On April 21st, a TUI Boeing 737 MAX 8 on its way to Dubai from Brussels diverted to Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. The aircraft appeared to enter a holding pattern for 40 minutes, with sources report that the aircraft issued a call via squawk code 7700 only after it had spent some time in the holding pattern. Squawking 7700 indicates that an emergency situation is taking place and assistance is required. The aircraft landed at 21:07 local time in Doha and has since carried on to Dubai and returned to Brussels.
The TUI 737 MAX registered OO-TMY departed Brussels at 12:19 local time on April 21st and headed southeast towards Minhad Air Base in Dubai – a military airport. The aircraft was nearing Dubai when it entered into a holding pattern over the waters of the Arabian Gulf, some 80km (50 miles) from Dubai and around 200km (124 miles) from Doha.
Dutch aviation site Up In The Sky reports that the jet circled for some time before putting out an emergency call via squawk code 7700. Next, the aircraft headed towards Doha, where it performed a safe landing some 70 minutes after entering the holding pattern.
Landing at 21:07 local time, the jet left Doha at 00:33 and landed at Al Minhad Air Base at 02:18 local. The aircraft then departed for home base in Brussels 01:13 this morning.
Why the flight to an airbase in Dubai?
First, let’s address why the aircraft, operated by a carrier that typically markets itself as a leisure airline, was headed towards a Middle Eastern military airbase. While we don’t yet have firm confirmation from the airline, the December 2020 news that TUI would be operating charter flights for Belgian Defence forces is almost certainly what was happening with this incident flight.
Belgium has announced its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will take place this year. The UAE’s Al Minhad (MND) has had a supporting role for foreign troops arriving in the region, including those from Australia and Canada.
Aviation24.be noted at the time that the Belgian Air Force had returned an Airbus A321 to its lessor, HiFly. Airbus A400M military transports would have taken the place of the A321s. These are based in Melsbroek airbase. A330MRTTs from NATO’s Multinational Multirole Unit at Eindhoven airbase would have also flown some of these missions.
However, delays in the delivery of these aircraft combined with delays in certifying pilots had forced Belgian Defence to seek out the services of TUI to perform charter flights. The organization told Aviation24.be the following:
“To guarantee the continuity of our operations and exercises, Belgian Defence will partially use charter flights in 2021 and 2022. Around twenty flights which will take place in January and February 2021 will be carried out by TUI“,
What was the reason for diverting to Doha?
While we’ve inquired with TUI about the incident, we have yet to receive a response from the airline. There are some interesting aspects to this incident, as you may have already picked up on:
- The aircraft was closer to its destination, Al Minhad Air Base than it was to the diversion airport of Doha.
- Reporting indicates that the squawk 7700 call was only made after it had been circling for some time.
It’s these two factors that lead us to think that the holding pattern had to do with communicating with Al Minhad; perhaps there was trouble establishing communications or receiving clearance to land from the Emirati government. Perhaps, after multiple attempts to gain permission to land, the aircraft was running low on fuel and thus needed to issue a the squawk 7700 to indicate an urgent situation, with Doha responding first.
It’s also quite interesting that the aircraft didn’t land at any of the numerous UAE airports that were much closer- including Dubai International, Dubai World Central (Al Maktoum International), Sharjah, or even Abu Dhabi.
While we would love to find out more about this situation- operational details that have to do with the military may not be as forthcoming, especially when compared to regular commercial passenger flights.
What do you think happened in this case? Let us know in the comments.