Russian Su-27 interceptor performs Top Gun stunt over U.S. spyplane

Apr 17 2016 - 53 Comments

An “unsafe and unprofessional” intercept over the Baltic Sea.

On April 14, a U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent electronic intelligence gathering aircraft flying a routine mission (in international airspace) over the Baltic Sea was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 in “an unsafe and unprofessional manner,” Navy Capt. Danny Hernandez, U.S. European Command spokesman told the CNN.

According to EUCOM, the Flanker began the barrel roll from the left side of the U.S. RC-135 and went over the top of it to end on the right side of the aircraft, an aggressive maneuver (not compliant with the international standards) that brought the Russian jet dangerously close to colliding with the Combat Sent.

The episode comes few days after Russian Su-24s performed several low passes over a U.S. destroyer in the Baltic Sea, and it’s only the last in a long series of tense close encounters between American spyplanes and Russian fighters in the skies across the world.

On Jan. 25, 2016 a U.S. RC-135 intelligence gathering jet was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet over Black Sea: during the interception, the Su-27 made an aggressive turn that disturbed the controllability of the RC-135.

On Apr. 7, 2015 another Su-27 flew within 20 feet of an RC-135U, over the Baltic Sea.

On Apr. 23, 2015 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 that crossed the route of the U.S. aircraft putting itself within 100 feet of the Combat Sent.

Actually, some “reckless” intercepts on U.S. spyplanes have been conducted by Chinese pilots as well.

In 2014, a Chinese Flanker made a barrel roll over a U.S. Navy P-8 maritime surveillance plane 135 miles east of Hainan Island, a spot of a far more dangerous close encounter of another U.S. electronic surveillance plane with the Chinese Navy back in 2001.

On Apr. 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E with the VQ-1, flying an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) mission in international airspace 64 miles southeast of the island of Hainan was intercepted by two PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) J-8 fighters.

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, not only have U.S. aircraft been harassed during intercept missions. Here are just a few examples.

On Sept. 13, 1987, a RNoAF P-3B had a mid-air collision in similar circumstances with a Soviet Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker over the Barents Sea.

In Apr. 2012, whilst flying over the Barents Sea on a routine mission, a Norwegian P-3 Orion almost collided with a Russian Air Force Mig-31 Foxhound that had intercepted the patrol aircraft.

On Jul. 16, 2014, between Gotland and Latvia, a Russian Su-27 Flanker, armed with 6 air-to-air missiles, intercepted one of the two Swedish ELINT jet, and flew as close as 10,7 meters of the spyplane.

Top image: not an actual photo but a composition we made using Wiki images


  • Zsimon

    I think the door of the carriage Flanker Front is not yet closed.

    • Ivil Kotchrnotzoff


      • Zsimon

        That the photo used to create the assembly seemed a flanker with the front door of the carriage slightly open. In fact the door is closed. That’s all.

    • Ivil Kotchrnotzoff


    • sferrin

      That’s a photoshop.

    • Tiburcio Carias

      Do you see the message at the bottom of the picture where it says it’s fake? Guess not

      • Zsimon

        Of course I read that it is a fake. But this takes nothing away from my account. The photo used is a Flanker It seems (and indeed in the original photo you can imagine that it is closed because the Su-27 is located at high altitude near a Eurofighter English) which is actually closed) having the front door of the carriage slightly open. It’s a simple detail that I brought nothing more than that.

      • Zsimon

        The message written in red with the app preview of OS X I read it. Mine is not a criticism of the author on the photo montage, using these 2 pictures

        but I pointed out that it seemed to me that the door of the Flanker cart was slightly open (and is actually closed)

  • AlexisWolf

    If you keep on flying close to others territory then expect to be intercepted, NATO does the same – tit for tat, it’s been going on for decades. If the aero-bravado is to close for comfort then stay back and stop poking the Bear or the Dragon or who ever you’re trying to intimidate.

    • Tomcat

      You realize this occurred in a largely NATO region, right? Kaliningrad is completely surrounded by NATO member states.

      • Jan Schmidt

        russian alamo`?

    • Cody3/75

      Too close for comfort? You speak like someone who has never worn a uniform and never will. Typical internet idiot. The US has reason to be paranoid. Both the Russians and Chinese have proven they aren’t capable of flawlessly operating their equipment without hurting people, killing their own, or damaging equipment. Notice how there isn’t any photos or video of American pilots acting like eight year olds? Weird. Even the Iranians are capable of executing a professional intercept.

      Both sides have a job to do. That doesn’t mean they need to add additional danger and stresses that up the ante for all involved. That’s the difference between a professional military and one run by drunks trying to stay relevant.

      What’s next? Are you going to tell everyone to quit wearing seatbelts because if they can’t handle the asphalt-bravado (speak in your own language instead of butchering mine…) they shouldn’t be in a car?

      What a tool.

  • ishtmail

    Love the emphasis on “international waters”. I’m sure that USA would NEVER intercept any Russian spy plane or destroyer, if it were patrolling international waters 50-100km off US coastline…
    Of course, the Baltic Sea isn’t international waters at all, under the legal understanding of what international waters are. International waters start where the exclusive economic zone ends. This extends much further out from the territorial waters, and Baltic Sea in this regard isn’t international waters at all because all of the Baltic is Exclusive Economic Zones of different countries.

    • Roland Lawrence

      oh dear… you sayin that 12 miles out is inside Russian airspace then? :O

    • Misanthropik

      As long as the U.S. aircraft are less than 12nm from Russia (or any other nation), they are in international waters/airspace.

  • Cocidius

    It might be time to have a couple of armed Raptors fly escort on the next RC-135 mission over the Baltic Sea to give Russian Flanker pilots something else to consider before acting stupid.

    It easy to be brave when the aircraft you’re intercepting is unarmed and related to a civilian airliner.

    • Marco

      You may be missing the part where it was a spy plane skirting the airspace of another country with sensors that “spy” far beyond the “international waters line” …. the last time I checked “spying” wasn’t on the “good deeds” column in the vocabulary.

      Of course you cannot use deadly force, but expect the country being spied act like this to scare off your crews. It’s the only defense they have over international waters.

      The plane was in international waters, you can bet its sensors were not.

      I not justifying either Russia or US. Are you spying? expect the spied party to put up such stunts.

      • Cocidius

        “You might be missing” that the Russians do this on a regular basis to the US.

        An example is the Russian bombers that flew off the coast of California last year and wished the intercepting US pilots “happy birthday” since it was July 4th.

        Note the US planes didn’t perform a barrel roll over anyone during that incident or anytime before or since.

        It’s the difference between respecting international norms and acting like professionals vs. conducting dangerous military operations to attempt to bully others out of international waters.

      • Tomcat

        The hypocrisy is that the US allows Russian spy aircraft to fly directly over the continental US (keep in mind this Kaliningrad NOT mainland Russia). Same goes for Russian intel ships. They’re constantly off the East Coast monitoring activity. The US doesn’t harass them. They get an escort and that’s it.

      • Cody3/75

        During the Cold War Russian trawlers continually shadowed American carrier battle-groups. Basically non-stop. We didn’t needlessly endanger their crews though. It’s an ELINT aircraft. It gather electronic intelligence (exact same thing those trawlers were doing). If they don’t like it maybe they should secure their emissions.

        It’s a game both sides play but only one side endangers lives, and ratchets up tensions doing it.

    • markus o

      it will be really cool to see what those armed raptors could do in an hostile airspace, because it’s easy to make bold statements when you’re sit on your chair. and by the way, the idea to strengthen a covert act of war with an open one is too much even for your geno-suicidal governments.

    • Peacen1k

      I expect the Russian fighter jocks would love nothing better than to tangle with the newest US flying hardware.

      • Jan Schmidt

        nope – the russians know the capabilities of other air forces and will only defend the motherland. in case of the USA it did interventions and wars quite frequently and still tryes to but now other know and prevent it (syria)

    • Marco Alves

      NATO does those interceptions all the time with Spanish F16s, French Typhoons or UK Tornados when a Russian plane flies near its airspace. What was the problem now? The barrel roll?

  • sferrin

    Classic Russian amateur behavior.

    • markus o

      yeah. Russia put its borders definitely too close to NATO bases. they could retreat in hyperspace, to avoid provocating US foreign interests.

      • Jan Schmidt

        lol the first order wanted to spy on the rebels and a lone x-wing prevented this :)

    • marco

      From Wikipedia:

      “The RC-135U Combat Sent is designed to collect technical intelligence on adversary radar emitter systems. Combat Sent data is collected to develop new or upgraded radar warning receivers, radar jammers, decoys, anti-radiation missiles, and training simulators.”

      A pretty aggressive kind of “routine mission”. I guess the Su-27 was on a routine training flight for aerobatics.

      It’s international waters. It’s lawless land. US perform routine flights and they love to perform them so close to Russia… just it happens that Russia loves the US sending so many aircraft over there. It’s a great opportunity to perform aerobatics and aggressive training for its interceptors. Then what? Where is the need to complain?

  • sai bhagavan

    US…….first and last point they have intercepted your plane over baltic sea….mot near NY……first you be professional and stay in your limits…….then others will be professional

    • Cody3/75

      Quit being a fool. The USAF/USN has intercepted Russian bombers and ELINT aircraft in the ADZ off of BOTH coasts.

      Get a clue.

      That’s the whole point of being “professional” you dunce. These intercepts will continue to happen. So long as it’s in international airspace or an ADZ then it’s up to the participants to be professional. Unless of course you’re saying the US would be completely within their rights to aggressively endanger Russian lives when they’re around one of our ships (in international waters) or off of our coasts…something that happens more than a dozen times each year.

      The US isn’t being unreasonable by asking that these intercepts are done as professionally and safely as possible. We extend that to Russian service members. They can do the same. For you to allude that this is the United State’s fault (how does that happen in International airspace/waters) because the Russians can’t act like the pros they claim to be is the utter height of idiocy and hypocrisy.

      Notice how their isn’t any footage of American pilots risking Russian ships or planes? Weird!

    • Ed

      Do you understand what the term “international airspace” means.? Apparently not.

  • Gary Lai

    PLANAF had done this way to P-8A.

  • Imperator Cydonius

    Oh stop with the “not professional” Danny, if US Pilots were doing it, you’d be “oh it’s so cool”. Don’t you have something better to do instead of attacking Russia at every opportunity, I heard Obama wants you focusing on equal opportunity and genderless bathrooms in the airforce.

    • USAisROME

      Russia makes hay of everything they can and the US can’t point out when they do? even when they have pictures or vide of it? please

  • InklingBooks

    There’s a sensible response that the U.S. and European countries should adopt. When Russian airliners land in their countries, single out some for a full tail-to-nose safety inspection, max out any fines, and don’t let the planes take off until everything is fixed. They might even set an incident-to-response ratio of say one to five. For each incident, inspect five aircraft. Never say that’s what’s being done, just do it with remarks about insuring air safety.

    Russia could do the same, but so what? It’s travel to and from Russia that’s being hassled and thus Russia that’s always coming up the loser. Oh, and it just came to me, we could do this to the private jets and huge yaghts of Russian billionaires too, particularly if they’re friends of Putin.

    Tit for tat works quite well in foreign affairs. Just after WWII, the Soviet Union began grabbing diplomats from neutrals, lest they report Soviet repression in newly “liberated” Eastern Europe. Four Swiss diplomats were taken captive and one Swede (Wallenberg). The Swiss responded by quietly taking four high Soviet officials into custody. The Swiss diplomats were quickly released. The Swedes did nothing, and Wallenberg died in a Soviet prison under still mysterious circumstances.

    And yeah, I know. With the guy we have in the White House right now, nothing is going to happen. He’ll give a dull speech, sneer at his critics, and then go play golf.

    • markus o

      you’re so right, mate, so right. it’s almost as if USAF ELINT planes were performing missions near the russian airspace. then Russia could respond (for example) with intercepting manouvres bold enough to disrupt entirely those missions, forcing those spyplanes to go back to their bases. oh, wait, that’s exactly what happened… and what has it do to with civilian traffic, just out of curiosity? so you’re saying that – for example – when some year ago a US air crew performed a completely useless stunt near a cable car in an “allied” (that’s occupied, actually, but let’s not get lost on details) country and killed 20 people, the authorities of that country could and should have shot 100 yankee tourists to make a point?
      or that – for example – if those european countries you’re referring to had found out that their US occup… erm… partners were actually spying on their political leaders they should have put every US citizen inside their borders in custody? just to show who’s in charge?
      but relax, with the chick you’ll soon have in the White House there will be ICBMs in flight in a couple of years.

    • su34

      Wallenberg was a yank OSS operative, arrested in January ’44 for espionage, hardly “just after WWII”…
      As for the rest of inciting to illegal acts, it’s self explanatory western double plus good thinking.

    • Aivar Krisenko

      There are clips on YouTube showing Soviet frigate ramming US Yorktown in 1988 in the Black Sea. Reagan was in the office at the time. What are you going to say to that?

  • Gary Lai

    PLANAF J-11B had done that to P-8A.

    • Jan Schmidt

      also photoshopped – amazing isnt it? only believe what you see for yourself

  • Петро Наливайло

    May be no need to send spy planes so close to Russian naval base in Kaliningrad?

    • Kat Dancing

      You’re 100% correct!! If there was a Russian Spy Plane near ANY U.S. Base, you can be damn SURE that they’d be pulling Top Gun stunts too,(if they could, that is!)))). Let’s face it, Russian Pilots are sh*t hot, and just THAT GOOD!! Hope the U.S. doesn’t take it personally AGAIN?? ;-)

    • Roland Lawrence

      indeed Russia has been illegally overflown for decades, airspace ignored and we do it again by sending in unarmed drones that *got a little off course* to test things.. Why should we stop doing it now? Not only that but look at the brit sub guys boasting about sailing into Russian dockyards. How many SR71s had their transponders on? Why should we stop now?

    • Misanthropik

      Every nation on earth has freedom of navigation rights in international waters/airspace (12nm from a nation’s coastline).

      • Jan Schmidt

        this right is only valid as long as you are a civilian plane and do not stray into closed airspaces on purpose and get shot down
        also spyplanes are shot down in war times – i think the snooper crews got too comfortable and to sure they will not be harmed

    • Cody3/75

      Quit violating other countries sovereign rights and there won’t be any need for ELINT aircraft or the Baltic Air policing mission.

      Pretty simple.

      • Bez

        It could be, if America would not violate the sovereignty of countries around the world.

    • Ed

      Where else would you send spy planes, if not as near as legally possible to an aggressive nation’s bases?
      They don’t do much good circling around over Arizona.

  • markus o

    by the way, and this doesn’t refer in particular to this article, wouldn’t it be cool if russian planes were called at last with their actual names, instead of those NATO codenames that sound so 70s?

  • AstroNautilus

    Do you remember that time when a US Prowler performed a top gun stunt colliding with a cable car in Italian Alps killing everyone on board?
    Oh I’m sorry I forgot to mention that only Russians perform useless stunts..

  • avargas2001

    What we are really being told is that Russia and China are alert to intrusive UFO activity and that it is perfectly legal to spy on other nations.

  • Starost

    I wonder what would happen if Russian spy planes operating from Cuba provoked Tom Cruise close to, let’s say, Norfolk navy base?

  • John

    oh just let them buzz and crash …