Tag Archives: Airspace violations

Private Cessna violates Russian airspace near Poland. Su-27 Flanker fighter jets are scrambled against it.

Russian MoD has confirmed that a private Cessna plane has Russia’s airspace in the Kaliningrad region, near the Baltic  Gdansk Bay, on Jul. 25.

Sukhoi Su-27 plane was used to identify the intruder, as the pilot did not react to the radio communication.

The official statement said an unidentified object flying from Poland over the Baltic has been detected by the radars of the Russian Air Defense about 50 km from the border at 20.15. At 20.26 the pilot entered the Russian airspace and two Su-27 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the intruder.

After visual contact was established, the Cessna pilot directed the airplane towards Lithuania at 21.09.

Since the private plane did not have the permission to enter the Lithuanian territory it was forced to land at Latvia’s Ventspils airport by NATO fighter jets patrolling the airspace of the Baltic States.

Jacek Siminski for TheAviationist

Image Credit: giaoduc.net.vn

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Airspace violations – Episode 6

Shot down over Sinai

(Lybian Arab Airlines B727 vs. Israeli F-4s Phantom)

On Feb. 21, 1973, the B-727 “5A-DAH” belonging to the Libyan Arab Airlines regularly scheduled as Flight 114 from Tripoli to Cairo via Benghazi was shot down by two Israeli F-4 Phantoms over the Sinai Peninsula. Of the 113 people on board, there were only 5 survivors, including the co-pilot.
After a technical stopover in Benghazi – Eastern Libya – the airliner continued its route to Cairo. As the aircraft started to overfly Northern Egypt, it seems that a large sandstorm forced the crew (mostly of French nationality under a partnership contract between Air France and Libyan Airlines) to navigate only by relying on the on-board instruments. The situation was also worsened by the inefficiency of the Egyptian radio navigation system: in other words, the whole VOR system of the Cairo area and its radar surveillance were out of service. At around 13:44 LT the crew started to suspect that they had made a navigational error since they could not find any navigation beacon and they could not establish the aircraft position. Actually, the aircraft was flying over the Sinai Peninsula, (at that time militarily occupied by Israel since the Six Days War of 1967) and, unfortunately, it was in bound to Bir Gafgafa Israeli airbase. The Israeli Defense Forces were on high alert at that time as Israel was in a state of war with Egypt since the Six Days War (the Yom Kippur war was a few month away). At 13:54, the Libyan 727 entered airspace over the Sinai desert at 20,000 feet. A few minutes later two Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-4s Phanthom Kurnas (in Hebrew “Sledgehammer”) were scrambled to intercept the intruder. The direct evidence from the surviving co-pilot seems to confirm how the Israeli fighters followed the international rules on the intercepting of civil aerial intruders: the Israeli pilots, in fact, attempted many times to make visual contact with the airliner’s crew and tried to communicate with them by waving their hands, dipping the wings and finally by firing warning cannon shots close to the wingtips. The 727’s crew, maybe because being under extreme pressure and space disorientation, did not give much importance to the fighters’ behavior and decided to turn back to the West. No worse decision could have been taken, since Israeli pilots interpreted this as an attempt to flee. Aiming directly at the airliner’s wingtips in order to damage but not destroy the plane, the couple of Phantoms fired short bursts with their 20mm cannon damaging the control surfaces, the wing structure and the hydraulic systems. The amount of damage suffered was instead higher than expected by the fighter pilots, and such to force the airliner to attempt an emergency landing in an area covered with sand dunes. During the emergency landing there was an explosion near the right main landing gear, causing the destruction of most of the airframe and the subsequent death of 108 people of the 113 on board. The surviving co-pilot, later stated that the entire crew knew the Israeli jets wanted to follow them but since relations between Israel and Libya were not very smooth, they decided to turn back despite the several warnings. From his words we can understand the situation: “When we spotted the fighters the Captain contacted Cairo approach frequency and communicated to have orientation troubles and of being intercepted by fighter jets. Then he lowered down the landing gear and slowed down the speed. At that time one of the jets put itself in front of us dipping its wings but we were so busy and concerned that our main and only goal was to reach Cairo airport. From now on it is very difficult to me to remember well since our right wing was in flames and we started our descend until crash down on a sandy terrain about 20 km east of Suez Channel”.
On the Extraordinary Session of ICAO held on Feb. 27, 1973, many Delegations fully condemned the Israeli action stating how Israel Government “had violated the fundamental legal norms and standards of international civil aviation which did not permit the use of armed force against a foreign civil aircraft clearly identified as such”.
But, on the other hand, Tel Aviv stated clearly how the fighters put every effort to minimize the use of force but the action had become necessary only because of the irresponsible behavior of the airliner crew: “…and for seven minutes (the Israeli fighters) flew around it, signalling to it in a clear and correct manner, with internationally agreed signs, to follow them so as to land…Since the Boeing aircraft did not comply with these instructions, suspicious grew concerning its mission. At this point, demonstratively and in full view of the crew, warning shots were fired…but the Libyan plane ignored them. The assumption therefore was that the plane had entered the area on a hostile mission…At this stage accordingly decided that the aircraft must be compelled to land by firing upon it…”.
The ICAO Assembly later with 105 favorable votes condemned Israel for such incident. Hereby the text of the Resolution:
RECALLING that the United Nations Security Council in its Resolution 262 in 1969 condemned Israel for its premeditated action against Beirut Civil Airport which resulted in the destruction of thirteen commercial aircraft, and recalling that the Assembly of ICAO in its Resolution A19-1 condemned the Israeli action which resulted in the loss of 108 innocent lives and directed the Council to instruct the Secretary General to institute an investigation and report to the Council;
CONVINCED that such actions constitute a serious danger against the safety of international civil aviation;
RECOGNIZING that such attitude is a flagrant violation of the principles enshrined in the Chicago Convention;
HAVING CONSIDERED the report of the investigation team…and finding from it no justification for the shooting down of the Libyan civil aircraft;
1) STRONGLY CONDEMNS the Israeli action which resulted in the destruction of the Libyan civil aircraft and the loss of 108 innocent lives;
2) URGES Israel to comply with the aims and objectives of the Chicago Convention
During the course of this Session, many delegates called for a deep change of the rules on the intercepting of civil foreign aircraft in order to minimize the risk of being shot down but this proposal was not considered too much by the States.

The following F-4 profiles are a courtesy of Ugo Crisponi, AviationGraphic.com.

Another incident took place years later, with the loss of B747 Korean Airlines in 1983; this drew again the focus on changing the interception rules.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi

Airspace violations – Episode 5

“Dragon Lady 360 missing”

On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, near the city of Sverdlovsk. This episode is remembered as the most famous aerial incident of Cold War, since it created a large debate all over the world and a great embarrassment for the United States and Eisenhower’s Presidency. At first Washington Government denied the episode but was forced to admit both its responsibility and the purpose of the mission when the Soviet Government showed the remains of the wreckage and the survivor, pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The Plane

The involved plane was a Lockheed U-2, a single engine reconnaissance aircraft mainly used during Cold War for night and day high-altitude reconnaissance missions. It could fly at 70,000 feet since it had been built with the specific purpose of flying well above any fighter or missile. However, the aircraft could be reached by SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) as the episode described in this article shows, and even by interceptors: in 1984, during a NATO exercise, Flight Lieutenant Mike Hale of the RAF (Royal Air Force), flying with a Lightning F3 intercepted a U-2 flying at 66,000 feet. Anyway, the aircraft was more or less safe at stratospheric altitudes and it allowed CIA and US Air Force to perform flights over a country’s airspace to take aerial photographs with fewer risks than any other asset. The unique design, similar to a glider, brought it to be nicknamed “Dragon Lady” but on the other hand its remarkable performance also made it a difficult aircraft to fly with. For its purposes, it also carried a variety of sensors on the nose, Q-bay (behind the cockpit, also known as the camera bay), or wing pods. The U-2 was simultaneously able to collect signals, imagery intelligence and air samples. Imagery intelligence sensors included either wet film photo, electro-optic or radar imagery – the latter from the ASARS-2 system.

The Incident

During the late 50s, with the approval of Pakistani Government, the US President D. Eisenhower established a secret intelligence facility in Badaber (Peshawar Airbase), equipped with a runway that allowed U-2 spy planes to perform secret missions over the majority of the Soviet airspace.

On May 1st, 1960, fifteen days before the scheduled opening of an East-West summit conference in Paris, pilot Francis Gary Powers left the US base in Badaber on board its “Dragon Lady” Item 360 for a mission over the Soviet Union, photographing ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) sites in and around Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk and then, as by schedule, landing onto Bodo, Norway.

The flight was expected, since Soviet defenses were pre-alerted by the U-2 unit “10-10” piloted by Bob Ericson: some weeks before he had overflown some of the top secret military installations such as the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the  SAM test site, the Tyuratam missile range and the Dolon airbase with its Tu-95 strategic bombers.

According to some Russian sources, just after the U-2 was detected, Lieutenant General of the Air Force Yevgeniy Savitskiy ordered all the air unit commanders on duty “to attack the violator by all alert flights located in the area of foreign plane’s course, and to ram if necessary (see for details: http://www.webslivki.com/u11.html – Russian language only).

Some fighters took off immediately but like the previous alerts all the attempts to intercept the foreign plane failed. Eventually the U-2 was hit and shot down by the first of three S-75 Divna surface to air missiles fired by a defense battery.

According to Russian sources, it is interesting to know how Pilot Gary Powers, after successfully bailing out from the plane, was soon captured by the Russians and was found with a modified silver coin which contained a lethal saxitoxin- tipped needle…to be used in case of being captured!

After the event, the whole Soviet air defense system was obviously in red code but the lack of coordination brought to a curious incident often hidden by the ordinary tale of facts. The SAM command center was unaware that the foreign plane had been destroyed for more than half so that at least 13 further anti-aircraft missiles were fired, one of them shooting down a Mig-19 and killing his pilot, Sergei Safronov.

The episode became of an outstanding relevance among the international community and represented one of the higher peaks of the face off between the two nuclear superpowers.


On a juridical basis, the incident became notorious for the arising problem related to the limits permitted by the international law to the use of the high altitude flights in foreign airspace.

At the time of facts, US were bounded by the Chicago Convention, therefore the whole chart contents were applicable, particularly article 3 stating that: “No State aircraft of a contracting State shall fly over the territory of another State or land thereon without authorization by special agreement or otherwise, and in accordance with the terms thereof.”

Obviously the U-2 involved had to be considered as a State aircraft, although not having a military code it was operated by US intelligence agency and armed forces for secret military flights (the US never doubted the nature of the aircraft and admitted the activity was part of a long term activity started four years before).

Another relevant debate was related to the altitude the U-2 was flying and the applicability or not of the principle of the sovereignty above the air space. In other terms, where the point of separation between the national airspace and the outer space is located? (since the latter is out of the State’s sovereignty)

This problem arose since the U-2 was flying at around 27,000 metres and according to many analysts all the flight activities at this altitude were to be considered as space operations, where sovereignty of the States is null. The debate is still open and no written charts resolve the doubt, even if the practice adopted by the States in the course of history seems to confirm that flights conducted by common aircraft within the atmosphere limit has to be considered as a fly that, when operated without permission, commits a violation of foreign airspace.

The Pilot

And which were the consequences for Gary Powers? He was pleaded guilty and therefore convicted of espionage and convicted to 3 years prison and 7 years hard labour. One year after being sentenced, in February 1962, he was exchanged for Rudolf Abel.

Living U-2s

If you are a buff for this aircraft, a number of retired U-2s are currently on display all around US and United Kingdom (Laughlin AFB TX, Davis-Monthan AFB Arizona, Imperial War Museum Duxford UK, just to mention some).

At the “Museo de l’Aire” in Havana (Cuba) you can also make a real visit of the wreckage of Major Rudolf Anderson Jr’s U-2, shot down and killed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Also relics from Cold War can be found at Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow where the wreckages of Gary Powers’U-2 are displayed.

However, many are still flying after 55 years since its first flight within Area 51. The aircraft was used to provide aerial imagery following the Haiti earthquake. U-2s belonging to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (RW), based in Beale AFB, Ca, are common visitors of RAF Fairford, in UK. A derivative of the U-2 known as the ER-2 (Earth Resources -2) is based at the Dryden Flight Research Center and is used by NASA for high-altitude civilian research including Earth resources, celestial observations, atmospheric chemistry, etc. Before, during and after the war in Serbia and Kosovo, in 1999, U-2 detachments were also based in Aviano airbase, Italy, and Istres, France.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi

Airspace violations – Episode 4

The Lost Constellation

(El Al Constellation vs. Bulgarian Mig-15s)

On 27 July 1955 an El Al Lockheed L-049 Constellation (with registration 4X-AKC, similar to the example shown below) was flying the London – Tel Aviv route via Wien when it strayed into Bulgarian airspace and was shot down by two Bulgarian Mig-15s. After being attacked the plane exploded in mid-air and crashed near the village of Petrich, killing the seven crew members and 51 passengers on board.

The El Al flight 402 had departed from Wien-Schwechat International Airport at 02:53LT and after leveling off it encountered a severe thunderstorm activity enroute to Israel.

Using old NDB (Non-Directional Beacon) navigation aids, the crew believed they were overflying the Skopje radio beacon so they turned the course and inadvertently entered the Bulgarian territory, where the airliner was intercepted at around 5.000 meters and shot down by the fighters.

The accident was investigated by an international commission and the following statement was issued as the main cause of the incident: “The aircraft sustained a hit or hits which caused loss of pressurization and a fire in the heater compartment. The aircraft broke up in mid-air due to explosion caused by bullets hitting the right wing and probably the left wing together with a bullet or bullets of large calibre in the rear end of the fuselage.”

In order to prevent similar incidents in the future, a safety action was issued by the commission after the end of its work, recommending that more VOR navigation aids (or VHF Omnidirectional Range) should be used on airway Amber 10 (the airway entered by the Constellation) instead of just one as it was when the shot down occurred.

At the time of the incident the NDB navigation was largely used by the airliners but as we known nowadays it was and still is subject to a series of limitations that can induce the systems to a false interpretation of the signals and therefore lead the crew to navigation mistakes.

The so-called “thunderstorm effect” happens when an electrical storm is nearby, the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) needle points to the source of lighting rather than to the selected station because the thunderstorm sends out radio waves. The pilot should notice the flashes and not use their indications. Small aircraft flying as GAT use the ADF extensively, not only for navigation purposes, but also to determine the position of thunderstorm cells, in order to avoid them (they are not equipped with weather radars and need to detect the bad weather mainly visually). Nevertheless, the instrument still equips many airports and it is used for non-precision approaches or as a reporting point or fix of instrument approach procedures. Obviously, like VORs (VHF Omnidirectional Range), NDBs can be located both at an airport or at a remote location: for example, aircraft arriving in Rome Ciampino airport, points to the URB radio beacon (located at Urbe airpot) to start the ILS procedure for runway 15. Like VORs, NDBs can be located either on the airport or at a remote location.

Back to the airspace violation and subsequent shot down, the response from the Israeli government was immediate and firm, blaming the People’s Republic of Bulgaria of “being responsible for the destruction of the Israeli aircraft and for the loss of life and property and all other damage….”

The counterpart, instead, admitted since the beginning the complete responsibility for the fact, advancing many times a proposal of compensation to families of the involved victims.

Although the Israelis never doubted the principle according to which each sovereign state can adopt defensive measures that imply the use of force for the protection of its own territorial integrity, but stated such measures should be balanced with a fair regard of humanity of the foreign aircraft, as Article 51 of the United Nations Chart implies.

The Government of Tel Aviv did not claim anythingh or generate any dispute for the fact that its plane violated the Bulgarian airspace and confirmed the full Bulgarian legitimacy to adopt adequate measures for the defense and control of its territory (As stated in Article 1 of the Chicago Convention “every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory”).

Furthermore, according to Article 6 of the same Convention, it is also sustained that “No scheduled international air service may be operated over or into the territory of a contracting State, except with the special permission or other authorization of that State, and in accordance with the terms of such permission or authorization”

Before the International Court of Justice (which at the end will declare its lack of jurisdiction upon Bulgaria), Israelis would also show some historical data being taken from previous airspace violation occurred over the years worldwide.

In most of the analyzed cases , the State whose airspace was violated used to respond only by performing a radio contact with the intruder and of course by a real interception, that could be followed by a request to land or to return to the initial course. All of this without jeopardizing the integrity of the civil intruder and its passengers.

Israel also blamed the counterpart to giving contradictory press releases after the happenings, since the Bulgarian Government initially recounted that the foreign intruder was instructed to land immediately after being intercepted; only when these requests were not followed, the fighters decided to employ the use of force.

On the other hand, on a statement dated Jul. 28, 1955, this report was not mentioned anymore and the happenings were described as if the fighters after being unable to establish a visual contact of the intruder decided to shot down the unidentified enemy plane. Bulgaria was in a corner.

All its statements were not sustained by firm and truthful facts and were often contradictory. The armed forces for instance only managed to pronounce that at the time of the incident the intercepting fighters adopted some generic “international rules” and “specific signs established by international code” without indicating which source they were referring to.

The case was brought before the International Court of Justice, which at the end asserted its lack of jurisdiction for the matter.

At the end the quibbles of the legal rules did not allow to sentence the awful act perpetrated by Bulgaria but now, after almost sixty years, no one tries to deny the irresponsible and hasty interception strategy adopted at the time of incident.

The lack of well-known procedures and maybe also the political climate at that time caused the loss of 58 innocent lives.

Unfortunately it did not stop happening.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi

Airspace violations – Episode 3

Swedish Affair

(Swedish Catalina vs. Soviet Mig-15s)

Are you sure that neutral countries have never been involved in military clashes?

In the years following the end of WW2, despite the long-standing neutrality, Sweden began to undertake reconnaissance activity along the Baltic Sea, in order to minimize the possible threat posed by the Russians.

The early sorties began in the autumn of 1945 and were flown primarily by SAAB B18B, a local version of the well known Junkers Ju-86.

Reconnaissance planes usually took off during the night so that they could focus on their targets at dawn. Once they reached the Baltic coast, the planes would climb to 200-300 meters to take photos of any vessels they encountered and frequently they had “face to face” encounters with Soviet fighters.

In 1946, it was reported about some rockets flying through Swedish airspace, so it was promptly decided to set-up a reconnaissance mission towards the Penemunde peninsula where it was suspected that Soviet rockets research centre was based.

This mission was assigned to a SAAB B17 single engine dive bomber converted into a recce aircraft when on August 1946 it made the first attempt to make aerial photos of the facility but on its way to the target it had to turn back after being intercepted by a bunch of Soviet fighters.

After several other unsuccessful missions, it was therefore decided to devolve upon a higher performance aircraft so to chose a single Swedish P-51D equipped with a high number of reconnaissance cameras borrowed by the US.

These last missions were operated by the Mustang were known as “Operation Falun” and began on July 1948, and results were given and shared with the US Government.

During the following years the sorties did not stop and Swedish Air Force dedicated specific aircrafts to carry on several important and high-risk missions.

Between 1948 and 1949 around 15 reconnaissance missions were flown along the Soviet Baltic coast but avoiding major centers.

Unfortunately, not all the sorties had a happy end.

It was June 13th, 1952 when a Swedish military DC-3 carrying out a radio surveillance flight over the Baltic Sea disappeared East of the Isle of Gotland.

Three days later, a couple of PBY Catalina were sent to search the lost DC-3 when they got intercepted by Soviet Mig-15s and one of them was shot down. The seven crew members managed to ditch near the West German freighter “Munsterland” and were rescued immediately. PBY-5A_VP-61_Aleutians_Mar_1943

But how did these events really happen?

Once again what we are going to explain is only the description reported by both opponents, since it is really difficult to piece together the truth after many years, especially when you get involved in matters often hidden by military secret.

It seems that, due to bad weather, the Catalina accidentally entered the Soviet airspace through the Estonian island of Dago, when it was intercepted by a couple of fast Mig-15s jets; it was pushed west under continued firing and was finally forced to land.

The transmission reported by the Catalina crew is clear and give no doubts of what happened that day on the sky:

-“…Feigned attack by two Mig planes…” and two minutes later:

“We are being fired upon with tracers, 20mm…it’s hitting to the right”.

Six minutes later the Swedish Air Command received such a message: “I have been fired upon and hit several times!”

In the post-fact analysis of the events, the crew members reported that before being forced to make the emergency splashdown, the Soviet planes made several attacks as by following details:

– under the first two attacks, the Catalina plane took no hits;

– under the third attack, the fuselage and the left wing were hit;

– the fourth attack came straight from behind and damaged heavily the elevator;

– the fifth and the sixth attacks damaged the left engine and by hitting the cockpit they wounded the pilot and the navigator.

The crew managed to perform a successful ditching and while the life boats were being lowered into the water, the couple of Mig made another attack, but did not fire again.


Picture by: Radomił Binek

After ten minutes the damaged plane sunk into the deep waters, as the crew members were going to be picked up by the German ship “Munsterland”.

The reaction by the Soviets was similar to those related to the previous incidents involving their own Air Force: the foreign plane – this time a Swedish aircraft – had violated Soviet airspace and after being intercepted 40 kilometers inside the territorial waters it was fired upon by the Mig-15s, compelling the Soviet pilots to fire back and shot down the threat. MiG-15_351IAP

On the other side, the Swedish Government denied this statement and claimed the Catalina was unarmed and was flying around 15 miles off the Soviet Baltic coastline.

The Stockholm Government also pointed out how the rules of interception were substantially different between the involved countries, giving the public opinion the common impression how Soviet rules were out of the common wisdom and practice:

“…In fact, there are fundamental differences. While the orders of the Swedish Air Force are to turn off foreign aircraft by means of a warning, the Soviet Air Force has, according to its orders, to try to force the foreign aircraft to land. While the instructions of the Swedish Air Force mean that the foreign aircraft is not fired upon if it changes its course and flies away, the Soviet instructions seem to imply that the foreign aircraft is fired upon if it flies away instead of landing”.

But the international right for all the nations’ aircrafts to fly over the high sea was once more admitted by the involved Governments.

On a Soviet diplomatic reply of July 1952 to a Swedish note it was stated that:

“The Ministry of Foreign Affaire of the URSS does not deem it necessary to begin discussing the Swedish Government’s statement that Swedish military planes have full freedom to fly over the open sea and will, in future as hitherto, make use of this right, since the USSR…has never disputed this.”

Even this time the main diplomatic dispute lays upon the exact location of the intercepted plane at the time of the incident. No one called into question the widespread principle of freedom above the high sea; indeed, this statement will be strengthened later in 1960, when a US RB-47 will be shot down by Soviet warplanes.

This incident brought the matter before none of the members of the UN Security Council – included US and USSR – tried to justify the shooting down of a plane flying over the high sea, even if close to the territorial waters and engaged in reconnaissance activities or espionage.

A few months later the Catalina incident, the Soviets were involved into another similar incident, when an American B-29 was shot down by fighters in the North eastern part of Japan, into a sector that embraces the islands of Habomai, Yuri and Akiyuri, making the reconstruction of the facts more difficult than usual, since it was a long time that USSR was claiming its territorial sovereignty above Akiyuri.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi