The pilot of Ryanair flight 4978 repeatedly questioned air traffic controllers in Belarus over their request to divert to Minsk due to a supposed bomb threat onboard, and asked for other diversion options, according to a transcript released by Belarus.
Belarus’ government aviation authority released the partial transcript earlier this week, which aviation experts said appears to be genuine, however hasn’t yet been formally independently verified.
The transcript was released as Belarusian authorities attempt to back their stance that they were informed a bomb was onboard the aircraft.
In the transcript, the captain of the Boeing 737 is seen to have repeatedly asked air traffic controllers to verify how they came to believe that there was an active bomb threat onboard, who was asking them to divert to Minsk, and the severity of the threat.
The pilot also asked ATC to verify if the information, along with the decision to reroute to Minsk, was coming from their departure airport in Athens, or authorities at their destination, Vilnius, Lithuania.
According to the transcript, Belarusian ATC said, “We have information from special services that you have a bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius”, to which the Ryanair pilot responded, “OK, could you repeat the message?”.
Belarus repeated the information, and added, “For security reasons we recommend you to land at UMMS” – ICAO code for Minsk airport.
The pilot on board immediately responded, “OK that is understood – give us alternate please”, before quickly following up with “The bomb….direct message, where did it come from? Where did you have information about it from?”
Belarus ATC responded: “Airport security staff informed they received email.”
The pilot asked if the email reporting a potential bomb threat had been sent to Athens or Vilnius airport, to which ATC said “this email was shared to several airports”.
Throughout the transcript, the pilot continued to ask ATC to verify the information, and asked to clarify which authority made the order to land in Minsk.
The controller responded: “This is our recommendation”.
The pilot then asked the controllers to provide a colour code for the severity of the threat – green, amber or red.
“They say code is red,” ATC responded.
At this point the pilot agreed to land in Minsk, and made a MAYDAY emergency call.
Despite Belarus’ claims to the contrary, many global governments and international aviation bodies believe that Belarus themselves flagged a falsified bomb threat, in order to deliberately divert the flight to Minsk, so authorities could detain a wanted political journalist.
The move was heavily condemned by nations, organisations, and airlines around the world, with some world leaders labelling the incident as a “hijacking” or “act of piracy”, and in violation of international aviation laws.
Reports suggest that Belarusian authorities flagged a false bomb threat onboard Ryanair flight 4978 bound for Lithuania, and sent a fighter jet to instead escort the plane to Minsk in order to detain a journalist who opposed the Belarusian government.
The plane, carrying around 170 people from 12 countries, was just minutes away from crossing into Lithuanian airspace when it was suddenly diverted to the Belarusian capital, escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet.
Upon landing, authorities took journalist Roman Protasevich into custody. Protasevich is reported to have become frantic in the plane’s cabin when the pilots announced the last-minute diversion to Minsk, and later remarked: “I’ll get the death penalty here”, as authorities removed him from the scene.
The 26-year-old journalist was wanted in Belarus on extremism charges, following reporting he produced for Poland-based news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year.
Protasevich stands accused of organising mass riots and inciting social hatred, allegations that he denies.
The remaining passengers onboard flight 4978 were forced to wait seven hours on the ground, before the plane finally took off again for Vilnius, Lithuania.