An unidentified aircraft has been tracked in NATO-monitored airspace above the Baltic. Calmly but quickly Luftwaffe pilot Capt Martin Zielinski pulls on his G-suit, while his engineers bring his waiting jet to life. Moments later he’s taxiing into position on the Ämari Air Base runway in Estonia. Within a few seconds the Eurofighter reaches 40,000ft on its way to intercept the target.

Just 20 minutes after the alarm first sounds Capt Zielinski is up close enough to identify the aircraft, he makes eye contact with the pilot and diffuses the situation.

Threat unknown.” The alert siren sounds and two Tactical Air Force Wing 74 Eurofighter Typhoon are scrambled...

On this occasion, the threat aircraft turns out to be a Russian transporter that had simply strayed off its flight path. Such is the performance gap between the two, the toughest thing for Capt Zielinski is to fly slowly enough to make a visual identification.

Threat unknown.” The alert siren sounds and two Tactical Air Force Wing 74 Eurofighter Typhoon are scrambled...

This is Baltic Air Policing in action. With no air defence fighters of their own, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are covered by NATO Assurance Measures, which keep the region’s airspace secure. Germany is one of several nations which plays its part in this ongoing policing mission, with squadrons working on a four monthly rotation basis with NATO members, such as Spain, Italy and the UK.

Usually based in Neuburg, Bavaria, the Tactical Air Force Wing 74’s main operational task is to have ready a two-ship element of Quick Reaction Alert for NATO and national coverage for southern Germany. It has two aircraft on a 15-minute ground alert, 24/7 – they’re ready to get airborne in less than 15 minutes.

Kommodore Colonel Holger Neumann

Kommodore Colonel Holger Neumann

The Tactical Air Force Wing 74 took their turn on Baltic Air Patrol rota between September 2016 and January 2017. At Ämari the fighter wing had five aircraft, which were supplemented by a sixth jet on ground alert at Neuburg. The mission was a joint effort by all the German armed forces involving more than 20 different units of the Bundeswehr. In total over 420 tonnes of equipment and material was shipped to Estonia to support the mission.

Wing Commander Colonel Holger Neumann headed the operation. He explains: “The only way for Russian civilian or military aircraft to travel between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad is along a narrow corridor of international airspace and usually everything is OK. But if they don’t obey international regulations or fail to put on their transponders then somebody has to take a closer look and that was our job.”

In simple terms during a deployment like the Baltic Air Patrol the pilots are only doing what they do on a day-to-day basis — Quick Reaction Alert — but from a different location.

However, in reality, because of the sheer volume and nature of the potential threat there’s far greater intensity about the mission.

We conducted 28 scrambles in four months and we intercepted a great variety of bogeys, including state of the art Russian fighters, reconnaissance and transport aircraft

To put that into some sort of perspective throughout the whole of 2016 the wing at Neuburg went out on eight scrambles.

“Over Germany the main reason for what are known as alpha scrambles is a loss of communication between air traffic control and aircraft, and most of the time that involves civil airliners. This can be caused by pilot error, technical problems or even an error by air traffic control. When we scramble, our task is to take a closer look at what’s happening.

“Last year we scrambled eight times and if you consider that there are more than 3 million aircraft movements over Germany a year the message is clear — pilots do a great job.”

During their Baltic Air Policing Role deployments the crews recognise there is a greater chance of them being called into action as the frequency of scrambles is significantly higher.

There’s also heightened awareness among the pilots that they are more likely to come across a Russian military aircraft in this line of work.

two eurofighter typhoon waiting

We conducted 28 scrambles in more than 360 flying hours.

Says Colonel Neumann: “They know that throughout their shift they have to be ready, just like they do in Germany, but you don’t scramble that often in Germany. And when you get the chance to intercept a Russian aircraft, it feels different. It’s real. We enjoy that kind of challenge. It’s why we chose to be fighter pilots.”

“We had one special day around the start of October when there were a lot of scrambles in a short period of time. It was very demanding for the pilots and our maintainers but we were able to cope with it and keep the jets ready.

The reason we launch is to identify and defuse potential situations, not escalate them.

“The reason we launch is to identify and defuse potential situations, not escalate them. Most of the time the behaviour of the intercepted aircraft was neutral. They acknowledged the presence of Eurofighters. Of course, some pilots decided to challenge the Eurofighter a little bit but that kind of thing is rare. Mostly it was a great experience from both sides. You intercept, you exchange visual signals, you take pictures, salute, then you split and that’s it, all good.

“In truth one of the biggest challenges you face is with smaller transport aircraft. There’s a huge speed difference between the Eurofighter and the transport aircraft and it’s very challenging to take a closer look at the details, like the registration number and so forth. You have to be fast at getting the information.”

The demands of QRA activity — patrolling and intercepting potentially hostile aircraft at a moment’s notice — requires an aircraft with certain characteristics to get the job done. Something the Eurofighter has proved eminently capable of. The whole cockpit set-up was built for the QRA business,” says Colonel Neumann. “All you have to do is flip a couple of switches to start the engines and get airborne. You need little or no notice, let’s say, eight or nine minutes after the alert goes off. In a QRA situation you can strap in while the engines are winding up. It’s ideal.

“I’d say that the whole cockpit set-up and all the maintenance was created for the alert business. In fact we had a maintenance availability of close to 90 percent in the Baltics which is very high.

Then there’s the performance. Performance simply isn’t an issue with the Eurofighter. Even if you go single engine, it has more than sufficient power. 

The thrust is unbelievable. You can climb to over 40,000 feet within a minute or so and therefore for a QRA mission it’s a perfect fit. It’s very powerful and well-equipped and we’re well-trained.

Luftwaffe pilot Capt. Martin Zielinski agrees: “QRA is always time critical. You need to get airborne really quickly, so the aircraft needs to be very easy to access and easy to actually start up, and that’s exactly how the jet is designed. You don’t have to waste time flipping every single switch, and you’re not dependent on external air for starting the engines. As soon as you start the engines, then you’re pretty much actually set.

“The Eurofighter is hugely powerful, the engines are very reliable, and they’re very thrust efficient which means we can take off using a short distance of the runway — we just rotate and climb up. In Estonia during the alert starts, we’re usually going up into the thinner air where we can go fast. If say the contact aircraft showed up between Helsinki and Tallinn you could be in a position to visually identify it within 10 minutes of take off.”

eurofighter typhoon parked

Asked to sum up Eurofighter in a sentence he laughs — “I saw a T-shirt with ‘In Thrust We Trust’ on it. That’s a good slogan for Typhoon.” In preparation for the Estonia deployment the deployed Eurofighters were specially adapted. “We boosted our self-defence systems and introduced the A120 AMRAAM to our armament which we don’t use here in Germany. We also used wide-angled cameras to have a way of recording the intercept. And we used night vision goggles so we were able to visually identify targets in either dusk or dawn flight conditions.”

As for the future, Colonel Neumann is looking forward to additional capability but points out: “The Eurofighter is already a very capable and powerful platform even before whatever is put on it in the future. From our view we just want to be able to train in peacetime as we fight.

“But amid talk of the future we need to remember it’s a very capable platform with a lot of strengths — superior engines, being capable of flying supersonic, super cruise over 40,000 feet easily, a very agile platform.”