It is a heavily militarized region, and although US military reconnaissance missions like this take place regularly in international airspace over the Black Sea, Tensions flared up between Russia and the United States, as well as its allies in the region.
It was a safe encounter. Most of them, although 90% of US reconnaissance flights over the Black Sea like this one from the Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, have been intercepted by Russian aircraft, according to the US military. But the US Navy crew could not be complacent.
“The biggest danger is miscalculation. The Russians frequently intercept these aircraft. They tend to be very professional and safe, but sometimes, they can be unprofessional,” says Capt. Tim Thompson, Commander of the US Naval Task Force 67.
This trip is one of the Several times every week the US military makes a show of force to Russia and gives clear reassurances to NATO allies in the region that it is committed to protecting them.
In the cockpit of the US Navy’s P-8A Poseidon, its pilot, Lt. Daniel Loudon, explains why these air confrontations can get an adrenaline pumping.
“We don’t really know what any other plane is doing,” says Loudon. “It could be an unpredictable pilot, maybe a new pilot or something … that can always be a challenge.”
Russian fighters are fast, smart, and able to change direction or height in an instant.
The P-8A is based on the Boeing 737, one of the most popular aircraft models on the planet. The P-8 is a very responsive and fun to fly aircraft, says Loudon.
But it is designed to fly straight, not close encounters with the screams of combat aircraft.
This is exactly what the US Air Force’s B-52 bomber crew faced on August 28, when two Russian Su-27 aircraft crossed the nose of the massive US bomber over the Black Sea. A video recorded by the US military shows one of the aircraft flying very close and the turbulence it created inside the bomber.
Russia’s alleged aggressive behavior adds danger to the complex geopolitical environment over the Black Sea, which is an important shipping lane for many NATO allies such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. It is also vital for Ukraine and Georgia, both of which are NATO partners, whose disputes with Moscow are far from resolved.
Russia has repeatedly denied the accusations, saying it only responds to NATO’s provocations.
“We are here constantly watching them and seeing what activities they are intending to do,” says Carolo, adding that he sends a message. “It is a message to all potential adversaries and a message to our partners and allies that we are here to support them.”
What the CNN crew saw during this trip seemed to confirm the Admiral’s view. The P-8A cameras captured a dozen Russian warships, including a Kilo class submarine and seven military aircraft.
There were also US B-52 bombers flying in the immediate vicinity and three NATO warships were sailing below.
Inside the P-8A, all of this activity is monitored by some of the most advanced surveillance technologies on the planet, including state-of-the-art radar and infrared cameras, which are operated from five workstations on the aircraft’s port side.
“We’re looking for a variety of things,” says Lieutenant Hollis Kennedy, mission commander. “Russian fighters will not report in the civilian AIS (automatic identification system), and as you have seen, we were able to pick them up and then approach them, get to know them, recognize them and send this information.”