‘I knew it was going to happen’: MEA pilot recalls downing of Russian jet

Middle East Airlines pilot provided Al Arabiya News with a recording that proves the Turkish authorities issued several warnings to the plane

Faisal J. Abbas
Faisal J. Abbas - and Ismaeel Naar, Al Arabiya News
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A civilian pilot who was in the sky when the Turkish military issued a warning to, and ultimately shot down, a Russian fighter jet has provided Al Arabiya News with a recording that proves the Turkish authorities issued several warnings to the plane.

The pilot, who was flying a Middle East Airlines (MEA) flight from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport to a Gulf country at approximately 9:00 a.m. (local Lebanese time) yesterday also verified the authenticity of a similar recording which was uploaded on the information sharing website LiveLeak which many international media outlets have carried.

“I confirm the authenticity of their recording, I heard these exact same warnings over and over again and the part I recorded on my phone was actually towards the end when I felt the matter was getting serious,” the Lebanese aviator told Al Arabiya News on the condition of anonymity.

Listen to the Turkish officer issuing repeated warnings

The version of the recording obtained by Al Arabiya News from this pilot clearly proves that Turkish authorities were issuing repeated warnings to the Russian aircraft that they “were approaching Turkish air space”.

“Unknown air traffic position onto Humeymim 020, redirect to 26 miles. This is Turkish Air Force speaking - en guard. You are approaching Turkish airspace. Change your heading south immediately.,” the Turkish officer was repeatedly saying.

There was however no response from the Russian side, which Al Arabiya’s source says has been the case for weeks.

The MEA pilot explained that from what he gathers, Tuesday's incident was not the first as he had heard similar warnings over his radio transmission for the past month.

“I heard similar warnings two or three times a week, on every flight I took for the past month.

“What was different this time is that the Turkish officer was shouting and seemed tense, while the warnings were much calmer in previous times… this is why I knew something was going to happen,” he added.

MEA is the flag carrier of Lebanon and is one of the world’s few remaining airlines which still fly over neighboring Syria - a country that has been engulfed in a civil war since the end of 2011.

When asked if yesterday’s Russian-Turkish standoff caused any harm or potential threat to his flight, or to the safety of his passengers, the MEA pilot said the plane had already passed Lebanon’s southern border and as such was already far away from where the incident occurred.

But he added that flying over Syria in general wasn’t a safe choice and that a number of his co-workers had voiced their concerns.

“But the decision to fly over Syria is a political one imposed by the (Lebanese) government, not a health and safety call that we (the airlines) can decide on as we normally would,” he warned.

Lebanon suffers from strong Syrian presence and interference ever since its own civil war erupted in 1975. Even after the Syrian troops withdrew in 2005, Syria is said to have still had much influence over Lebanese politics via its allies, namely Hezbollah militias which are in control of security at Beirut’s airport.

Infographic: Turkey downs warplane

Infographic: Turkey downs warplane
Infographic: Turkey downs warplane

Security analysts react

Security analysts told Al Arabiya News that debating whether Turkey was in the right or wrong of taking aggressive actions did not matter currently.

Director of Intelligence and Gulf expert at the Levantine Group Miriam Goldman the debate over the rights and wrongs of Turkey’s action were now irrelevant. She added, ‘what was done, was done.’

She added: “Debating right versus wrong is not what matters right now.”

From my point of view it seems like ‘enough is enough’ from Turkey’s standpoint.”

Turkey, a NATO alliance member, had previously warned other countries against violating its airspace. In October, NATO released a joint statement on behalf of Turkey saying: “Allies strongly protest these violations of Turkish sovereign airspace, and condemn these incursions into and violations of NATO airspace. Allies also note the extreme danger of such irresponsible behavior. They call on the Russian Federation to cease and desist, and immediately explain these violations.”

“Allies call on the Russian side to take all necessary measures to ensure that such violations do not take place in the future,” the statement added.

“Turkey has indeed warned previous planes against entering its airspace on multiple occasions. This might have been a situation where Turkey simply felt they had warned them so much and now had to take action after being ignored,” Goldman said.

Russian denials

While both Turkey and Russia have been trading blows with one another since Tuesday’s attack, analysts say a formal investigation is needed to fully understand what actions would be taken next.

“It is not quite clear what exactly Turkey had asked the Russian plane what not to do, and how much warning they actually gave. If the jet was flying at several hundred miles an hour and was issued a warning from Turkey and given only gave a few seconds for a response, is that enough time? It’s still unclear,” British defense journalist Tim Ripley told Al Arabiya News.

"There are lots of procedures for countries to protect their airspace, many of them don’t involve shooting down planes,” he added.

On Wednesday night, Russia's news agency said that the surviving pilot rescued by Syrian forces said that they did not receive any warnings or communications from Turkey.

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov also accused Turkey saying: “Downing of Russian jet by turkey was a planned act.”

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