Every so often, Vladimir Putin gets annoyed with NATO and engages in a bit of sabre-rattling, sending a few Tu-95 Bear bombers on long-range flights off the coast of Portugal or Canada in order to remind them that Russia is not to be taken lightly (I happened to be at a conference at a RAF base shortly after these flights resumed, and it had certainly caught the attention of the air force officers there). In many ways, the Tu-95 is the equivalent of the American B-52: they are both strategic bombers, which first flew in 1952 yet are expected to remain in service into the 2040s. Remarkably, though, the Tu-95 is not a jet, it's a turboprop. That makes it seem like a charming old relic of a bygone age; and maybe it is, but it's a nuclear-capable one. Which is precisely why interceptors are scrambled whenever these bombers appear off the coast and why reports of the interceptions soon appear in the media, which in turn is why Russia keeps doing it. Earlier this week, two Tu-95s were sent down the English Channel, as far as Cornwall, apparently in response to British concerns about Russian involvement in Ukraine and the Baltics. Lately, these flights are becoming so frequent as to almost be routine: the RAF carried out four times as many interceptions in 2014 as in 2013; another English Channel flyby took place three weeks before the latest one.
Such flights are perfectly legal, as long as the aircraft stay in international airspace. Which they do -- it would be a major diplomatic incident if they did not, to say the least (though they do sometimes disrupt civilian air traffic). Which makes the claim by Sue Bamford, of Bodmin, that she actually saw one of the Bears flying over Cornwall, not off it, rather interesting:
We were in St Eval when we saw a big black plane that looked like a tank. We thought: where’s that going? It was going along [the route of] the A30,” she said. “As we drove on the big black plane came back again. As Claire [Bamford’s driving instructor] took over to drive back we saw a silver plane, which was the Bear bomber. It’s travelling at the bottom of the St Mawgan valley so we can see it’s not out to sea, it’s in the valley. It’s long and thin, it’s got swept-back wings [...] It’s just an odd, odd plane, there’s no other jets in the sky, there’s none of the Typhoons, it’s pootling around and we saw it a couple of times [...] My partner says there’s some Russian bomber off the coast of Cornwall. It’s then that I go online and say that’s the plane I saw, holy crap. It wasn’t out to sea, it’s on St Eval where all the radio masts are, I saw that thing over British land.
Her driving instructor confirmed seeing the aircraft, but didn't go so far as to claim the presence of a Bear:
I am not an expert but they did look out of the ordinary for Cornish airspace. We leant up to have a look, they were definitely inland, not over the coast. Whether what we saw was the Bear, I don’t know, but it was inland.
The Ministry of Defence, however, denied that the Tu-95s had been over Cornwall, or any other part of the UK for that matter:
The Russian planes were escorted by the RAF until they were out of the UK area of interest. At no time did the Russian military aircraft cross into UK sovereign airspace.
(This appears to be a boilerplate response.) So what happened? What Bamford describes does sound like a Bear: long and thin with swept-back wings. It is an odd-looking and hence distinctive aeroplane. On the other hand, it's difficult to believe that the RAF wouldn't have known where the Bears were at all times: they are big, slow and not exactly stealthy. So if Bamford did see a Bear, then the Ministry of Defence is not telling the truth. And maybe it isn't; maybe Britain doesn't feel like having a diplomatic incident with Russia at this time. But it's probably more likely that Bamford saw something else. After all, it's clear from her account that at no time during the incident did she think it might be a Russian bomber, and neither did she know what a Tu-95 was or looked like (although she does claim familiarity with RAF aircraft types); it was only once she got home, heard the news and saw the photos did she conclude that this was what she had seen.
This St Eval incident reminds me, of course, of the Sheerness Incident. There, too, people near a defence installation saw something strange in the air over Britain which they only later associated with the military aircraft of an unfriendly power which was in the habit of sending them on long-range flights. Which brings me to my point: in 1913, media reports about the Sheerness Incident, initially, created the expectation that Zeppelin overflights were something which people might expect to see. And then they did. So, if something similar were to happen today and people started seeing Tu-95s all over the UK, or even in one or two places, it would help me enormously when it comes to demonstrating 'relevance' in grant applications. So if you live in the UK, please don't feel you have to be too sceptical the next time you see an aeroplane you can't immediately identify...
Image source: Wikipedia.
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