“We Did Barrel Rolls Around Tu-95s At The Request Of The Soviets”: USAF F-4 WSO Explains

Tu-95 barrel rolls
An F-4C from 57th FIS escorts a Soviet Bear intercepted near Iceland in the early 1970s. (via Robert Sihler)

Here are some memories from the Weapon Systems Officer who shot the famous photograph of the F-4 flying inverted near a Soviet Tu-95 Bear bomber.

Last week we have published a blurry shot of a U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom flying inverted during an intercept mission on a Russian Tu-95 Bear. The photograph went viral and reached Robert M. Sihler, the author of the shot, who was so kind to provide some interesting details about the image that brought to mind one of the most famous scenes in Top Gun movie.

“Although I don’t remember the exact date, the mission occurred in either late 1973 or early 1974.  The F-4C belonged to the 57th FIS at Keflavik NAS.  The mission was a standard intercept of a “Bear” by two F-4s after the alert crews were activated,” Bob wrote in an email to The Aviationist.

In June 1973 the F-4s replaced the F-102s at Keflavik. (All images: R. Sihler)

“I was a Navigator, or in the F-4, a Weapons System Officer. I entered the USAF in Oct 1969. On active duty, I spent a couple of years at Norton AFB, CA in C-141s. From there, I trained in the F-4 and spent one year at Keflavik, Iceland. Following that, I went back to C-141s at Charleston AFB, SC from 1974 to 1977. I left active duty and spent the next 14 years in C-130s at Andrews AFB, MD and Martinsburg ANGB, WV. I retired as a Lt Col in Dec 1991. The assignments to Iceland were generally either one or two years. I elected to do one year without my family accompanying me there. Others chose to bring their families for two years.”

Dealing with the close encounters with the Tu-95s:

“At that time, we probably averaged two intercepts of “Bears” per week. They were the only aircraft we saw while I was there. Generally, the intercepts occurred on Fridays and Sundays, at the “Bears” flew from Murmansk to Cuba on training and, we guessed, “fun” missions. Generally, we did these barrel rolls at the request of the Soviet crewmembers.  They gave us hand signals to let us know they wanted us to do it.  They photographed us as well.  The Cold War was winding down and the attitudes on both sides had improved,” Sihler explains.

When asked whether the barrel roll was difficult or unsafe maneuver, Bob has no doubts: “Not really!  The Soviets, at the time, gave us hand signals asking us to “perform” for them. The rolls were not dangerous at all.”

The famous shot of the inverted flying F-4 Phantom (the aircraft was actually ending a barrel roll).
An F-4C from 57th FIS escorts a Tu-95 intercepted near Iceland in the early 1970s.
The same 57th FIS F-4C that performed the barrel roll around the Tu-95 depicted during the same intercept mission.
A Tu-95 as seen from a Phantom’s cockpit.

A big thank you to Robert Sihler for answering our questions and providing the photographs you can find in this article.

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.

12 Comments

  1. It seems Cold War 1 was more civilized in this respect than the incipient Cold War 2. Let’s hope reason and peace prevail over the warmongering elites of this world.

    Thanks for your heartwarming story. We need more Russians like those crews and more Americans like you.

    Nice for Christmas!

      • Today there are only uncivilized incidents, with lots of hysterical propaganda about false threats to convince taxpayers about the urgent need for more and more armaments. This Cold War is driven by the very bottom line: Money (under many different, attractive names, including “patriotism”).

        Then, there were “Statesmen”; today, most are “Statepigmyes” vassals.

    • There was nothing romantic or civilized about the Cold War. The Soviets actually shot down and killed quite a number of aircraft and crew, though some likely survived to serve years or decades in labor camps.

  2. The Soviet crew ask for the F4 to do a barrel roll for one reason intelligence gathering they wanted to see the maneuverability of the new aircraft and the Americans fell for it…… why are we so gullible…. and the Russians are still up to their old tricks and we don’t have a clue

    • For a dirty soul all souls are dirty. Dirty eyes see everything dirty.

      By 1973 everybody in this world knew the agility of the Phantoms still flying in Vietnam. What interest could a sane military have in knowing the maneuverability of any aircraft at the Bear’s cruise speed? American military were not gullible; they timed interceptions so that Soviets could not record their reaction times.

      Sincerely hope you enjoy a clean-soul Christmas! And I really mean it.

    • The RAF used to take up porn mags to display to the Soviet crews, perhaps that was an insidious plot to gather intelligence on western porn!!!

    • The F-4C was already very old then. The Soviets already had as much info about the F-4 as we had about the later MIGs, from Southeast Asia.

    • Are you really this foolish? The ____ng Blue Angels flew them from 1969-1974, the Russian Embassy in San Francisco probably had plenty of eyes watching, plus the Vietnam war was over, the numbers were in. Nobody needed to know anything in 1974, the Mig-23, the Russian answer to the Phantom, had been flying for 7 YEARS by then!

  3. I’ve heard story’s about Russian Tu-95 Bear crew asking for Playboy magazines, but I’ve haven’t heard about any foreign aircraft requesting a barrel roll before now. Cool story. Course now I’ve got a line from TopGun stuck in my head……
    “Negative Ghostrider the pattern if full.”
    Goose,”No Mav’ this is not a good idea!!” etc. etc. ;)

  4. Cool! Also, this pretty much dismisses all current day hysteria about ‘close’ flybys and ‘dangerous ‘ maneuvers reported by both western and russian media.

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