The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have launched a manhunt to trap a hacker who has penetrated an air traffic control communications system and made hoax calls to pilots, causing a Virgin Australia passenger flight approaching Melbourne Airport to abort a landing.
The hacker has struck about 15 times, ABC News reported yesterday. The perpetrator apparently has found a way to tap into the air traffic control frequency and communicate directly with planes and control towers.
While the motive is unknown, the results could be catastrophic.
According to ABC News, the most serious incident happened 12 days ago, on Thursday 27 October 2016. The hacker struck at a busy period, shortly after 5pm. As a result, Virgin Australia flight 740 from the Gold Coast to Melbourne changed its altitude and course “under the instruction of the unauthorised person transmitting from an unknown location”.
The ABC said it understands that 15 unauthorised transmissions were made over two weeks. Calls were received on the flight deck of planes and at Melbourne Air Traffic Services Centre.
The AFP has appealed for public help to catch the person responsible, who could face 20 years in prison. Police have yet to make any arrests.
The ABC cited flight data from FlightRadar24 showing that Virgin Australia flight 740 came within 275 feet (84 metres) of the runway surface at 5:19pm as it approached Melbourne Tullamarine airport to land. The flight is operated with a B737-800.
Three minutes later, the plane climbed to 3800 feet (over a kilometre) and circled over northwest Melbourne.
Later that evening, the caller impersonated the pilot of a light aircraft and made a “mayday” distress call saying he had engine trouble.
Airservices Australia and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) are on alert and have notified airlines, pilots and air traffic controllers that the malicious hoaxer is still at large.
An AFP spokesperson told ABC News the safety and security of passengers in the Melbourne area was not under current threat and travellers did not need to change their plans.
Written by Peter Needham