When the siren sounded, the RAF pilots dashed for the cockpits of their Typhoons. Within minutes, two jet fighters were streaking across a summer sky, their wings laden with air-to-air missiles, searching for unidentified intruders they know as bandits.
Over the next half hour, Wing Commander Roger Elliott and his wingman would make three separate interceptions of Russian military aircraft. You do have adrenalin pumping and when you launch, you don’t know what’s out there, said Wg Cdr Elliott. But it also makes you feel very satisfied because that is what we’re here to do.
These pilots from II Squadron took off not from their home station at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland but from an old Soviet base located only 160 miles from Russia – or seven minutes flying time for a Typhoon at full speed.
Four RAF Typhoons have been deployed at Amari air base in Estonia, charged with protecting the airspace of the Nato country and its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania.
These jets are part of Nato’s Baltic Air Policing Mission, which guards the skies over the alliance’s three most exposed members.
Their task assumed an extra urgency after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, raising fears that President Vladimir Putin might attempt a similar adventure against the Baltic states.
Amid mounting tension, Russian fighters and bombers routinely probe the airspace around Nato’s Baltic allies, testing the skill and reaction times of their opponents.
RAF pilots are accustomed to being on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in Britain, safeguarding the skies from unidentified intruders. But QRA in Estonia – right next to Russia – presents a far greater challenge.
Since arriving in April, II Squadron pilots have been scrambled 19 times to intercept a total of 40 Russian aircraft. Back in Britain, by contrast, the RAF has conducted less than five alpha scrambles – ones that were carried out for real and not for training – in the whole of 2016.
The Typhoons protecting Britain often find themselves intercepting civilian aircraft that have run into difficulty or lost contact with air traffic control. If they do come across Russian formations, these will be bombers or spy planes, not the Kremlin’s most dangerous fighters which lack the range to approach Britain.
But in Estonia, a scramble will almost always lead to an encounter with the Russian air force. And British Typhoons confront the full spectrum of Russian air power, including Su-27 Flankers, one of the most formidable fighters in Moscow’s armoury.
Just before II Squadron arrived at Amari, two Russian Su-24 strike aircraft had carried out mock attacks on a US warship in the Baltic. Then came Exercise Spring Storm, the annual manoeuvres of the Estonian army.
It was during this tense period that Wg Cdr Elliott and his wingman were scrambled. The alarm went and we jumped into the aeroplanes. Amari was busy on that day, but all other aircraft were held on the ground so that we could take off on runway 06, remembered Wg Cdr Elliott.
The Typhoons were vectored north-west over the Baltic, searching for an unidentified aircraft.
We were in a tail chase with this aircraft which turned out to be a Cub, said Wg Cdr Elliott, using the Nato codename for a Russian military transport plane. We intercepted him; we were then told to take pictures and escort him.
As he was flying alongside the Cub, another message came over the radio. More bandits – unidentified aircraft – were leaving the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the south. The RAF pilots were ordered to investigate.
Leaving the Cub behind, they found themselves intercepting another Russian military transport aircraft, known to Nato as a Candid. Essentially we just shadowed him, said Wg Cdr Elliott.
At that point, a third bandit was detected at high altitude and the Typhoons once again headed towards him. Their quarry turned out to be a Curl, another variety of Russian transport plane.
Having identified the three bandits – also known as zombies – photographed them and established that they posed no threat, the British pilots returned to Amari.
This turned out to be a routine mission, but Wg Cdr Elliott, the commanding officer of II Squadron, stressed how his crews can never be sure how incidents of this kind will end.
Later, II Squadron would encounter more menacing Russian bandits, including a formation of four Flankers escorting a lone Coot.
An RAF ground controller, charged with guiding the British pilots to this particular interception, remembered his reaction. At that point, our two Typhoons were essentially surrounded by air-to-air fighter aircraft, he said. And I’m thinking ‘wow’.
As it turned out, that interception – like all others thus far – ended without incident. But the crews are ready for any eventuality.
For a 24-hour shift, two pilots must stay in an operations room, ready to scramble when the siren sounds. Like their predecessors in the Battle of Britain, they read books or newspapers while they await the call.
The terminology of that era remains in use. As well as being vectored to intercept bandits, pilots are still ordered to climb to, for example, angels 15 – meaning 15,000ft.
When the alarm rings, they run to separate hangars each housing a Typhoon, fuelled and armed for action.
Mounted on the fighter’s wings are heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, designed to destroy aircraft at relatively short distances. Beneath the fuselage are radar-guided missiles capable of doing the same at longer range.
A Mauser cannon, loaded with 27mm shells, completes the Typhoon’s air-to-air armoury.
The pilots reach their cockpits by bounding up 11 steps of a green metal ladder; on top lie their helmet, oxygen mask and life jacket. After donning these crucial items, they jump into the cockpit while ground crews remove the chocks from the fighters’ wheels.
Then their £70 million jets are ready to roar into the skies, climbing vertically to 10,000 ft – or angels 10 – in a matter of seconds.
Wg Cdr Gordon Melville, the commanding officer of 140 Expeditionary Air Wing, described their mission as vital, adding: This is part of the solidarity of all Nato nations – the shared requirement to secure all of Nato’s airspace.
News Source TelegraphNews