The St Eval Incident

Tu-95 Bear

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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14 thoughts on “The St Eval Incident

  1. Another possibility is that one of the aircraft was the RAF Voyager jet tanker supporting the pair of Typhoons - it was certainly overland for part of its mission. See here: https://twitter.com/russiannavyblog/status/568126160237928448/photo/1

    That said, a Voyager (a militarised A330) doesn't look anything like a Bear and comes in tactical matt-grey, not at all silver. It wouldn't be the first time that the tanker managed to intercept the Bear - VC10s did it several times in the cold war.

  2. Interesting. Already had a discussion how a 'prop plane' [sic] isn't necessarily more obsolete than a 'jet' equivalent on this topic. And this turboprop will do 85% or more of the equivalent jet bomber (Just checked) the B-52H's cruise speed is 442 kts, top speed 560 kts; the Bear's cruise 383 kts, max is 510 kts.

    What's interesting in Sue Bamford's claim is her description is a visual one, matching what she expected to see or have seen according to media reports. However what's telling is she makes no mention of the sound. The Bear is both noisy and has a remarkably distinctive (essentially unique in this context) sound, given it is a high-speed turboprop with large diameter contra-rotating propellers, rather than the familiar jet-only noise. Most people who've witnessed a Tu 95 flight comment on the sound.

    So two take-aways from that. Firstly, if a Bear had overflown the well-enough populated Cornish peninsula there would be more than one report, however blase the general public are about jets overflying, because it'd have sounded very different. (Never mind that there's also enough experienced aircraft watchers in that part of the world; and if it had been 'in the valley' there would be people ringing up someone to complain about the low flying!) Tellingly, in the article, she's quoted as being "used to seeing and hearing different types of aircraft", here's more evidence of awareness and then omission.

    Secondly that should feed into Brett's thesis in the area of the importance of the audio side of real versus scareship spotting. People often think they 'hear' the scareships, but the real thing often has a particular sound print that will sort scareships from the real thing, though that is made more complicated by out inability to accurately describe unusual or rare sounds (compared, say to the visual alternative, witness Sue Bamford's reasonably accurate description of the Bear's 'look').

  3. Rob Langham

    I'll keep a lookout, but i'm hardly a good witness (once confused a Cessna for an Auster, and still run outside for Chinooks when i'm down the road from their main base)

  4. Post author

    Alex:

    Interesting! I wouldn't rule out the Voyager on the basis that it doesn't match Bamford's description. To be sure, inexperienced witnesses are certainly capable of accurately describing aircraft they are unfamiliar with, but it's also something where training helps – which is why the Royal Observer Corps (eventually) placed a great emphasis on it. One could imagine that a glint off a cockpit window or an engine cowling could be interpreted as the whole aircraft being silver, and a banking motion could make the wings look swept back. But maybe it was just as described.

    JDK:

    Excellent points! You're right, it's hard to believe that such a loud and unusual sound would not attracted much more attention, not to mention the very large low-flying aircraft. The only thing I would say about Bamford not mentioning the sound is that she was driving at the time, so depending on how far away the Bear was she might not have heard it?

    You also make a good point about the sounds of mystery aircraft -- it's easy to focus on the visual descriptions, but sometimes people did hear them as well, and sometimes they only heard them without seeing anything. In fact most of the 'eye'witness accounts of the Sheerness incident are only of engine sounds from above (though some did see a light as well). And as you say, the sounds they described were not always the sounds they should have heard: at this time I think Zeppelins had 3 engines, which would have sounded very different to the single-engined aircraft the people of Sheerness might have been used to from the RNAS aerodrome at Eastchurch.

    Rob:

    You sound like the perfect witness!

  5. Regarding the sound of a Tu 95 not being heard over the sounds of driving, obviously each case is different; however the Bear is known to have been heard in the cockpits of escorting NATO fighters (over their jet own engines!) and on the SOSUS American underwater sub-listening system. It's 'noisy' by anyone's definition!

  6. "inexperienced witnesses are certainly capable of accurately describing aircraft they are unfamiliar with"

    Just as experienced witnesses can sometimes get recognition horribly wrong, if Second World War combat reports are anything to go by!

  7. Ian

    Thought of your scareships when the story first appeared, but its possible effects on grant applications didn't occurred to me. Never was cut out for a academic life. The lady is sticking to her story though; and has support from others who saw it - not at the same time, but definitely on the same day.
    An aeroplane that looks like a tank?? Perhaps someone has built a replica Blackburn Blackburd on the quiet?

  8. Post author

    I haven't been able to find any more recent followups to this story, so I suppose that's it (at least until 2036 when the records are released under the 21 year rule at which point we'll discover that it was in fact a Zeta Reticulan battlecruiser...)

    Nick:

    Absolutely. Fighter Command pilots apparently reported seeing non-existent He 113s during the Battle of Britain, for example.

    Ian:

    Yes, the (other) aeroplane that looks like a big black tank is an interesting detail. Looks like a tank in what way? Presumably it didn't have a turret with a 120mm cannon sticking out of it.

  9. I assumed the tankness of it was that it was painted in tactical grey, which would fit either the Typhoon or the Voyager.

  10. JDK - It might have been the Cornish Guardian. Interestingly, this story has made it into the newsletter of the Coastal Command and Maritime Air Association. It confirms that an A400M was doing circuits around St Mawgan at the time, which probably accounts for her recollections.

  11. Post author

    Alex:
    But she explicitly describes the tanklike plane as being black in colour, and it's not clear that its tanklike nature had anything to with its colour ('we saw a big black plane that looked like a tank'). Tactical grey could be interpreted as black, but then it seems strange that she then interpreted the colour of the other plane, presumably in the same tactical grey, as silver, basically the opposite.
    Another thing to note: she says the tanklike plane was big -- even though it's next to the presumed Bear, also a big aircraft. That doesn't sound like a Voyager/A400M plus an escort. But perhaps that was a perspective thing. You can go crazy trying to parse the fine details. It is easier to assume she got something wrong – since people often do.

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