Cockpit calamity: Pilot error sparks hijack security alert on passenger plane

Cockpits in large airplanes feature a dizzying array of buttons, levers, dials, and displays that would leave the head of most folks spinning if they were asked to identify each and every one of them (or indeed, just one of them).

But as an incident at a Dutch airport showed this week, even the most skilled pilots can get it wrong occasionally.

According to media reports, part of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was put on lockdown Wednesday evening over a suspected hijacking after an Air Europa pilot raised the alarm from the aircraft shortly before take-off.

As the Madrid-bound plane was evacuated, military police at the airport tweeted that it was responding to what it called a “suspicious situation.” During the emergency, a number of other planes were stopped from taking off, while photos posted on social media showed passengers in the terminal building waiting for updates regarding their delayed flights.

But an hour later, it emerged that the alert had somehow been made in error.

“False alarm,” Air Europa tweeted, explaining that a warning “that triggers protocols on hijackings at airports” had been activated by mistake. The message continued: “Nothing has happened, all passengers are safe and sound waiting to fly soon. We deeply apologize.”

Airport officials had originally described the incident as a “GRIP-3” situation, an event with potentially major consequences for those in the vicinity. But thankfully, in this case, it turned out to be no such thing, and everyone on the plane and at the airport was safe.

It’s not clear precisely how the hijack alert came to be triggered, but the BBC noted that Federal Aviation Administration documents show that “pilots can use a special transponder beacon code, typing 7500, to raise an alert for unlawful interference in the case of a hijacking.” Whether this happened at Schiphol isn’t immediately clear.

The idea that the chaos may have been caused by nothing more than a typo reminds us of another incident a few years back when a catalog of errors, which included a pilot inputting a typo in the plane’s systems prior to take-off, led the aircraft’s software to understand that it was in a different country, causing all kinds of problems for the pilots after the plane took off.

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