The tight gap between Greenland Iceland and the UK (“GIUK Gap”) was once the main “highway” used by Soviet bombers and maritime reconnaissance aircraft flying to Cuba, monitoring NATO maritime activities or simply probing local air defenses.
The mission to intercept the Soviet Tu-95/Tu-142 was assigned to the 57th FIS (Fighter Interceptor Squadron) “Black Knights”, ldeployed to Keflavik air base, in Iceland, since November 1954. The 57th FIS flew several types of aircraft such as the F-102, the F-106 and the F-4E, before receiving the F-15C/Ds in November 1985.
The Eagles belonging to the 57th FIS were fitted with CFTs (Conformal Fuel Tanks) which boosted their range allowing the F-15s to intercept and shadow the Bears much further out and for longer time.
A former Black Knights pilot, Lt. Col. Tim “Sweet Lou” Kline described to Steve Davies for his book F-15 Eagle Engaged how an intercept against the Bears took place:
“They were long intercepts. […] we’d be sitting there waiting, looking down at the water-the icebergs in the cold water-and getting our gas from the tanker while we waited, hoping our refueling equipment worked because we were away from Keflavik. Sometimes we could be out there six hours.”
Thanks to the standard CFTs, the F-15 demonstrated to be the perfect aircraft to intercept the Bears in the GIUK Gap.
“When they did show up, they’d still at altitude. Oftentimes we would simply go ‘pure pursuit’ on the raw return because to obtain a lock on would not only give away our presence but also allow the ‘Bear’s’ EWO (Electronic Warfare Operator) to begin tuning in his EW gear and start ‘dueling electrons’ with the APG-63 (the F-15 doppler radar). It was important to not let them know what range we could actually get a lock on at and other information that would prove valuable intelligence to them,” Kline explained.
If the aircraft were Soviet Navy maritime reconnaissance aircraft, instead of flying at cruising level “they’d ramp down to about 300-500ft altitude and slow down to about 230 knots to start dropping the sonobuoys and we would ‘call the drops’ so AWACS could plot their locations for Intel. When they were done they would turn around and go back northeast to Russia.”
Sometimes, during bad weather interceptions, the Soviets turned into the F-15 trying force the fully loaded and bit less responsive Eagle into a dangerous attitude.
Interestingly, at the apex of the Cold War tension, the 57th FIS mechanics fabricated a fictitious EW (Electronic Warfare) pod from a normal baggage pod. To make it more realistic, the fake pod was fitted with various unused UHF, automobile and other types of antennas and was mounted beneath one of the underwing pylons of one of the local F-15s. When the Eagle carrying the faux EW pod intercepted the Bear, the pilot rolled out alongside the Soviet aircraft with the pod fully visible to the Russian aircrew which took a lot of pictures of the previously unseen pod: how much time that Soviet intelligence officer had to waste in trying to identify the new “EW pod” remains a mystery.
Another hilarious moment dates back to the time when one F-15 pilot showed off a Playboy nude centerfold across the expansive side of the Eagle’s canopy, for the Soviet aviators entertainment. Once they saw it, they responded by running the Bear air to air refueling probe (which was encased in a long cylindrical tube extending above the nose and would be run out to clog up into the drogue basket) in and out, and in and out of its protective sleeve.
The Black Knights did not survive too long after the end of the Cold War: in fact the F-15s of the 57th FIS ensured the QRA service at Keflavik until Mar. 1, 1995 when they were eventually disbanded.
According to U.S. Defense officials, the one between a U.S. RC-135U and a Russian Air Force Su-27 Flanker was something more than a routine intercept.
The RC-135U is one of the most secretive U.S. surveillance planes. It provides strategic electronic reconnaissance information, performing signal analysis by means of a wide variety of commercial off-the-shelf and proprietary hardware and software, including the Automatic Electronic Emitter Locating System.
In short, the Combat Sent can simultaneously locate, identify, and analyze multiple electronic signals.
Only two such kind of RC-135 are operated by the 55th Wing from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska but they are usually deployed abroad to keep an eye where needed.
On Apr. 23, a U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent performing a routine surveillance mission in international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan, some 60 miles off eastern Russia was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker.
According to the Pentagon, the first part of the interception was as standard: the Su-27 (most probably the leader of a flight of at least two Flankers) approached the RC-135U and positioned more or less abeam the “intruder”. Then, instead of breaking away after positive identification of the “zombie” without crossing the line of flight of the intercepted aircraft, the Su-27 crossed the route of the U.S. spyplane putting itself within 100 feet of the Combat Sent.
One of the J-8s piloted by Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, made two close passes to the EP-3 before colliding with the spyplane on the third pass. As a consequence, the J-8 broke into two pieces and crashed into the sea causing the death of the pilot, whereas the EP-3, severely damaged, performed an unauthorized landing at China’s Lingshui airfield.
The 24 crew members (21 men and three women), that destroyed all (or at least most of ) the sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, were detained by Chinese authorities until Apr. 11.
Anyway, Russian pilots have been involved in similar incidents during intercept missions during the years. Just two examples.
In Sweden, almost any strip road is a runway that can be used by Swedish Air Force fighter planes.
Here’s an interesting video, shot during the last days of the SAAB Viggen in Swedish Air Force service. The footage, shot in 2004, shows the underground bunkers that can still be found all over Sweden, and the operations connected to a “war time practice”.
During the Cold War period, Sweden could not expect its 30 airbases to survive an attack for more than a few hours. For this reason, the 1,000 planes of the Swedish Air Force were prepared to operate from mini airbases and straight roads around them, that would allow aircraft to take off and recover.
In case of crisis or just for training goals, aircraft would move from standard airbases to strips dispersed and partly hidden in the woods.
JAS-37 Viggen shown in the video have been retired and replaced by the SAAB Gripen.
On Jan. 21, 1968, a B-52G Stratofortress belonging to the 380th Strategic Bomb Wing from Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York, crashed in in Greenland in what is remembered as the second “Broken Arrow” incident (yes, that codeword is not only used in movies).
The bomber, using radio callsign “Hobo 28″ was flying an armed peacetime airborne alert mission known under the codename of “Hard Head”: its purpose was to maintain a visual surveillance of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), which provided early warning of Soviet missile launches, at Thule Air Base.
During the mission, the Stratofortress experienced a cockpit fire, failed to make an emergency landing at Thule and eventually crashed on sea ice in North Star Bay.
Six of the seven crew members were able to eject the aircraft but the four hydrogen bombs carried by the B-52 (that did not detonate because of “Weak Links” safety mechanisms) released radioactive material.
In spite of an attempt to restrict the leaks, the high winds, the cold temperatures and the fire caused by the burning Stratofortress caused the dispersion of some other radioactive material into the sea.
Btw, one of the four B-28 Thermonuclear remains unaccounted for, after 46 years.
The crash, which followed the other Broken Arrow incident occurred in Spain two years earlier, highlighted the safety (and diplomatic) risks those kind of airborne alert missions, which were immediately ended.
Whereas images taken by the interceptors are not so rare (nevertheless, they are extremely interesting!), there are not so many photos taken from inside the “zombies” (the targets of the fighter planes).
Here are some really interesting ones taken from inside a Russian spyplane in international waters sent by a reader.
A JASDF F-15J on the right hand wing of the intercepted plane near Japan.
Both Japanese F-15s shadowing the Russian spyplane.