It is 09:30 local on this Wednesday at Ämari Air Base, Estonia,
when doors of an aircraft hangar slide open and one of the two Estonian Air
Force An-2 fabric-coveredsingle-engine biplanes is pushed into position. Captain Jury Jürgen and
his co-pilot First Lieutenant Pille Joala commence with pre-flight checks, fire
up the engine and taxy for take-off into the Estonian skies.
Today, the An-2's mission on this second day of Ramstein
Alloy 1, AIRCOM's exercise involving Allied and Partner jets and transport
aircraft training quick response skills in the Baltic airspace, is to fly as a
slow moving aircraft that has to be detected by radar and, subsequently,
intercepted by Belgian and Finnish fighter jets.
After 40 minutes of flying, the radio announces to the
Estonian pilots that a Belgian F-16 jet is inbound for an intercept. These jets
execute NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission out of Ämari Air Base and their
pilots have to really bring all their experience to bear to find and fly up to
"I was flying low level at 420 knots or approximately 800
km/h when I received the tasking to intercept and proceed for a visual
identification of a slow moving traffic. To me this sounded like a standard
mission, standard procedures," said Belgian Detachment Commander, Major Laurent
David, who flew the F-16. " However, when the controller told me the target's
speed was 80 knots or 150 km/h, what seemed a routine intercept became a
challenging task. Fast jets are not designed to fly that slowly. In such a
situation the pilot really needs to balance the speed of his jet to the
target's speed in order to keep it safe while being able to give all the
details concerning the intercepted aircraft."
The Belgian F-16 successfully intercepted the slow mover
three time. The Finnish F-18s, however, could not make it because of volatile
weather and a low cloud ceiling. This underlines once more that safety is paramount
in all aircraft operations and training.
"Seems we won again, " said Captain Jürgen, smiling, as he
provides the basic facts of the An-2. "This aircraft was built in 1959 and has
served almost 8,000 flight hours. We replace the engine every one thousand
hours and renew the aircraft skin every ten years. It seems this An-2 is among
NATO's longest-serving aircraft still in active use, being flown every day. We
use it for special forces missions and to conduct parachute jumps – and of
course to challenge our fast jet friends as a slow mover."
The two Estonian pilots continue the flight conducting a low
approach at an unimproved airfield on a small island in the north western part
Another 40 minutes later, the An-2 approaches Ämari Air Base
again. The tower sends it to a holding pattern because the Belgian and Finnish
fast jets take priority in landing. After circling for some time, it touches
down and taxies back to the shelter. A few moments later the hangar door slide
shut again, and the old lady is put to rest awaiting her next mission.
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