BY MATTHEW CORRIGAN
Three years ago I watched in stunned amazement as a Qatar Airlines jet was escorted into Manchester Airport. Its captain had reported that a threat had been made against the aircraft and the RAF was sent to intervene. Thankfully it was just a hoax. Some poor passenger had lost his mind and claimed to have a bomb. Seeing the heavily-armed fighter shepherd it safely to the ground was shocking; its lethal missiles were not there for show. The incident very much brought home the reality that incredible things occasionally actually happen: that when the country faces a threat it must be countered, whatever the cost.
What follows is fiction, a nightmare scenario in every way.
I only hope it never comes to pass…
Somewhere over England, August 2017
Everything changed twenty-two minutes ago. Inbound over the North Sea, nothing about the brightly-liveried Boeing had given anyone cause for concern. Then, as it crossed the Norfolk coastline, in the bland terminology of the watching air traffic controllers it ‘lost contact with the ground’.
Airspace over the UK is protected year-round by the Quick Reaction Alert System, able to call up fighters, maintained at a constant state of readiness, from bases north or south dependent on where they are needed. Its purpose remains unchanged since the days of the Blitz: to defend the country. For obvious reasons, the Royal Air Force doesn’t advertise its reaction times; nobody who doesn’t need to knows. One wouldn’t, however, require the use of many fingers to count the minutes between the first notification of a problem and the urgent order to ‘Scramble, scramble, scramble!’
Wheels up and climbing fast, two Royal Air Force QRA Typhoons rattle windows in the villages and towns of Lincolnshire, afterburners glowing as they streak across the cerulean sky. Repeated requests from the civilian authorities have failed. The airliner is not responding.
Procedures far below are practised and slick but tension is mounting nonetheless. The phone lines start to burn. Secure lines of communication are open between the military and civilian authorities – the highest levels are involved.
Somewhere high above the Peak District the interceptors make visual contact. Nose high, almost reluctant to fly so slowly, a fighter moves alongside the commercial jet, its pilot straining to see inside. Three hundred knots; 9000 feet – the crew is making gestures but their meaning is unclear.
Rolling away, the Typhoon banks sharply around to take position behind the Boeing’s starboard wing. Bristling with weaponry; armed and ready. One pilot, one terrible call, three possible outcomes. He or she has an awesome responsibility and needs to know the decision-makers are the best. In a hundred and twenty seconds the target will reach the fringes of a large conurbation. Is it an innocent holiday jet with malfunctioning systems – or is something unimaginable about to unfold?
One hundred and sixty-seven souls on board – this is suddenly very real.
In a room beneath Downing Street the Prime Minister grips a red telephone.
It could be Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn.