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Nov 17 2021

AIR POLICING OVER GERMANY – THREE REMARKABLE INCIDENTS

RAMSTEIN, Germany - In the 60 years of NATO Air Policing over Germany there were several incidents involving Allied fighter aircraft and Russian military planes during Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) sorties.

Pilots of NATO fighter intercepting Soviet long-range "Bear Bombers" often reported that the rear gunner waved his hands at them as if greeting well-known friends

"Pilots of NATO fighter intercepting Soviet long-range "Bear Bombers" often reported that the rear gunner waved his hands at them as if greeting well-known friends," said retired German Air Force Lieutenant General Friedrich Ploeger, a former Deputy Command of NATO Allied Air Command.

"One incident during the last phase of the Cold war showed the predicament comparable to the dilemma of decision-makers in a "Renegade" situation, which describes situations in which an aircraft is used as a weapon," said Lieutenant General Ploeger. In 1989, a pilotless Soviet MiG-23 Flogger crashed into a house near Kortrijk in Belgium killing an 18-year-old boy on the ground. This tragic incident actually began when the pilot of the Flogger ejected over northwestern Poland in an emergency, but his aircraft stabilized itself after ejection and continued to fly more than 900 kilometers on a westerly track.  When the MiG-23 entered German airspace, NATO QRA were launched to intercept and shadow it.  "Shooting it down, however, was not an option because it constantly flew over populated territory and the potential consequences were too uncertain," explained Ploeger. "In the end, the MiG-23 ran out of fuel and crashed into the house in Belgium," he added.

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German Air Force F-4Fs from Wittmund Airbase, a mainstay of the German contribution to the NATO Air Policing system that held QRA ready to be scrambled by the CRCs. Photo courtesy of the German Air Force 
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The wreckage of a pilotless Soviet MiG-23 Flogger that crashed into a house near Kortrijk in Belgium killing an 18-year-old boy on the ground. Photo courtesy of Belgium Defence Forces

Another rather unusual incident in NATO Air Policing over Germany took place at a southern German Control Reporting Centre (CRC) in the early 70s:  In the late afternoon of a sunny day in August, a track appeared on the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany in the area of the Bavarian Forest.  It was a slow track – on a southwesterly course, speed 80 to 100 knots – assessed to be a small aircraft.  Its elevation could not be determined.  The Sector Controller called for a scramble and launched the QRA – two F-4 E Phantoms from Erding Air Base.  The fighters quickly joined the track – at least on the radar scope. When the pilots, however, transmitted "no joy, no contact", they were ordered to further descend at slowest speed possible and to continue to "check for low targets".  After a few minutes of following the ground track, the pilots reported "still no joy, no target; the only thing we can see is a train!"  "Super-refraction had deflected the surveillance radar's beam downwards and it had picked up a ground track about 100 nautical miles northeast of the site," explained Ploeger. " It was actually the express train from Prague to Regensburg. After this incident, the train schedule for southeastern Bavaria became a mandatory equipment item at the CRC," he added.

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German controllers working at CRC scramble QRA aircraft to intercept unidentified radar tracks. Photo courtesy of the German Air force.
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A Royal Air Force F-4 Phantom, operating out of bases in Germany they contributed to German Air Defence and the NATO Air Policing system. Photo courtesy of the Royal Air Force.

The second incident took place in the first decade of this century.  It shows a different role NATO's Air Policing assets can perform, e.g. assisting aircraft in distress:  "An airliner flying from the United Kingdom to Denmark at night experienced a total loss of navigational aids right above the North Sea," said Ploeger, who also was the Commander of NATO's Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Uedem, Germany.  "The pilot started flying strange circles and reported its problem to EUROCONTROL, which contacted CAOC Uedem and the German National Air Policing Centre to discuss solutions," he added.  The Wittmund QRA in Northern Germany was scrambled, intercepted the airliner and guided it in close formation to a safe landing at Hamburg airport demonstrating Air Policing is also a collective effort to keep the airspace and its users safe.

'Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom' is certainly true for NATO Air Policing, It is carried out 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by the women and men serving in the QRA units, in the ground environment and in the CAOCs.

"The creed of the Alliance that 'Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom' is certainly true for NATO Air Policing, SACEUR's longest standing mission," concludes Lieutenant General Ploeger. "It is carried out 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by the women and men serving in the QRA units, in the ground environment and in the CAOCs.  They are aware of the huge political importance and, sometimes even political sensitivity of their mission.  They deserve our respect and a big Thank you,"  he added.

Story by Lieutenant General (ret) Friedrich W. Ploeger

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