Island Free Press: Distress call to Coast Guard about plane down off Ocracoke was a hoax

A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk. [USCG photo]

A distress call to the U.S. Coast Guard on late Sunday night regarding a plane going down off of Ocracoke Island was determined to be a hoax, after a USCG investigation and corresponding communications with aviation officials.

A call was received at 11:28 p.m. over VHF Channel 16 that an Airbus 320 passenger liner with 121 people on board was going down near the Pamlico Sound off of Ocracoke Island.

The caller did not identify themselves or the exact location, so the USCG Command Center immediately tried to obtain additional information, while local Coast Guard stations at Hatteras Inlet and Ocracoke prepared to respond.

The unusual call immediately aroused suspicions about its validity, per Petty Officer 1st Class Tara Molle-Carr of the U.S. Coast Guard Public Affairs Department in Baltimore, M.D. “It is not normal for a plane to make a distress call over VHS Channel 16 – that’s very unusual,” said Molle-Carr. “Planes have a different way of reporting that, and the initial Mayday call did not have a specific location of where it took place – it was very general.”

“But when you get a Mayday call, regardless of [any suspicions], you treat it as a Mayday call.”

After receiving the call, the USCG connected with air traffic controllers in the surrounding area, and a Navy aircraft that happened to be in the region was diverted to assess the situation. Per Molle-Carr, there were no emergencies reported of aircraft that had dropped below altitude, and all air controllers stated that nothing was out of the ordinary.

By 1:55 a.m. on Monday, aviation officials had confirmed that the call was a hoax.

Hoax calls to the U.S. Coast Guard are a significant problem, and can result in very hefty penalties including criminal fines, civil fines, reimbursement for USCG assets such as fuel, and also prison time for the offender.

“Hoax calls are definitely something that is a problem,” said Molle-Carr. “We may have a significant number of hoax calls one year, and fewer calls the next, but one hoax call is too many.”

“Hoax calls are taking away assets from someone who could truly be in distress.”