Chinese Su-30 Flanker Jet Flies Inverted Over U.S. Nuclear Sniffer Plane Over The East China Sea

A Chinese fighter pilot performed a Top Gun stunt over a U.S. Air Force WC-135.

On May 17, a Chinese Su-30 Flanker rolled over the top of a U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix aircraft which was flying in international airspace above the East China Sea.

According to the CNN the Flanker belonged to a formation of two Chinese Su-30s that intercepted the WC-135 nuclear sniffer aircraft involved in a a routine mission in Northeast Asia.

The aircraft came within 150 feet of the WC-135 with one of the Su-30s flying inverted, directly above the American “nuke hunter” plane, in a stunt that was made famous by Top Gun movie.

“While we are still investigating the incident, initial reports from the U.S. aircrew characterized the intercept as unprofessional, ” said Air Force Lt. Col. Hodge in a statement.

The WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft is a Boeing C-135 transport and support plane derivative belonging to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base (with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center) that is able to collect and analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

The aircraft has recently deployed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, close to the Korean peninsula, to monitor North Korea’s nuke weapons tests.

Throughout the afternoon, an WC-135W Constant Phoenix aircraft performs touch ‘n go landing exercises Feb. 12 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. (U.S. Air Force photo/Josh Plueger)

Not the first time

This is not the first time a Chinese or Russian fighter pilot performs a Top Gun-like stunt or aggressively maneuvers close to a U.S. aircraft.

In February 2017, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force KJ-200 and a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft were involved in what was defined by U.S. officials as an “unsafe” close encounter over the South China Sea.

Last year, on Apr. 29, 2016, a Russian Su-27 Flanker barrel rolled over the top of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft operating in the Baltic Sea. The Russian jet came within 25 feet of the U.S. intelligence gathering aircraft.

Another Su-27 had carried out the same dangerous maneuver on another US Rivet Joint over the Baltic on Apr. 14, 2016.

Previously, on Jan. 25, 2016 another U.S. RC-135 intelligence gathering jet was intercepted over the Black Sea by a Russian Su-27 Flanker that 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.

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 where a dangerous close encounter of another U.S. electronic surveillance plane with the Chinese Navy took place 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.

PLAAF Sukhoi Su-30MKK at Lipetsk-2 on Jul. 27, 2014 (Image credit: Dmitriy Pichugin)


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a 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 five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. 150 feet is not Top Gun… much about nothing… formation flying is closer than that in the military…

  2. There’s an easy fix for these Russian and Chinese misbehaviors. Both countries fly commercial flights to the U.S. Follow these incidents up with FAA “inspections” of Chinese- and Russian-flagged aircraft.

    Start modest, delaying return flights for a few hours. If that doesn’t result in a change in behavior, then ground those aircraft from an extensive, rivet-by-rivet inspection. When China or Russia complain, smile sweetly and say, “But you don’t want us to neglect safety, do you?” They’ll get the message.

    And if they counter by treating our flights into their country, so much the better. The punishment lies in hindering air travel to and from their country. That’s bad for trade and their economy. Whose aircraft sits on the tarmac and in which country isn’t that relevant. It is the sitting that matters.

    This is best illustrated by the contrasting behaviors of two WWII neutrals in the immediate aftermath of WWII, when the USSR was grabbing up diplomats who’d witnessed its misbehavior in Eastern Europe. Sweden had Raoul Wallenberg disappear. Switzerland had four of their diplomats imprisoned.

    Sweden, led by the Labor party, did nothing. Socialists, they thought, should not criticize other socialists. Not bothered by such niceties, Switzerland simply took four top Soviet diplomats into custody, making no effort to create a global incident. They knew the Soviets would get the message, and it did. The four Swiss diplomats were quickly released, while Wallenberg died in Soviet prison under circumstances that still have not been adequately explained.

    If we let these dangerous incidents in the air continue, eventually there’ll be a major incident with a possible loss of life. We need to put an end to them by acting aggressively and firmly.

    • and then the Russian and Chinese authorities will do the same.

      And we’ll lose far more. There are tens of thousands of US, UK, Canadian, Australians and New Zealanders in those countries, especially China. Threatening anything to do with China and Russia and not expecting a far worse response on our people in those countries is just stupid.

      The smarter way to screw with the Russians would be to destroy the price of oil, like Trump is doing by proposing to sell half of the US national reserve.

      Though this time Putin has sandbagged the Russian economy against that sort of play. We did it to them in the 1990s, causing the collapse of the USSR. This time the Russians have taken steps to insulation themselves.

      Hence why we started scewing with Syria and the Ukraine. They were the next weakest points in the Russian empire

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