A Qantas Airways flight from Los Angeles landed safely in Australia early Monday after it was forced to change course near Hawaii when a Navy warship inadvertently threatened to shoot down the plane as it flew over a Navy exercise in the South Pacific.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elly Brekke said there were no injuries among the 305 passengers and crew of 21 aboard the Boeing 747 jetliner, and that the plane landed safely in Sydney, 19 minutes behind schedule.
A Navy source familiar with the incident said the plane was never in danger and attributed the incident to an error by the radio operator on the Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser based in San Diego. The source, who did not want to be identified, said the incident occurred during a joint naval exercise involving ships from the United States and Western allies.
Brekke said the pilot reported the incident to the FAA air traffic control center in Oakland at 1:33 a.m. Monday.
After first telling air traffic controllers that he had been in contact with the Navy vessel, the pilot then radioed that he had been told that "unless he changed course, hostile action would be taken," Brekke said.
According to the Navy source, the warning was issued "in the nature of an exercise warning." He said the ship's radio operator erred by issuing the warning over the commercial frequency used by the Qantas plane instead of using the frequency used by the ships involved in the exercise.
Brekke said Navy officials at the Pentagon described the incident as inadvertent. "They said that the plane was never in any real danger of being shot down," Brekke said.
A statement issued by the airline Monday night said it was seeking an explanation of the incident from the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, Australia's capital. Qantas said it wanted to know "why no prior notification was given that the area (from which the plane was diverted) was active."
FAA officials said that the pilot was unaware of any naval exercises in the area 900 miles east of Hawaii, and that officials were trying to determine if a warning was issued to commercial pilots.
Times staff writer Nieson Himmel contributed to this story.