight.

Cuts 'inevitable'

Counter-terrorism operations are not the only thing keeping the RAF busy.

Fighter crews have been scrambled more than 10 times in the past year to intercept Russian aircraft approaching UK airspace.

Most recently two Tornado F3 fighters were launched from RAF Leuchars in Fife in the early hours of 10 March to intercept a "zombie" - or unknown aircraft.

Within minutes the lead Tornado identified and photographed two Russian Tu-160 "Blackjack" strategic bombers.

The RAF say such incidents are relatively frequent as the Russians carry out routine patrols over the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, though no Russian planes have ever entered UK airspace.

It is perhaps no coincidence the RAF has made public these recent incidents.

They are a reminder of the work the air force carries out to defend the homeland at a time when serious questions are being asked about the overall cost of the UK's defence budget.

There will be a Strategic Defence Review after the general election that will decide the future shape of the armed forces.

Cuts are inevitable. The RAF, like the Royal Navy and the Army are engaged in their own PR battle to ensure they will not end up bearing the brunt of the costs.

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