Cold War Era

From Flying Locomotives to Fictitious EW Pods: USAF F-15 Eagle Pilot tells odd stories about Intercepting Soviet Bear Bombers in the GIUK Gap

More than once the liberty-loving young Eagle Drivers of the “Black Knights” would attempt to share one of the many joys of our Western freedoms by spreading a P*****y nude centerfold across the expansive side of the Eagle’s long bubble canopy, for the appreciation of the more cloistered and deprived fellow aviators.

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The Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap (GIUK Gap) was a highway for North Soviet Long-Range Aviation (LRA) bombers and Soviet Navy maritime reconnaissance aircraft (MRA) from the earliest days of Castro’s affiliation with the USSR.

Ultra-long-ranged Tu-95/142 “Bears” would frequently depart air bases around Archangel and Murmansk and after rounding the North Cape (of Norway) head down through the GIUK Gap on their way into the North Atlantic to either monitor shipping and NATO naval formations, or to probe US air defenses during their rotational flights to Cuba. Therefore, it was critical to demonstrate to the Soviets that approaching this strategic passage they were sure to he intercepted, monitored and shadowed throughout their transit flights.

The best opportunity to do this was when they flew through the relatively narrow gap between Greenland and the UK. Conveniently placed in the middle of this gap was the small NATO nation of Iceland and its modern air base at Keflavik had been the home of the 57th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (FIS) since November 1954.

57th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron F-15 Eagles over Iceland 1986

As told by Steve Davies and Doug Dildy in their book F-15 Eagle Engaged, THE WORLD’S MOST SUCCESSFUL JET FIGHTER, after having flown the F-89 (1953-1962), the F-102 (1962-1973), the F-4C (1973-1978) and the F-4E (1978-1985), in November 1985 the 57th FIS “Black Knights” received their 12 F-15C/Ds (having never operated the earlier A/B-models). Keflavik’s Eagles were different, however, in that they came with CFTs mounted. While not technically a permanent fixture to the airframe, the 9,800 extra pounds of fuel in each CFT allowed the “Knights” to intercept the “Bears” much further out and shadow them for a much longer duration than ever before, and thus the CFTs were a standard feature of the Iceland jets. Because the CFT design was so well integrated into the airframe of the F-15C, it added only a little cruise drag and had no adverse center of gravity problems (as long as the CFTs’ internal fuel tanks all functioned properly). Normally the 57th flew its intercepts with CFTs and no external tanks. Because of the added fuselage girth imparted by strapping the CFTs to the Eagles’ sides, these jets were known in the community as “the wide bodies.”

Between 1962 and 1991 the “Black Knights” intercepted over 3,000 Soviet LRA and MRA aircraft. During the heyday of the Cold War (1985-86), the Icelandic Eagles logged a total of 340 intercepts.

Early in the “game” the “Bears” were very predictable targets. They normally flew in the mid-20s (24-27,000ft altitude) and at a sedate, economical cruising speed, saving their fuel for probing the US ADIZes, or the low altitude work of dropping sonobuoys. The four sets of large-diameter, contrarotating propellers on the massive Kuznetsov NK-12MV turboprop engines made huge radar reflectors and it was not uncommon to “get a hit” (a raw radar return) in excess of 80nm.

LtCol Tim “Sweet Lou” Kline was a member of the “Black knights” from January 1987 through February the next year and flew more than a dozen intercepts against the “Bears” during that time. He recalled:

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‘But when they did show up, they’d still be at altitude. Oftentimes we would simply go “pure pursuit” on the raw return because to obtain a lock on would not only give away our presence but also allow the “Bear’s” EWO (electronic warfare operator) to begin tuning in his EW gear and start “dueling electrons” with the APG-63. It was important to not let them know what range we could actually get a lock on at and other information that would prove valuable intelligence to them. So usually, we’d just stay in search LRS. It was easy to estimate the altitude of the “Bear” by noting what bar in the scan pattern the hit “lit up on” and using the “60 to 1 rule” [1degree equalling 1nm — or 6,000ft — at 60nm] doing a simple math problem involving F-15 altitude, degrees up or down look angle, and range to the target to calculate the altitude of the “Bear.” Once we knew that, it was a simple task to keep the radar search volume centered over the target altitude and continuing to highlight it as we approached within visual range.

‘Once the “Bear” was picked up visually it was a simple “conversion turn” to swing up alongside, being careful to avoid the fire cone of the twin 23mm cannon in the tail turret. We’d have the wingman stay back in a cover position, out of range of those guns, but he would get locked up by the tailgunner’s radar. The flight lead would get up on the “Bear’s” wing and pull out the old Nikon camera and get the pictures — and copy down the tail number — for Intel. Then when they got into their dropping area, they’d ramp down to about 300-500ft altitude and slow down to about 230 knots to start dropping the sonobuoys and we would “call the drops” so AWACS could plot their locations for Intel. When they were done they would turn around and go back northeast to Russia.

‘Sometimes things got real sporty. Lots of times in bad weather we’d have to inch up on the guy from behind very slowly until we could see him. If they were low, they seemed to enjoy making turns into you, trying to scrape you off into the water. The F-15 is not real responsive slow and heavy like that so sometimes we’d have to reposition. In doing so, if we lost sight of the guy, we’d have the wingman come up on the wing while we dropped back, reacquired the guy on radar and assumed the cover position.’

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At night the “Bear-F” would sometimes use its powerful spotlight, mounted on the empennage, to disorient an intercepting Eagle pilot. One “Black Knight” took great umbrage at having such a powerful light shined into his eyes while in close formation and retaliated. Racing out ahead of the “Bear,” he turned around, pointing at the bomber nose-to-nose, and lowered his gear, which shined his landing light in the faces of the “Bear” pilots as the two aircraft closed at a combined speed of over 500 knots in the pitch darkness. It had to look like a locomotive approaching at phenomenal speed! While the Eagle Driver was chastised severely for his tactic (some say “antic”), the “Bears” never did that again!

On another occasion, at the very height of the Cold War tensions, the creative minds at Keflavik decided to give the Russian Intel officers something new to ponder. They had the squadron’s mechanics fabricate a fictitious EW pod by taking a normal MXU-648/A baggage pod and affixing various disused UHF, automobile, and other sorts of antennae to its surface at odd angles. The pod was then mounted in its usual position beneath one of the underwing pylons of an alert jet and soon enough the crew scrambled to meet an incoming “Bear.” Once the intercept was complete, the pilot made certain to roll out alongside the “Bear” with the pod fully visible to the Russian crewmen who gathered in the rear observation blister for a look at their interceptor. Immediately upon seeing the “new EW pod” a battery of cameras was pulled out and film was repeatedly exposed. Later, back at the bar at Kef, the “Black Knights” shared the laugh, wondering just how much work and time some Soviet AF intelligence officer would waste in his effort to discern the purpose and frequency bands used by this new USAF jamming pod.

Occasionally other humorous exchanges took place. For instance, more than once the liberty-loving young Eagle Drivers of the “Black Knights” would attempt to share one of the many joys of our Western freedoms by spreading a P*****y nude centerfold across the expansive side of the Eagle’s long bubble canopy, for the appreciation of the more cloistered and deprived fellow aviators. Usually this would elicit grins from the small crowd gathered in the glass blister. The “Bear,” of course, was air-to-air refuelable using the probe-and-drogue system similar to that of the RAF and USN. The “Bear’s” probe was encased in a long cylindrical tube extending from atop the nose (from just forward of the base of the aircraft’s windscreen) and would be run out to plug into the drogue basket. In at least one instance, when the “Bear” pilots saw the P*****y nude spread in full view for them, they responded by running the probe in and out, and in and out of its protective sleeve.

F-15 Eagle Engaged, THE WORLD’S MOST SUCCESSFUL JET FIGHTER is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

A U.S. Air Force McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle from the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, based at Keflavik Air Base, Iceland, intercepts a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 Bear D aircraft in 1987.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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