An aviation blog has posted a photo of a US AF F-4 jet flying upside down as it intercepts a Soviet Tu-95 strategic bomber. The story behind it is one of how mid-air encounters now deemed “unsafe” were once regarded as professionals having a bit of fun.
The picture was published by the popular military aviation blog The Aviationist on December 4 as an illustration of how the definition of recklessness has changed since the Cold War. Maneuvers like barrel rolls or aggressive turns during interception missions are now usually branded by the Pentagon as “unprofessional” or “unsafe” if performed by Russian or Chinese pilots responding to American aircraft.
But a few decades ago such stunts were quite routine and not perceived as anything dangerous. Military aviation blogger David Cenciotti cited a US spy plane veteran pilot calling such episodes “ho-hum.” He added that American pilots actually behaved in the same manner, as evidenced by the photo with the ‘Phantom’ flying upside down alongside the ‘Bear.’
The image went viral, and its owner Robert M. Sihler contacted the blog and revealed he took it during his deployment to Iceland in the 1970s, a period of reduced tension known as detente.
“Generally, we did these barrel rolls at the request of the Soviet crew members. They photographed us as well. The Cold War was winding down and the attitudes on both sides had improved,” Sihler said.
When asked whether he considered the barrel roll a difficult or an unsafe maneuver, Sihler replied frankly: “Not really! The Soviets, at the time, gave us hand signals asking us to ‘perform’ for them. The rolls were not dangerous at all.”
The mood surrounding Russia and the US has recently been quite different, with both sides complaining about the other’s conduct over Syria. This week the Russian Defense Ministry accused the US of trying to interfere with Russian bombing missions and thus defending terrorists. The accusation came in response to controversial remarks from a US Air Force spokesman, who claimed that “unsafe behavior” by Russian pilots may prompt the Americans to shoot the Russian warplanes down.