Crew members aboard a Hong Kong-bound Cathay Pacific flight from San Francisco saw what they suspected was a North Korean ballistic missile re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere last week, the airline has confirmed.
“Though the flight was far from the event location, the crew advised Japan [air traffic control] according to procedures,” the airline spokesman said, noting that flight operation wasn’t affected by the suspected sighting.
Flight trackers place the plane near Japan when the missile was launched on November 29. The missile spent more than 50 minutes in the air before falling into waters off the coast of Japan. Pyongyang boasted that the weapon was capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
In a message to staff, Cathay Pacific’s General Manager of Operations Mark Hoey relayed what crew members had reported seeing of the suspected missile.
“Today ... the crew of CX893 reported, ‘Be advised, we witnessed the [North Korean] missile blow up and fall apart near our current location,’” Hoey said, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
Hoey added that flight CX096 ― one of the airline’s cargo planes, which had been en route from Hong Kong to Alaska at the time ― may have been even closer to the missile.
Two South Korean aircraft also reported witnessing the missile’s launch, said the BBC.
Cathay Pacific said on Monday there were no current plans to alter its flight routes in the region despite the suspected missile sighting.
“We remain alert and review the situation as it evolves,” the airline spokesman said.
The suspected sighting has, however, renewed fears that North Korea’s missile testing could put commercial aircraft at risk.
CNN aviation safety analyst David Soucie said that the odds of “an unaimed missile striking a plane are ‘billions to one.’” However, experts told the network that it would be impossible for crew on a commercial jet to detect the approach of a ballistic missile.
In August, Air France said one its planes carrying more than 300 passengers may have come as close as 60 miles to a ballistic missile launched by North Korea.
The airline said at the time that it was expanding its no-fly zone over North Korea following the close-call.