By Jean Christou
The runway at RAF Akrotiri was closed on Wednesday, resulting in a suspension of missions over Iraq after two armed Brimstone missiles fell off of a Tornado jet as it came in to land in the morning.
A small area of the bases was also cordoned off while the missiles were being made safe, a statement from the bases said on Wednesday afternoon.
“In the next 24 hours MOD Explosive Ordinance Disposal officers will detonate a small explosive charge to complete the work to make them safe,” said the statement. “This could take place during the hours of darkness and may be heard by villages in the local area. Local residents should not be alarmed if they hear a loud bang as this is standard practice when dealing with such situations.”
The incident, which happened early in the morning, raised questions over the safety of the decades-old Tornados and increased the concerns of Akrotiri residents, already suffering, they say with what one called the “unbearable” noise “twice a day, every day”.
Bases spokesman Kristian Gray told the Cyprus Mail: “This morning, during the landing of a Tornado, two Brimstone missiles detached. There was no detonation and no injuries. We are in the process of removing them.” An investigation has been launched, Gray added.
The bases have eight Tornados, which are used for sorties over Iraq. Britain joined the battle against the Islamic State last September using Akrotiri as a base for air strikes.
Gray said he could not comment on operational issues and so could not say whether the jets were coming in from a mission though it is understood they were returning from Iraq. “It is unclear when the runway will open again,” Gray said confirming there could be no further missions until it reopened.
Currently, he said, the bases authorities were in the process of figuring out how the missiles detached. He said they had not fallen from “hundreds of feet” in the air. Personnel in and around the runway were immediately evacuated as a precaution, he said.
Gray said he could not comment on how the missiles became detached because that would be the subject of the investigation, which could take days or weeks.
Reports in the UK media said even though the missiles must be triggered by a pilot from the cockpit, the incident would raise questions about the ageing Tornados, which were put into service during the 1991 Gulf War and are due to be discontinued in 2019.
Last December in a letter publicised by the BBC, an RAF member said raids from Cyprus were being conducted against ISIS with “broken jets and tired and fed up people”. The claims were denied by the UK defence ministry at the time.
British press reports on Wednesday said the missiles, which cost around €150,000 each had smashed into pieces on impact with the runway. An RAF source told the Daily Mail: “Put it this way, they won’t be used again.” The reports suggested the missile had fallen off when the Tornado had come in badly on approach during poor visibility.
Gray said until the probe was completed, he could not comment on the reports but acknowledged that the scenario was a preferable one to the missiles simply falling off the aircraft randomly, which would raise serious safety concerns among Akrotiri residents. But, Gray added, he really could not say at that point what had occurred.
When asked whether the Tornados flew over the village on approach or take-off, Gray said there was a flight plan that was always followed but he did not know whether this took the aircraft over residential areas.
“We appreciate the concerns of residents and appreciate that this is a very serious incident,” he said.
The community council leader of Akrotiri told reporters he was informed officially of the incident by the bases authorities and said it was not only dangers like that which were of concern. Residents have complained for decades over the noise but since the campaign against ISIS last September, it had become “unbearable’, according to deputy community council leader Christakis Evelthontos.
He told the Cyprus Mail that two Tornados at a time do in fact fly over the village “twice a day, every day”.
“Imagine if those missiles had fallen on our village,” he said. Evelthontos said the Tornados fly out between 10am and 10.30am every morning and fly back 12 hours later.
“The noise is unbelievable,” said the 60-year-old who said he has lived all his life in Akrotiri and never experienced anything like what has been going on for the past ten months.
“It’s one of the worst sounds you can experience. I have to put my hands over my ears with this kind of aircraft,” he said. “I have lived 60 years here. I was born here and this is the worst kind of noise. It’s unbearable.”
Evelthontos said even prior to the missiles incident, the community council had already drawn up a four-page letter to President Nicos Anastasiades, which has also been sent to British Prime Minister David Cameron. The council also is seeking a meeting in the coming days with bases authorities.