On Monday, 25 January 2016, a US recon aircraft was intercepted over international waters in the Black Sea well over forty miles from the Crimean coastline. A US RC-135U, designated a “COMBAT SENT” aircraft, was aggressively intercepted by a Russian Sukhoi 27, NATO codename “Flanker”, which reportedly came within 15 feet of the much larger reconnaissance aircraft. The Flanker then performed what is being described as an “aggressive banking turn” which in turn “disturbed the controllability” of the RC-135. The US aircraft eventually recovered to stable flight enough to return to base relatively safely.
Several things are very important to note here. For one, this incident happened just a few days before the US and Russia announced a joint flight safety memorandum on specifically, this type of incident in the AO (area of operations) around Turkey, Syria, Iraq and littorals. Another important note is that Russia has done this type of provocative and dangerous intercept of our intelligence platforms many times in the past. Most recently, they did almost the exact type of intercept in the Baltic just this past summer.
Please note that these aggressive intercepts are not just merely a close “look and see” fly-by of the supersonic fighter jets. In the crews’ terms, these are routinely called “bump and runs” and are usually played out by the fighter jet sliding up and under/off one of the wings of the much larger (Boeing 707-type) recon aircraft which usually carries over 20 souls on board. The fighter jet slips and rocks wings up and down then slides either up over or down under the larger jet while pushing his throttles up to come out ahead of the recon aircraft.
Remember, all of this deliberate airplay is not play at all – it is life-threatening and on purpose. Their normal cruising altitude is anywhere from 20 to 35 thousand feet and their speeds can be around 400 to 500 mph. The turbulence from a fighter’s wing-waggle/wing-slip and then pulling ahead is enough to throw the larger aircraft into a very turbulent wake, rocking and shaking everything and everybody inside to pieces. If that isn’t enough, there have been times when the coup-de-grace would then be delivered by the intercepting jet pilot while he is out in front of the larger plane: he would hit his afterburners. Ka-boom.
For those who don’t know, an afterburner is literally an extension of a jet engine that shoots gallons of gas into the almost 1000 degree exhaust coming from the engine itself, igniting into a plasma blast of well over 2000 degrees and exploding out the tail pipe of the jet. Most afterburning jets can get up to 80 percent more power from the afterburner kicking in alone, and a SU-27 Flanker has not one, but two very bad-ass afterburning engines. In the rarified air of the cruising altitude of an RC-135, and within sometimes less than 100 feet directly in front of the nose of the aircraft, any afterburners being lit off is quite literally the equivalent of bombs going off directly in your flight path. The compression/air burst effects are physically the same as bombs. A fighter’s afterburner could completely disintegrate an aircraft flying in close tail. The Russian pilots know that, and so do the terrified recon crews flying – unarmed and unafraid.
A final note is that I personally have flown on almost every RC-135 in the USAF, and not only watched a fighter jet off our wing do this type of threatening maneuver, but I lived to fly and fight another day. Yet, I can still see the faces and name the names of those who didn’t come back from long ago… These airmen this last week will have a story or two to tell that is for sure. Hell, if I get to meet them I will buy them all a drink. They deserve it. God bless our airmen, and may His angels protect them all. Amen.
***NEWER UPDATE: 31 January 2016***
The word of the day: “boltanut” – whatever that means… 😉
Since there is a lot more on the interwebs today about this particular incident, it has become clear that it is as I first suspected: that the intercept was indeed off the Russian Crimean coast. Since Crimea was militarily annexed by Russian in 2014 it has understandably been a rather significant military intelligence subject from a host of NATO-aligned countries. That there has been an uptick in the reconnaissance snooping on Crimea is not an unusual turn of events. Whenever a belligerent country militarily invades and takes over part of another country, that in turn does tend to invite significant military reconnaissance. Duh.
That said, as I followed this story I found some amusing asides. For example, on various search engines there are some other (Russian) viewpoints with of course their unbiased (!) reporting of this same incident. Not to knock Google Translate, but some of these translation variations are hilarious. Methinks much may be lost in the googlenator…
First check out the latest from a rather reliable news source like CNN here, and then compare and contrast that from just two ridiculous translations of military-journalistic-jingo Russian:
RISS St. Petersburg:
And I was especially amused by this one, as I have absolutely no idea what a “botalnut” is – even in the original Russian where they have it in quotation marks. From Freepress Russia:
“Boltanut” well, ok, if they say so. As far as I know, there is no such word in Russian, and my best guess is that it is a contraction of something meaning “bolt stress” or something similar. That they have it in quotations in the original Russian tells me that the writers haven’t got a clue about the meaning, or for that matter, much of anything dealing with aircraft. But that’s just me.
Bill Gertz, Washington Free Beacon: Russian Fighter Conducts Dangerous Intercept of U.S. Recon Jet