Although it has been already published on several websites, this image suggests some interesting analysis. It was taken on Aug. 1, 1989, and shows two Soviet Mig-29 being intercepted by four (one is the camera ship, another one is not visible in this photograph) F-15s of the 21st Composite Fighter Wing, whosee 43rd and 54th Tactical Fighter Squadrons patrolled 580,000 square miles from the North Pole to the tip of the Aleutian Islands.
The planes’ contrails give an idea of the maneuver used by the U.S. fighters to intercept the Mig-29s.
“What you can clearly see in the photograph is the wingman crossing the leader’s flight path to obtain a WEZ [Weapon Engagement Zone]-in-depth position to be ready to use the missiles as soon as the leader achieves the VID [Visual IDentification]” explains Lt.Col. Salvatore “Cheero” Ferrara, an Italian Air Force pilot assigned to the JSF program at Washington DC, formerly flying as an interceptor pilot with both the F-104 and the F-16.
“Although I think the wingman’s cross is a bit belated, the image shows a typical “deploy” maneuver of the U.S. fighters, in which the leader is “eyeball” and the wingman becomes “shooter”. All the visual interception are conducted in this way, even though, with the current “sensor fusion”, this kind of maneuver might change in the future” Ferrara says.
In simple words, the wingman, initially located on the “southern side” of the maneuver crosses the formation leader’s flight path to emerge on the other side in a defensive-spread position. From there, the wingman can almost “look through” the leader’s aircraft towards the target and continue the stern approach until it reach the Weapon Engagement Zone from which the air-to-air weapon can be fired.
Not in this case, though, since the U.S. fighters intercepted the Soviet Fulcrums on their way to Elmendorf AFB, in Alaska, where they refueled before continuing to Abbotsford, in Canada, for the International Airshow.
In the years of Cold War, the usual crossroads of the International spying was the Baltic Sea, a narrow part of sea overlooking the Soviet Union, DDR and Poland for Warsaw’s Pact side, West Germany, Denmark and Norway for the NATO side and some neutral countries like Finland and Sweden.
On 8 April 1950, a four engine US Navy Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer left Wiesbaden Air Base in West Germany at 10:31am LT for a surveillance flight aimed at spying the Soviet submarines operating in the Baltic Sea. The “Privateer”, a World War II era patrol bomber derived from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, carried a crew of ten people when it was intercepted by four Soviet “La-11” fighters at about sixteen kilometers off the coast of Latvia, south of Liepäja.
After refusing the “follow me” signals from the fighters, the US Navy plane was immediately shot down and ten men of the crew was presumed dead and never found.
Search and rescue efforts started almost immediately after the plane was reported missing but were abandoned on 16 April, since no survivors or rests were found.
But a halo of mystery soon pervaded the days following the incident. On 15 April a search plane spotted an inflated life raft so that Capt. D. J. Klinger, commander of the U.S. Air Rescue Mission stated right away the rafts supply pockets had been opened manually. Days later two Swedish fishing boats recovered another damaged life raft and a nose wheel with a bullet hole.
Like the majority of biggest incidents (not only those involving planes), rumors and unbelievable stories started to spread out everywhere: a Soviet gulag survivor named John Noble, after coming back to the USA having experienced ten years of prison in various concentration camps, stated he had met two witnesses who claimed they had seen eight survivors of the “Privateer” crash.
Anatolij Gerassimov, one of the four pilots who had intercepted the US plane, several years after the incident, is believed to have reported to a Lithuanian newspaper a statement assuming that the crew had been taken prisoner.
He stated that after intercepting the “Privateer”, the formation composed by four Lavochkin 11 fighters ordered the US pilot to follow them. They used internationally recognized signals like rocking the wings and turning to the new heading in front and left of the US plane.
After that Gerassimov noticed the US pilot smiled at him, waved “good-bye” and turned to a western heading. Therefore the soviet pilots informed the ground control, which issued the “green light” to attack and shoot to kill.
After the attack, according to Gerassimov, the plane started to burn in the center and he saw ten parachutes coming out from the plane, then the “Privateer” exploded.
Regarding the rests of the plane, in 1993, retired Soviet General Fyodor Shinkarenko stated that he believed the wreckage was secretly salvaged and sent to Moscow.
Leaving aside the various beliefs about the fate of the crew, even this incident brought to two opposite theories by both the competitors.
In a note dated 18 April 1950, the US Government stated the full responsibility of the incident to be attributed to the Soviets and asked for the need to start immediately a deep investigation on the incident.
The results of the US investigation come to the conclusion that the crew followed the order to avoid flying any enemy territory and therefore the plane was on the airspace above the high sea at the time it was shot down.
The response by the Soviets was instantaneous: they maintained that at the time of the incident the US plane was armed, was flying 21 kilometers inside the Soviet airspace and was shot down only after refusing the request for an immediate landing at the nearest available airfield.
It is hilarious to note how the focal point of the legal and diplomatic debate after the incident was not focused at all on the legitimacy of the activities of flying spying. Again the point of rupture between the competitors was the exact location of the intruder plane at the time of the facts. Indeed, if it could have been possible to demonstrate that the US plane was unquestionably inside the Soviet airspace, the use of force could have been regarded as legitimate (this only if the Soviet government could demonstrate that the enemy plane refused to land upon request).
Therefore, the activity of air surveillance and spying above the high sea could not have been blamed by anyone.
Apart the political and military security implications, this principle has been considered a milestone by most of the international law jurists on the matter.
In any case, the main doctrine recognizes that even in such events like the one analysed in this episode involving military aircraft, the use of force against the enemy intruder will result legitimate only if following some specific requisites.
Here I indicate three cases in which the intruder starts to perform high risk maneuvres after being intercepted:
* if the intercepted plane starts to fire against the defense fighters without any apparent explanations; * after all the necessary warnings (request of landing, immediate change of course and so on) have been ignored voluntarily; * when its purposes are clearly opposing the ones of the enemy.
This theory is followed by Browlie in the treaty “International Law and the Use of Force by States”, according to which the hostile action has to be related to the speed and course kept by the intruder aircraft on enemy territory:
“[…]in general the practice seems to be that there is no right to shoot down trespassers unless they refuse or appear to refuse to land. However, if the penetration is by unidentified fast aircraft which persist in a deliberate and deep penetration of airspace, it may be that, in view of the destructive power of even a single nuclear weapon carried by an aircraft, the territorial sovereign is justified in taking without any warning violent and immediate preventive measures.”
The use of force as legitimate defense has been used several times by the countries and has not been limited to aerial intrusions only.
As an example, after a long series of submarines incidents on its territorial waters, the Swedish government sets a trap by sealing off the marine area of Harsfjarden with mines and sensors.
A comparable event involved Italian Navy warships on the same year in the waters of the Gulf of Taranto.
The years following the end of WWII were very controversial and did not bring to a real peace for those territories claimed by two or more parts.
Just to remain in the old continent, the political tension between Italy and Yugoslavia for the brand-new border was followed by a deployment of military forces and by the continue use of them as a way of threat.
The modeling of borders under the control of the new world superpowers was on the way and the aim to reach the maximum sphere of influence on the satellite countries brought to some inevitable incidents.
After the end of World War II many C-47s remained in the USAAF, participating in the Berlin airlift and in other flights to bring supplies to the allied countries.
In particular, since 1946, the USAAF C-47As made some regular transport flights between Wien and Udine and, in order to avoid lengthening their route, it was a habit for the crews to fly through a portion of the Yugoslavian airspace.
Alarmed by the continuous intrusions of foreign planes, Dictator Tito ordered a reinforcement of the new born air force (Jugoslovensko Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo or JRV) on the Lubiana-Polje airport, deploying the 3rd Aerial Division equipped with Russian Yak-3 aircrafts.
Yak 3, Belgrade Aviation Museum, Serbia. Author: Marko M.
The incidents did not wait too long to occur. One of the most significant ones occurred in July, 1946 when two fighters of the 254° Regiment intercepted an American transport C-47 that managed to avoid the contact by disappearing in the thick clouds. Another USAAF Douglas C-47 (Registration marks 43-15376) had not the same lucky destiny the following Aug. 9. The plane was shot down over the actual Slovenian airspace by pilot Dragomir Zacevic, who although fortunately survived and performed an emergency landing at the Belgrade airport. Onboard there were four American crewmembers (including William Crombie, the pilot) and four passengers – three Americans, two Hungarians, and a Turkish officer. Everybody onboard survived and after ten days was released – and could take possess again of their plane – by the Yugoslavian authorities. The Turkish officer was badly injured in the incident and was released after everybody else.
Ten days later the worse occurred.
Lieutenants Mirolad Knezev and Vladimir Vodopivec were on duty on the Radovljca airfield that late morning, when the air siren rang over the ghostly sound of war.
They pitched their Yak-3 fighters at maximum speed on the runway and shortly they intercepted the intruder, another USAAF Douglas C-47, which was shot down in flames, killing all the crew onboard: Harold Schreiber, Glen Freestone, Richard Claeys, Matthew Comko and Chester L. Lower.
In the Western world the reaction was unanimous against the ruthless act perpetrated by the Yugoslavian air force but Tito’s dictatorship soon justified their action providing some figures: during the months of July and August 1946 alone, more than 170 violations of his airspace had occurred!
This statement encountered the complete disagreement of the counterpart.
The United States asserted the plane had received by the authorities before the flight a specific order to avoid the Yugoslavian airspace; the unintended violation happened only because the crew – due to very bad weather conditions – diverted the course from the one they previously planned.
The United States criticised how the Yugoslavian fighters attacked the transport plane with repeated gun shots without any request of immediate landing.
This is the statement made by the Department of State following the incident:
“[The Yugoslavian fighters]…made no signal which could be interpreted as a landing signal but had merely wobbled their wings – which, according to United States practice, was the accepted signal to attract attention; and that the plane was again fired on while rapidly descending in an effort to land.”
This incident was interpreted by the United States and most of the international community as a clear and evident violation of international rules, regardless of the exact territory over which the plane was flying at the time of the incident.
Through the words of their Ambassador in Belgrade, the United States highlighted the gravity of the situation by stating how the incident represented a specific violation to article 51 of the Chart of the United Nations:
“…Regardless of whether the planes were a short distance within or without the corridor, they were unarmed passenger planes en route to Udine, in Italy. Their flight in no way constituted a threat to the sovereignty of Yugoslavia. The use of force by Yugoslavia under the circumstances was without the slightest justification in international law, was clearly inconsistent with relations between friendly states, and was a plain violation of the obligations resting upon Yugoslavia under the Charter of the United Nations not to use force except in self-defence. At no time did the Yugoslav government advise the United States Government that if one of its planes should, because of weather conditions, be forced a mile or two outside of the corridor or, because of mechanical troubles, should find itself outside of that corridor, the Yugoslavian Government would shoot to death the occupants of the plane. The deliberate firing without warning on the unarmed passenger plane of a friendly nation is in the judgment of the United States an offence against the law of nations and the principles of humanity.”
Yugoslavian Government never challenged the US thesis regarding the need to protect the safety of the aircrafts – both civilian and military – flying over a foreign territory on a situation of distress due to bad weather conditions, engine failures or space disorientation.
Nevertheless, the Yugoslavian Ambassador in Washington declared that during the period of time from July to August 1946, more than two 278 non-authorized flights took place over the Yugoslavian territory and, in most of the cases, they were flights made with the purpose of violating Yugoslavian sovereignty.
On August, 31th 1946, Marshall Tito wrote a note to the US ambassador, asserting the complete disposal of its government to cease any military activities that could prejudice the safety of flight crews over the Yugoslavian territory; at the same time, he kept on refusing the responsibility for the event.
Incidents did not stop completely in the following years. At the end of 1948 the situation slowly calmed down, but only in appearance: it was time to shift the range of operations in a larger theater.
Cold war had just started and the whole world, from the Alaskan border to the far South east of Asia was the playing scenario for the two nuclear superpowers.
The era of countless secret air battles through the skies of the world had just begun, often needing the efforts and the sacrifices of unknown and forgotten heroes.
On Jul. 10, 2009, a Primera Air Boeing 737-700, with registration TF-JXG, flying as GX-362 flight, from Zakinthos (Greece) to Dublin (Ireland), with 153 passengers and 6 crew members, was escorted by a single F-2000 (not two as some sources reported) of the 4° Stormo of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) after the crew requested an emergency landing in Rome Fiumicino airport, due to a technical problem. The airplane landed safely on runway 16L, that had been kept sterile for 40 minutes for the emergency arrival with all other traffic “diverted” on runway 16R, at 16.51LT. According to the information released by the ItAF, “Typhoon 99″ was ordered to intercept the aircraft, after the B737 had made an unauthorised descent from cruising altitude to FL200. The Italian authorities initially requested the flight to divert to Naples airport, but the commander refused to land in Capodichino as it required a longer runway. Since L’Aquila and Rome were interested in that day by the G8 summit and a NFZ (No Fly Zone) was active, the Italian COFA (Comando Operativo Forze Aeree) scrambled a Typhoon to intercept the “zombie”.
Image courtesy of Alenia Aeronautica
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