Among the hundreds hints, a few suggested that the Phantom downed in mysterious circumstances by a Syrian anti-aircraft artillery off Latakia, was actually a remotely controlled aircraft (a drone), being used to either spying on Assad’s regime activities in northern Syria, or probing Damascus air defenses, as suggested by a NATO pilot and reportedly routinely done in the Aegean with the Greek ones.
Although the chances that Ankara has modified one its Phantoms to be remotely piloted and used for covert missions inside the Syrian airspace seem to be scarce, I can’t completely rule out the possibility that a sort-of QF-4 (the U.S. aerial target drone F-4) is (or was) flying with the Turkish Air Force.
The TuAF operates the Anka drones, a family of unmanned aerial vehicles (with configuration and size comparable to the MQ-1 and MQ-9) developed by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) for use by Turkey’s Air Force.
According to some sources, with some U.S. help (Americans play a role in almost all conspiracy theories…) TAI could have modified some of its Phantoms to perform unmanned, dangerous spying missions, in which a much faster type of aircraft, offering a higher sensors payload, is needed.
However, it’s just an intriguing theory that was probably fueled by the mysterious flight path of the plane (that included a leg well inside the “enemy airspace”) and, above all, the fact that neither the bodies nor remains of the RF-4E crew members (whose names were released) were recovered since the search and rescue operation was launched in the aftermath of the downing.
In the meanwhile, the Ankara has released new and even more detailed data about the downed plane [that used radio callsign “Safak 46″] on Jul. 1 in response to the WSJ article that quoted U.S. intelligence sources that backed the Syrian account of the incident.
Here’s a rough translation of the Turkish General Staff statement:
1. The statement is needed to answer the claims based on the story published by foreign press organs about the downing of the aircraft by Syria in international airspace on Jun. 22, 2012.
2. As already stated several times before, the aircraft was shot down in international airspace while flying as a single plane, an unarmed flight mission to test existing radar installations in the region.
3. According with our radar data, and as a result of our investigations: the aircraft took off from Erhac / Malatya at 1030, vectored towards Eastern Mediterranean, approached waypoint #1 at 11:06 local time started to cruise at an altitude of 21,400ft. The aircraft approached waypoint #2 at 11:14 at 8,600ft, waypoint #3 at 11:23 at 7,500ft, waypoint #4 at 11:37 at 2,000ft and return leg for a second test run at 11:50 at 3,000ft. Violation of Syrian airspace lasted about 5 minutes. According to the analysis of radar track and radio comms during the second leg approaching waypoint #4 the aircraft suddenly lost altitude at 7,400 feet altitude at 11:56 and contact was lost at 11:57, in international airspace.
4. Immediately after, a search and rescue mission started and a public statement has been made.
5. Subsequently it was learned that our aircraft was brought down by Syria.
6. As a result, based on the research, analyisis of the radar track history and investigation, the aircraft was hit approximately 13 miles off Syrian airspace, and the last point that the aircraft was flying stable was 35 48.22 North, 33.21 East 35th. From this point the aircraft quickly lost speed and altitude and Syria crashed in Syrian territorial waters 8.5 miles off the coast approximately at 35 48.26 North, 37.59 East.
7. There is no information about the fate of our pilots.
8. The Nautilus ship, used to recover the wreckage of the aircraft is expected to arrive in the area by the evening of Monday Jul. 2.
Following the Phantom incident, the Turkish Government decided to amass rocket launchers and anti-aircraft systems along its southern border.
Four of the F-16s that were scrambled on Jun. 30 took off from Incirlik and two departed from Diyarbakir.
Incirlik is not a permanent F-16 base, but a certain number of fighter jets was probably based there to reinforce Turkey air defense in the region.
The Syrian helicopters that sparked the alert scrambles, flew as close as 6.5km (4 miles) to the border, according to the AP news agency. It is still unclear whether they were of the same type of those used by the regime against the rebels.
This is what the U.S. intelligence/defense sources indicated to the Wall Street Journal that, in an article published on Jun. 29, also confirmed The Aviationist’s early hypothesis that the Turkish Phantom was flying a mission aimed at probing Damascus air defenses.
Although how the American officials have gathered specific details about the position of the plane remains a sort-of mystery (an ISR – Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance – and/or an AEW – Airborne Early Warning platform spying Syrian activities might have recorded something) such embarrassing discrepancies emerge while Ankara amasses rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns along its border with Syria as a reaction to the downing of its fighter jet (whose crew members have not been recovered yet).
Indeed, as reported by the Times of Israel, the minister told the Turkish news station A Haber, that Syrian personnel operating the anti-aircraft site may have confused the Turkish RF-4E for an Israeli Phantom, even if the Israeli Air Force has decommissioned the last F-4 in 2004.
“Turkish planes and Israeli planes look alike […] If an Israeli plane enters Syria, it is welcomed by fire. [The Turkish plane] might have been believed to be an Israeli plane; we did not want to take down a Turkish plane,” he said.
However, according to the information made public by the Turkish authorities, based on intercepted radio comms, the aircraft was clearly identified as Turkish before being downed (outside the Syrian airspace, according to Ankara’s version)
The North Atlantic Council discussed the shooting down of a Turkish aircraft by Syria. We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms. It is another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.
Our thoughts at this difficult time are with the missing Turkish aircrew, their families and their loved ones. We continue to follow the situation closely and with great concern, and will remain seized of developments on the South-Eastern border of NATO.
The security of the Alliance is indivisible. We stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity.
The New York Times ran an article (later picked up elsewhere) that included a scan of a letter sent from Turkey to the UN.
The letter includes several details that provide a clear view of the Turkish version of the episode.
Firstly the exact position of where the Phantom was hit: 35 48.22N – 35 32.21E which is 13NM from the coast of Syria and therefore in international airspace. This means the aircraft had violated the Syrian airspace but, according to the Turkish authorities, it had already left it when it was shot down at 11.58 local time.
Secondly according to the text of the letter, was flying at 7,400 feet on its own (not part of a pair) and after being hit turned towards the Syrian coast and hit the sea at 35 48.26N – 35 37.59E some 8NM from the coast.
Again the letter states the plane was transmitting its IFF (indentification, friend or foe) transponder and that Turkey has captured radio communications that demonstrates Syrian units knew this was a Turkish plane. The letter also alluded that Turkey may have proof from third party radar stations that could have recorded the route flown by the combat plane.
Noteworthy, the letter does not say that the RF-4ETM (this is the correct designation) was downed by a missile. However, if it was really flying so far from the coast (13 NM) and at medium altitude (7,400 ft), it could not be reached by anti-aircraft artillery flak.
According to the data released by Turkey here’s how the airspace violation developed:
11.42LT: the aircraft “unintentionally” entered the Syrian airspace at 200 feet with a North East heading
11.44LT: a Turkish radar station (most probably the one providing assistance to the flight) issued an airspace violation warning
11.47LT: after turning left (and coming extremely close to the Syrian coast) the RF-4 exited the Syrian airspace
11.50LT: the pilot contacted the Turkish radar to inform it that they would have performed the same profile and asking for positive radar control not to repeat airspace violation.
11.58LT: the Phantom was hit while it was repositioning for a second pattern
Although it is extremely weird that the Syrian air defense shot down the Phantom 15 minutes after it violated the Syrian airspace (according to the Turkish version), it is at least as suspect that a combat plane flying under positive radio and radar contact, possibly under radar control or advisory service, violates a foreign airspace without being warned by its own air traffic control agency well before the violation occurs.
Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti