AviationMissions OperationsReport

Baltic Scramble

(B2 in Šiaulai) The weather was beautiful on the Baltic that day. And the four planes – British and Polish – are on a training mission

A Polish MIG-29 and a British Typhoon FGR4 during an exercise in Siaulai as part of NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission
A Polish MIG-29 and an English Typhoon FGR4 during an exercise at Siaulai as part of NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission (© Mark Hookham)

The routine for the pilots of the 4 planes in the air, 2 British Typhoon FGR4s and 2 Polish MIG-29s... We observe them from a distance in the C27J plane of the Lithuanian army. Suddenly there is an alert. The two Typhoons change trajectory, change wings. They leave the field of view. “ Something is wrong » confides an English pilot who is an expert in this type of situation. An unidentified aircraft was, in fact, spotted grazing the border of one of the Baltic countries where NATO aircraft are monitored.

Alpha scramble for the Royal Air Force!

The alert is very real (an “Alpha Scramble” as aviators like to call it). It is indeed a Russian aircraft, a K-27 HELIX military helicopter which flies over international waters, very close to the Latvian border. Several elements make it suspect in the eyes of NATO air traffic controllers from the CAOC (Combined Air Operation center) of Uedem, in Germany, which controls the whole system. His " transponder was off » and he had “ no defined flight plan » an officer explains to us. He did not respond to the first signals from the sky controllers. In other words, he was suspicious. A Danish patrol chased her along with the British patrol. Information taken: the helicopter comes from the Stereoguschiy (530), a Baltic Sea Fleet corvette. Localization carried out, the planes return to their base. The Danes in Amari (Estonia), the British in Siaulai.

Home base: Šiaulai

 Located nearly 300 km from the Lithuanian capital Vilnuis, the Šiaulai military base is today the nerve center of reinforced air surveillance set up by NATO. as part of the Baltic Air Policy (Read : Above the Baltic countries, NATO planes keep watch). In the past (when Lithuania was part of the USSR), it was already “ strategic ". Because Russian bomber planes could thus reach Germany and Northern Europe. The scars of the Soviet period are also visible with dated installations like old sheds, which today are used to store equipment.

Lithuanian fear

For Lithuanians, having this presence from other countries is not a luxury. Lithuania is very “ happy to welcome reinforcements from NATO and its allies “explains the lovely First lieutenant Leva Gulbiniene, assistant to the base commander, who serves as our guide. The Lithuanians have fear and fear their big Russian neighbour, who occupied them for almost 120 years. Nearly 400.000 people were deported to Siberia. " Putin's annexation of Crimea scares Lithuanians » explains the First lieutenant Gulbiniene and brought back bad memories.

Polish MIG-29 at Siaulai base in Lithuania.
(© Mark Hookham) Polish MIG-29 at Siaulai base in Lithuania.


It is the Poles led by Ltt-Col Krzysztof Stobieski, who are permanently on the Baltic territory at the moment. The 4 MIG-29 du “ORLIK 5”the fifth Polish detachment of its kind at the Šiaulai base since the start of NATO missions in 2004 — are ready to respond to any alert, 24/24. the « Scramble » — an international aviation term meaning emergency alert and takeoff — is of two types: the actual alert (or Alpha Scramble): placing combat aircraft on alert for an air security mission and training alert (or Tango Scramble) which is a training alert for a real mission to intercept an aircraft.

Billy Cooper, Squadron leader, operational commander of 135 EAW.
(© Mark Hookham) Billy Cooper, Squadron leader, operational commander of 135 EAW

And the British

In support of the Poles, the four British Typhoons have also taken their ease, since May 1, on the base of Šiaulai. A temporary camp has been set up from scratch. The Siaulai base could not, in fact, accommodate this reinforcement of four additional aircraft. It took 10 days for the 135 people in the detachment to " build a fully operational camp » as explained by Simon Hulme, detachment leader of the 135th Expedionary Air Wing (EAW). The assembly of the two luxury tents » for fighter planes was not « a time of pleasure because of bad weather conditions.

Ten minutes to be in the air after alert

Every day – alert or not – the pilots train. Must be " ready to answerond, at any time of the day, 24 hours a day, 24 days a week” to an alert, explains the squadron leader Billy Cooper. When the siren sounds – a long, continuous, shrill signal – it’s a race against time.

The technicians (there were 4 of them that day) were busy getting the fighter plane started, removing the various protections, starting the engines and all the control systems. The pilot, already dressed and harnessed (this is the rule in case of on-call), rushes into the hangar. A little further, at the other end of the track, his alter ego makes the same journey. Climbing into the aircraft at full speed – ladder removed by the technician – each of the pilots makes the usual checks before takeoff. The planes exit the hangar, travel a few meters to reach their positions on the takeoff runway. The pilot in position “ literally ignites " engines.

One after another, the planes quickly gain speed and take off a few hundred meters later with a thunderous noise. We can now only see two traces of black kerosene, which are slowly fading into the blue Lithuanian sky. The planes are already far away, out of our field of vision. A look at the watch: less than 10 minutes. The pilots of the 135th Expedionary Air Wing met the deadline. They are ready. A " support needed " for " to secure » the Baltic region and « to occupy “as much as possible the sky because of the resurgence of Russian military exercises in the region, justifies Billy Cooper.

(Jérémy Cauderlier st.)

Read also : 4 French Rafale present in Malbork. More than a symbol...

Nb: Photos used with the courtesy of our colleague Mark Hookman of the Sunday Times


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