A military plane carrying then-foreign minister Alexander Downer was forced to take drastic evasive action in 2003 after coming under apparent enemy fire on approach to Baghdad.
- Alexander Downer has confirmed the 2003 incident occurred
- But the ex-foreign minister says he was not told if the military plane was fired upon
- Once the C-130 Hercules had safely landed, Mr Downer headed straight to a series of meetings and engagements
The details of the previously unreported incident have been revealed by a former Royal Australian Air Force flight sergeant who was on board the C-130 Hercules during the mid-air emergency.
Wendy Walker flew into Baghdad International Airport with Mr Downer and his entourage in May 2003, just days after former US President George W Bush had declared “mission accomplished” in the Iraq War.
Ms Walker said as their Hercules approached the Iraqi capital, the aircraft’s defence system detected a suspected incoming missile.
“All of a sudden the air crew [were] yelling at those people, the civilians, to get their [flak] jackets on,” Ms Walker told ABC Radio in Queensland.
“The plane started to tack fly, which means it’s veering left and right.
“So, the civilians are panickedly putting their stuff on. I remember thinking we [were] going to die, because the plane [was] falling while moving, that’s part of tack flying.”
The plane eventually landed safely in the war-torn capital and Ms Walker said she still does not know whether the threat of attack was genuine or a false alarm.
Downer says he clung to his seat and ‘hoped for the best’
The ex-foreign minister has confirmed the 2003 incident occurred, but like Ms Walker he said he never learnt whether the RAAF aircraft had been fired upon.
“Five to 10 kilometres out from the airport, the captain of the plane, who I was sitting with in the cockpit area of the C-130, very quietly and calmly announced two words, ‘Missile left!’”
“It’s all he said, ‘missile left’, and then banked the plane through to 90 degrees creating huge G-forces — apparently the plane fired out some chaff to try to deflect any missile that might have been fired.”
Mr Downer said of the incident, which he recalls as lasting only a few terrifying seconds:
“I just clung to my seat, hoped for the best — you’re very focused when you feel there’s danger.”
Once they landed safely at Baghdad’s International Airport, the foreign minister headed to a series of meetings and engagements, including to open the Australian Representative Office in the capital.
“Whether a missile had been fired, or it was a malfunction, or a misreading by the sensors on the plane, I have no idea, and I don’t know in the end if the captain of the aircraft every really knew whether a missile had been fired at the plane or whether it hadn’t been.”