Hijacking played out 'in plane sight' online

MEGAN LEVY
Last updated 17:33 18/02/2014
Ethiopian Airlines

ROUND IN CIRCLES: The hijacked plane's flightpath over Geneva.

Co-pilot held in Swiss hijack drama

Ethiopian Airlines
AFTER THE FACT: A police vehicle guards in front of the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 702 after passengers disembarked at Cointrin Airport in Geneva. Social media users were onto the hijacking before media reported it.

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When an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet was hijacked over European airspace on Monday, anyone with a smartphone and a decent internet connection could have had a front row seat to the drama that was unfolding in the sky.

And that is exactly what happened around the globe, with reports of the hijacking and even detailed flight maps showing its altitude and exact location being posted on social media within minutes of the "Squawk 7500" hijack radio code being sent from the cockpit.

The Boeing 767-300's bizarre flight pattern was plotted live online on flightradar24.com, available for anyone to see.

The site showed the plane making multiple circles around Geneva airport, before finally landing at 6.02am, local time.

There, the co-pilot and alleged hijacker turned off the plane's engines, opened the cockpit window and lowered himself to the tarmac with a rope before seeking asylum, officials said.

Sydney man Jason Wood, an aviation photographer, learned of the hijacking on social media, and immediately tuned in to the Live ATC (Air Traffic Control) website.

There he could listen in real-time to the Geneva control tower communicating with the hijacker as he continued to circle the airport.

"There wasn't an awful lot of communication between the tower and the co-pilot, but there was a little bit, probably about 10-15 communications between the two," Wood said.

"From the communications I was listening to, he [the co-pilot] sounded like he was trying to wait for some confirmation that his demands had been met before he landed, and obviously got the plane to a point where it nearly ran out of fuel."

The flight had taken off from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and was travelling to Rome with 202 passengers on board when the airliner's second-in-command, named by the Ethiopian government as Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn, 31, took control.

He had waited until his pilot left the cockpit to use the toilet to seize control of the plane about 3.30pm on Monday, Sydney time.

After locking the cockpit door, he initially told Italian air controllers that he needed fuel, but then activated a transponder to signal that the plane was being hijacked.

Online chatter began instantly.

"ET702 squawk 7500!," tweeted @AviationROI, along with the flight details and a map of its location.

As the plane headed for and circled Geneva, Queenslander Evan Davis (@EvanD) was monitoring its progress.

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"#ET702 appears to be picking up speed. Now around 450km/h. Still descending. Currently at 2125m #hijack," he tweeted.

"Fire trucks have been deployed at #Geneva airport. #ET702 #hijack."

Upon landing, the plane continued to a taxiway, where the co-pilot climbed out the window.

He ran towards security officers and identified himself as the hijacker.

He claimed that he was in danger in Ethiopia and requested asylum, the officials added.

There are many websites and smartphone apps, including Flightradar24.com, that allow users to track the exact location and details of planes as they travel across the globe.

Users can set up an alert if a certain incident, such as a hijacking, occurs.

Tim Kelly, from Crows Nest, said he had been a plane spotter since he was a child, but developments in technology had made it even more exciting.

"It is fascinating. Your iPhone now is basically a control tower. You can listen into air traffic control, watch the flights in real time, you can get the aircraft registration, the squark code they're using," he said.

"The iPhone for me is the most exciting tool."

However, the availability of information publicly has created some concerns.

"When I've shown friends of mine the air traffic control app, and that you can listen into JFK [airport in New York] or Chicago, and then show them on my phone while we're listening, it does freak a lot of people out that this information is available for 99 cents in the app store."

Grahame Hutchison, a private pilot and aviation photographer, runs the website 16Right.com, which is named after the main runway at Sydney Airport and monitors air traffic over the Sydney area.

"All of this information is freely available out there and there are literally thousands of people around the world that monitor this stuff,"  Hutchison said.

One of the attractions of monitoring the information was that it was occurring in real-time, he said.

"It could be as simple as tracking a relative or family member's flight," he said.

"Some of the military aircraft can appear there too, such as the aircraft that Tony Abbott gets around in and some of the politicians. It's just an interest in what these aircraft are doing."

As an aviation photographer, Hutchison also uses the apps to determine where he should go if something of significance happens, he said.

"I think there are more and more people in general starting to use these sorts of apps who might have a mild interest in aviation," he said.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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