Russia’s Ministry of Defense has posted online a cockpit video of one of its fighter jets catching up with an Offutt-based RC-135 reconnaissance jet flying a mission last week over the Baltic Sea.
The 17-second video offers an unusual glimpse at one of the 55th Wing’s Rivet Joint jets doing its work. The gray-and-white jets with the distinctive “jowls” are a familiar sight over the skies of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, but it’s extremely rare to see one flying at altitude on a mission.
“We have never seen footage filmed from inside the cockpit of the Russian fighters dispatched to visually identify and escort the American aircraft,” wrote David Cenciotti, a former Italian military pilot and journalist who authors “The Aviationist,” a widely read blog on military aviation, in a post about the video encounter.
The Air Force and the Navy have flown these surveillance flights for decades. During the early Cold War, little was said about the flights publicly, and the Soviets occasionally shot them down and took surviving crew members as prisoners.
The flights have continued in the post-Cold War era, making news only in rare cases of disaster — as in April 2001, when a Chinese fighter pilot flew too close to a Navy EP-3E Aries II surveillance plane, piloted by then-Lt. Shane Osborn of Norfolk, Nebraska.
The Chinese jet was destroyed, while the EP-3E was badly damaged. Osborn earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for safely landing the plane in China, though the crew was held captive for almost two weeks at a Chinese military facility before being released.
Since the Russian seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, tensions have ramped up, and the U.S. has sometimes called outRussian and Chinese pilots for “unsafe and unprofessional” conduct in flying too close to U.S. aircraft, a maneuver called “thumping.”
It’s not clear why the Russian Ministry of Defense apparently posted the video March 6 on its English-language website, though it may have been to counter such claims. The video, shot out the front window of the Su-27, shows the faster fighter jet following the RC-135’s contrails until it overtakes the reconnaissance jet from slightly below and to the left.
Robert Hopkins III, a former 55th Wing RC-135 pilot who is a historian of Air Force reconnaissance flights, agreed that the video appeared to depict an ordinary flight. But he said no conclusions can be drawn about Russian flying routines from a single, brief piece of video.
“It’s hard to tell based upon those 17 seconds,” he said.
The Russian post didn’t say when the encounter took place but described it as taking place “over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea.”
Public air-traffic control websites show RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft — which are capable of intercepting radio and other electronic signals from ground-based sources — flying monitoring tracks over the Baltic near Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, from RAF Mildenhall, an air base in England.
Two of those websites show the plane depicted in the video leaving Mildenhall the morning of March 5, then heading east to fly near Kaliningrad, a small but militarily significant part of Russia sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It also flew tracks over Estonia before returning to Mildenhall late in the afternoon.
The sites show no record of the plane flying since then.
The Russian post said the fighter returned to base after the reconnaissance jet veered away from Russian airspace.
“Interesting, even though it does not show anything nefarious,” Cenciotti said in his blog post.
55th Wing Commander Col. Michael Manion spotted the video and posted it on his official Facebook page Friday.
“This is what our Fightin’ 55th professionals deal with routinely. The aircrews are disciplined, well-trained, and ready,” he wrote. “Warhawks … lead the fight! Go get ’em!”