Russian Tu-22M strategic bomber sighted dangerously close to airliner off California?

Update Jan. 7, 2013 14.00 GMT

The following video was allegedly filmed on Aug. 27 by a passenger of flight Alaska Airlines 821 from Sacramento and Kahalui, Hawaii.

According to the uploader, who has posted to Youtube fictional videos depicting attacks on Russian ship, it shows the Boeing 737-800 on its way to the Hawaii (about one hour off San Francisco) flying quite close to a Russian Air Force Tu-22M Backfire.

The Russian bomber approaches the airliner from the left astern, same level, then slowly flies past: more than an interception (as the author describes the maneuver) it’s an overtaking.

No U.S. fighter plane shadowing the Russian bomber can be spotted in the footage, although we can’t be sure the Tu-22 was being closely tracked nor that F-22 Raptors had already been scrambled from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

Even if a Tu-22M (similar to those that China might operate in the near future to counter the U.S. Navy in the Pacific and South China Sea regions) flying in international airspace, would not be a big surprise, its proximity not only to the Californian coast but also to civilian traffic is a bit weird.

In fact, the video was probably probably extensively doctored. The Tu-22M perspective and angle doesn’t seem to change and its strobe light is more than suspect. Furthermore, since it doesn’t show an IFR (In Flight Refueling) probe, the Backfire would be a bit too far from any operating airbase in the Pacific region.

Even if fake, the footage gives us the opportunity to discuss about military flight operations in the vicinity of foreign airspace. Something that happens quite often, for instance when Russian planes undertake long range Cold War-like missions in North Europe and Japan.

When they don’t follow standard ICAO procedure, state/military flights must operate in “due regard” to provide a level of safety equivalent to that that would be normally provided by ICAO-compliant ATC agencies.

Military planes operating in international airspace are not obliged to establish a two-way radio contact with the local ATC agency and operate their transponders. So, either visually (in VMC – Visual Meteorological Conditions) or by means of airborne radars they should operate outside controlled airspaces and keep self separation from other aircraft. Therefore they don’t usually fly much close to high density airspace or most crowded airways and that’s why the presence of a Backfire so close to a civil plane over the Pacific is at least unusual.


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About David Cenciotti 4450 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.


  1. A quick search for a flight 821 on Flightaware reveals that 821 fly’s from KSFO (San Francisco) to Juarez Int’l. I vote fake…

  2. Fake for several reasons:

    1. This occurred 5 months ago and we’re just hearing about it now? This would’ve been all over the internet and military-interest websites. This one person on the flight is the only one saying something?

    2. It would not get that dark that quick flying toward Hawaii. When I flew to Taiwan in March 2009, (LAX to Taipei direct), we took off at 4:30 PM local time (sun was getting very low). Because we were chasing the sun, it stayed light (relative to us) for hours. The sun, relative to us, went down several hours later and we flew in perpetual sunset for HOURS. It’s a 14 hour flight and it didn’t get dark for us until we were approx. 2 hours out of Taipei. So we’re supposed to believe that the jet took off when it was bright and sunny as can be and it was twilight an hour later? No way.

    3. In the final freeze-frame of the Backfire bomber, look at the angle of the shadow off the inlet. It can easily be seen that the sun is nearly overhead. It’s definitely not a twilight shot. The picture was darkened to make the background fade out. It’s easy to do without making the jet exceedingly dark since the jet is such a light two-tone white and very light gray.

    4. Airliners do not fly this close to other aircraft. This jet would be doing all kinds of maneuvers to get away from the TU-22. Lateral separation is not allowed to be less than 5 nautical miles (3 nautical miles while under control of an approach controller.)

  3. The vid is utter bullshit. The flight ist Alaska Airlines AS821 from Sacramento to Kahului. Departure Time 18.05 local time Sacramento. Sunset for Sacramento on 27th of August 2012 was 19.42 local time. “About an hour off the California coastline” means a position roughly 1000 kilometers more west at 19.05 local time. Daylight limit is migrating at 1600 km/h over earth surface, means sunset at actual position is 36 minutes later than in Sacramento, which means sunset at 20.28 local time. Or in other words: the planes must fly in bright sunshine one hour after take off at 19.05 local time which they don’t in the vid. FAKE!

  4. Definitive proof that it’s a fake:

    Each and every video or document which starts with a statement like “What you are about to witness is true”, it’s inevitably a fake :P

  5. The aircraft is actually facing us as the viewer, not pointing away from us as it should be. Look very closely, the black upright rectangular object to the right is not a wingtip but the intake on the starboard side just below the cockpit. Once you have this point of reference you can now realize that this is a front 3/4 view with the engine exhaust totally hidden from view. For more clarification here is a link to an image of the same aircraft in exactly the same orientation.

    The footage always shows the aircraft from this angle:

    It should actually be an image from this angle if it were real:

    Once you understand this, it’s laughably fake.

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