Rare Photo Shows F-4 Phantom Flying Inverted While Intercepting A Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber

“Because I was….inverted!”: Top Gun stunt performed near a Russian strategic bomber.

[Read also the follow up story, that provides more details about the shot featured in this article, here: “We Did Barrel Rolls Around Tu-95s At The Request Of The Soviets”: F-4 WSO Explains The Story Of The Phantom Upside Down Near Bear“]

In the last few years, we have often reported about “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts conducted across the world by Russian (and Chinese) fighter jets scrambled to identify and escort U.S. spyplanes flying in international airspace.

Barrel rolls, aggressive turns that disturbed the controllability of the “zombie” (intercepted aircraft in fighter pilot’s jargon), inverted flight: if you use the search function on this site you can read of several such incidents that made the news on media all around the world.

The last episode involved a Russian Su-30 that crossed within 50 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon’s path over the Black Sea during an intercept mission, causing the American maritime patrol aircraft to endure violent turbulence, on Nov. 25, 2017.

However, as a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models, told us a couple of years ago:

“Prior to the end of the Cold War interceptors from a variety of nations managed to get into tight formation with RC-135s and EP-3s. Smaller airplanes like MiG-21s made it easy. The challenge with the larger airplanes like the Su-27 and MiG-31 is the sheer size of the interceptor as it moves in front of any portion of the intercepted plane.

At least the Su-27 pilot has excellent all-around visibility to see where the back-end of his own airplane is as he maneuvers adjacent to the RC-135.

The U-Boat crew took video of the intercept, which has not been released but shows the precise extent of how close the FLANKER really was. Recent movies taken by a PRC aircraft that was intercepted by a JASDF F-15CJ suggests that the Eagle was very close—until the camera zooms out and shows the Eagle was 70-100 feet away from the wingtip….

Finally, although the number of Russian reactions to Western recon flights has been increasing recently, for 15-20 years (certainly from 1992 through 2010) there were almost no reactions on a regular basis. As such, what passes for dangerous and provocative today was ho-hum to recon crews of my generation (although we weren’t shot at like the early fliers from 1950-1960).”

Therefore, these close encounters were a sort of routine in the skies all around the world during the Cold War. And “reckless” behaviour did not only involve Russian pilots, as the top image seems to prove.

The blurry photograph (courtesy of our friends at the Global Military Strategy & Statistics FB page) shows an F-4 Phantom (probably from the U.S. Air Force, even though the quality of the shot does not help identifying the nationality), flying inverted during an intercept/escort mission on a Russian Tu-95 Bear: a stunt that may remind one of the most famous scenes in Top Gun movie.

We don’t know when nor where this photograph was taken (if you have some details or hints, please let us know), still a proof that some (dangerous) maneuvers have been part of such close encounters for decades and have seldom made the news. At least, until a few years ago…

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. Is this article showing up correctly for anybody else? All i can see is half an article ending in “However, as a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models, told us a couple of years ago:”

  2. As expected, Leroy concocted an usual “blame-the-Russians” explanation for “impossible” Western sins. For him reckless behaviour was only Soviet or Soviet motivated, inspired by Putin’s grandpa. Unfortunately for Leroy and his fans, History is a stubborn witness and cannot be changed completely.

    What in the past was ho-hum, today is motive of loud histeria. The most hair-raising episode was performed by two U.S.Navy aircraft intercepting on Bear in 1966. It was also a feat so skilled, that one of the Bear pilots gave a big smile and a thumbs-up to one of the American pilots involved. This was a big contrast with today’s cry-baby pilots that call the Pentagon or Brussels screaming “Mama, Mama, the Russians are staring at me”. The Phantom pilot in the episode – John Newlin – was a real master joy-stick jock and I tip my hat in deep respect for him. He, also, was very honest; a quality extinct in most of today’s conversations.


    Lets hope Leroy does not report him as a Putin’s troll. Don’t hold your breath.

    • Unfortunately (or should I say fortunately for you) angles on photos taken at a distance mean everything. The F-4 is well low of the Bear, A-3 well above. Too bad you can’t analyze intelligence photographs, but regardless, neither aircraft flew in front of the Tu-95 and went into AB. Nor did they barrel roll over it. That stunt was and is reserved for far-from-professional Russian pilots. Yesterday’s as well as today’s.

      • “Nor did they barrel roll over it.”

        I neglected to add the word “safely”. A barrel roll done at safe separation, perhaps to take photos, isn’t a dangerous maneuver (assuming the pilot is well trained. American and NATO pilots are). But any maneuver performed with unsafe separation is not standard ops for any U.S. or NATO air arm. Russia? They did it and still do it.

      • So your infallible mind knows what went on there better than John Newlin! Next time, for your mental benefit, read and analyze the sources completely. I simply posted a link to the horse’s mouth. Read the article!

        Get a Jane’s (not Wikipedia, which sadly is being edited almost daily by dedicated propagandists, often not completely literate) and check both aircraft’s dimensions. Phantoms are big, but still smaller than the Skywarrior. Since both look close in size that clearly means the Phantom is closer to the camera. But that is not the point. You are accusing a reputable Navy Officer of lying, and inventing the history of “the sandwich”. Obviously, for you and your acolytes, the only “reliable” facts are the ones that you creatively create.

    • No fan of Leroy here, but in general it’d be a good thing if *everybody* kept the cowboy antics to a minimum during these intercepts. Seems like basic navigational safety to me.

      I don’t understand this phrase: “The U-Boat crew took video of the intercept….” Umm, is somebody flying U-boats these days? The old Type VII’s, or the more capable Type XXI’s?

      • Completely agree. Nobody should. Could you remind me where I mentioned U-boats? I can’t recall.

    • “For about an hour that day, we weren’t cold war enemies—just airmen enjoying the shared good fortune of flying some pretty awesome aircraft.”

      This is the best part and we should memorize it. The main reason for most people to become a pilot is to be able to fly these planes. Not to go to war. That decision is always made by someone on a desk who couldn’t be farther away from the dying.

  3. “Note that the F-4 is not flying OVER the Tu-95 in a threatening manner. BIG difference!”

    The Phantom in the Aviationist article’s photo seems to be completing a barrel roll started on the Bear’s right side, or some hooliganish, fun maneouver. It is flying downwards relative to the Bear, which is cruising. The Phantom is not escorting the Bear straight and level. To keep station inverted, at the Bear’s cruise speed of 400+ mph the Phantom would have to fly nose up, at a very high negative alpha necessary to create enough lift to sustain level flight. Especially with a lot of fuel onboard (initially it used the drop tanks). Also, interceptors do not keep station higher than the target. In those times, if a Soviet pilot did, what Russian pilots do today, he would have been severely disciplined for following American practices, a sign of weakness against “ideological diversionism”. Still, things happened. On all sides. Like today.

    • “In those times, if a Soviet pilot did, what Russian pilots do today, he would have been severely disciplined …”.

      Patently false.

      • As opposed to you, I have recorded facts. I do not lie! I can be wrong or mistaken; but I NEVER make things up!
        You even refute the author of the picture and the Phantom pilot in “The Sandwich”. Both were there, both DID it; you were not. But your creative, personal “facts” are more reputable. Tragic? Comic? Rational? Go figure!

        • I’ve actually done, seen, and read a few things (real tactical message traffic onboard a real CVN) so I’ll take my experience over your “facts” any day.

          • Please, could you kindly quote what facts I have created?

            As opposed to you, I only use facts that I can prove. If not, I say it. That’s a principle. Simply because I respect myself. And others.

            I’ve flown jets (flight test), being to war (that’s why I am anti-war) and am too old to lie; but I don’t take my experience over anybody’s experiences. Everybody’s experiences are unique and must be respected. You are taking yours over two AMERICAN officers who actually DID and describe the events that you still dispute after reading them. These two officers are factual. I believe and respect them. You don’t.
            That’s the zenith of denial and delusion; and the nadir of your respect for the public intelligence.

            Lord help us!

  4. I’m guessing you and your lead (wingman) kept good separation. I have no problem with rolling over an aircraft to snap photos, I do take issue with getting so close as to almost cause a collision. My objection is to threatening maneuvers, not safely executed ones.

    • How do YOU know this barrel roll was safely executed? How do YOU know the Russian barrel roll was unsafely executed? Nobody should do barrel rolls around uncollaborating aircraft. Not all-evil Russians. Not angelic Americans. Not NATO saints.

  5. A certain magazine which I can’t remember the name stated – in the eighties – such manoeuvres used to happen as evasive actions after the fighters pilots notice a possible threat due the remote controlled gun turret on the Bear’s tail. Does it makes any sense?!?

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