Pulses quicken as fighters track 'hijacked' plane

Posted: Thursday, August 12, 2010

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE - A Gulfstream passenger jet at the center of a U.S.-Russian military exercise was about to cross the International Dateline for the second time in three days, and some of the seven passengers seemed dulled by the dash across the Pacific and back.

Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press
Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press

But they all perked up and the mood turned jovial when Air Force Tech. Sgt. Paul Shoop called out, "They're here!"

Two Russian Su-27 fighter jets had come into view behind the chartered Gulfstream on Tuesday and were closing fast. The Gulfstream was playing the role of a hijacked airliner crossing Russian airspace on its way east across the Pacific, and the fighters had been sent aloft to track it.

It was part of the precedent-setting Vigilant Eagle exercise to see how well Russia and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, once bitter Cold War enemies, could coordinate in an international hijacking.

The Gulfstream took off from Alaska on Sunday, sent a mock distress signal indicating it had been "hijacked," and then flew west across the Pacific pursued first by fighters from NORAD - a joint U.S.-Canadian command - and then by fighters from Russia.

The pursuit was in the opposite direction Tuesday as the plane headed back to Alaska.

The Gulfstream, code-named Fencing 1220, carried U.S., Canadian and Russian officers. The Associated Press had exclusive access to the plane during the exercise.

As the Su-27s drew near, the passengers raised their cameras to the Gulfstream's windows, taking stills and video. One of the Russian pilots appeared to be pointing his own camera or binoculars back at them.

The fighters were so close that the pilots' orange flight suits and white helmets were clearly visible under the cockpit canopies. One waved.

One Su-27 banked toward the Gulfstream, dropped slightly and then swooped underneath, emerging on the other side.

A steady chatter in Russian and English poured out of Fencing 1220's radio speakers.

"My Russian's not very good, but it sounded like he said, 'I could take that right wing off with about a 5-second burst of a cannon,"' pilot Ben Rhodes quipped, to laughter in the cabin.

All the planes were unarmed, a condition of the exercise, said Canadian Forces Col. Todd Balfe, the NORAD observer aboard the Gulfstream.

"It's just unbelievable that we're able to fly (in) formation at 33,000 feet with a pair of Russian fighter jets," Rhodes said. "It's pretty amazing to me. I love it."

Rhodes, who has logged more than 15,000 hours of flying time over 40 years, said he has seen a Russian-built fighter up close only once before, when he was flying near Cuba.

"That was a little more hostile," he said with a chuckle. "So at least this time my heart's not racing because I know that this is part of a script."

Asked to describe the incident over Cuba, Rhodes cleared his throat and paused. "That's kind of classified," he said with a laugh.

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