Israeli news outlet Ynet reports that an Israeli F-35 stealth jet circling above the nuclear facility near the town of Dimona in the central Negev activated its transponder and became visible to the various software applications that track airborne traffic. Civil aviation aircraft nearly always use their transponders to identify themselves to air traffic control. Transponder signals contain a specific code and information about the aircraft’s altitude.
Codes are typically assigned by air traffic control to aircraft operating in by instrument flight rules, or when requested by the pilot. However, certain codes are assigned to specific cases such as hijacking, emergency, and inability to communicate.
Military aircraft, especially fighter jets, typically do not operate their transponders in that manner in order to remain “invisible” to various trackers. In today’s incident, the Israeli F-35 “Adir” aircraft squawked 7600, the code assigned for communications malfunction. No information was available whether this was intentional or the result of an error and if the aircraft indeed experienced communication problems.
Both the error and the communications failure scenarios are exceedingly unlikely as fighter jets operating in the crowded Israeli airspace are in constant communications with military controllers and in the highly unlikely case that such communications become impossible, follow a prescribed protocol that does not include the use of civilian transponder codes. In the exceedingly unlikely event that the transponder was activated in civilian mode in error, the military controller would have immediate alerted the pilot and the error would have been corrected.
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