Three flights in Imphal airport sat on the tarmac for over three hours and two incoming flights took a diversion towards Kolkata and Guwahati after the air traffic controllers reported an unidentified flying object near the runaway.
The airport authorities immediately closed the “controlled airspace” in Manipur’s capital Imphal and stopped all flight operations. Some 1,000 passengers were affected by the airspace closure, sources said.
The Airports Authority of India (AAI) handed over the airspace control to the Indian Air Force (IAF) before the IAF gave the all-clear to restore the airspace for commercial flight operations, people with direct knowledge of the matter told NDTV, requesting anonymity.
The air traffic control (ATC) and people on the ground saw the drones around 2 pm, after which the three flights – two Air India, and an IndiGo flight – were told not to take off, sources said. Around the same time, two incoming flights were diverted, they said.
The incident was seen as disturbing amid the tension in Manipur following months of ethnic violence between the hill-majority Kuki tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis. Several groups had used drones during the violence. In neighbouring Myanmar, the junta forces have been launching airstrikes against Chin State rebels along the border with India.
The flights that had been diverted are likely to reach Imphal tonight as the airport – although surrounded by hills – has night-landing capability. The flights which were diverted will be operated today as watch hours have been extended, sources told NDTV.
Imphal airport director Chipemmi Keishing in a statement confirmed the sighting of the drone. The officer said all the three flights took off after the “competent authority” gave security clearance.
Passengers told NDTV many of them had been inside the airport and some inside the aircraft for over three hours from 3 pm, until the flights took off one after another around 6.15 pm.
“Boarding was completed by 3 pm, but we finally got the take-off clearance at 6.10 pm. Passengers were worried and some elderly people anxious, but everyone was extremely cooperative and patient,” a woman who boarded an Air India flight to Delhi told NDTV on phone.
Another passenger in the Delhi-bound flight said they were served food inside the aircraft before taking off as they had been sitting for a long time.
The “fairly large” object was seen flying for over an hour, a senior officer in the airport told NDTV, requesting anonymity.