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Slow-moving An-2 – a challenging mission for fast jets

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 the An-2.

"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 of Estonia.

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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