If you’ve got a radar looking at you, it’s always an uncomfortable feeling because a radar means ‘this guy’s carrying some missiles and he could employ them on you’.
Over in the Baltics, when you get an alert you don’t know what to expect. You do not know what’s going on and initially you are kind of tense all the time. As the days pass you get more laid back because you get into the rhythm and you see how things are.
As a pilot, you are curious because you do not know what aircraft you’re about to see, and each time you go on an alert it’s always a very interesting feeling.
Everybody’s excited and wants to take part in alerts. It’s always fascinating to see other aircraft, simply flying against say a Gripen or a Mirage is different, because most of the time we tend to fly against the Eurofighter and you get used to it.
Captain Martin Zielinski from Tactical Air Force Wing 74
Over in Estonia we carried more weapons than we do in Germany, in particular we had AMRAAM missiles and we were also equipped with new self-defence equipment. We had flares and electronic devices to defend us from enemy radars.
The whole jet was equipped for this specific mission, far more so than on normal QRA in Germany, but then again here we’re not expecting any unfriendly behaviour from an airliner.
This guy’s carrying some missiles and he could employ them on you
In the Baltics if we meet a fighter jet up there, for example, from the Russian Federation, it is different because they have a radar too. If you’ve got a radar looking at you, it’s always an uncomfortable feeling because a radar means ‘this guy’s carrying some missiles and he could employ them on you’.
When you see a fighter aircraft, it’s tough to describe, but even though we are different nations, we are all doing the same job, pretty much. When you meet upstairs you have the same level of professionalism and you experience a kind of comradeship up there. Most of the time. If ever they do not like any behaviour from our side they will show it. They may do a belly check, a move where they display their weapons, or they will manoeuvre towards our aircraft just to signal, ‘Okay, this is now close enough, please keep your distance.’ But we always go on each alert with a de-escalating philosophy. We are not there to provoke anybody, or look for trouble.
We always go out there as a two ship, which means I always have my number two backing me up, looking around and checking what’s going on. He can give me advice on the radio. We are aware that this situation most probably will not develop, and we do not want to trigger anything.
Our task is just to ID them, take some pictures, look around, check what’s going on and understand why the guy isn’t talking to anybody.
There’s sometimes talk in the media about aircraft violating airspaces, but you have to be very careful how you describe it because it can be misunderstood.
We’re talking about a very narrow corridor of airspace, in places it’s less than one nautical mile across and not every aircraft is equipped with great navigational systems. It’s easy for an older transport aircraft to pitch into an airspace without actually wanting to. Therefore, I’d be very careful about calling it a violation. Sometimes it’s just something that happens.
But if, for example, a Russian aircraft is violating the airspace by flying into NATO airspace, we get up to them and signal to them that they’re not in the airspace that they are supposed to be. We approach them, as we would for a normal airliner, from behind or from the left side and move forward so you end up next to their canopy where they can see us. We want to be as close as possible so it’s easy to look around and carry out the identification as quickly as possible.
We usually keep a distance of about 500 feet but I might move closer if I need some more information — tail numbers are sometimes written very small and are hard to read.
If they are violating the airspace, we wiggle our wings. That’s an international signal for “Okay, do you see me, and please follow my instructions right now.” He will acknowledge me with the same ‘wing rock’ and then when I start to turn he will follow me from a safe distance.
There’s also a common radio frequency called “Guard” that everybody listens in on and I will also try to make contact on that. What we encountered out there was, most of the time, very peaceful and very cooperative.