Unique and at times peculiar NATO aircraft activity spiked around the Atlantic Alliance’s eastern borders on Monday, April 29 with at least three British Typhoon fighters sharing airspace and appearing to closely escort an Iranian airliner, a first-ever sortie in theater by the Pentagon’s best-equipped maritime spy drone, and a Ukrainian government plane defying the Russian Air Force and flying safely in the Balkans.

The Kyiv-operated plane, a Ministry of Emergency Situations An-32 firefighting twin-engine, made an almost-unprecedented flight out of Ukrainian wartime airspace to fly the length of Hungary and land at Zagreb airfield, in Croatia, flight tracking data reviewed by Kyiv Post showed.

Kyiv Post graphic using FlightRadar data to show air space and government aircraft traffic above eastern Hungary and Slovakia about 12:15 local/08:15 UTC. A Ukrainian Emergency Situations firefighting An-32B transits from Lviv to Zagreb. This was a rare wartime crossing of Ukraine’s international border by an aircraft. At the same time, two Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters head north, preceding a civilian IranAir Airbus flying at about half normal operating speeds to Hamburg from Tehran. This graphic shows aircraft with their transponders on. Other military aircraft may have been in the vicinity.


The Kremlin at the outset of its February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine declared all Ukrainian and third-party aircraft operating in Ukrainian airspace subject to intercept and shoot-down.

The Ukrainian An-32B arrived in Zagreb at 1:00 p.m. local time without incident after crossing into NATO airspace near the Hungarian town of Mandok. The aircraft was in Ukrainian airspace and potentially subject to Russian attack for about a half hour, Kyiv Post researchers found.  


At generally the same time the Ukrainian plane was in the air near the Ukraine-Hungary border, NATO air operations centered on at least three Royal Air Force (RAF) Typhoon fighter aircraft.

There was no direct evidence linking the possibly coincidental presence of the Ukrainian An-32B in airspace over west Ukraine and the threat of Russian attack, while well within the detection and potential escort range of the RAF Typhoons over east Hungary. At their closest, the British and Ukrainian aircraft appeared to be about 50 kilometers (31 miles) apart.

Two of the British Typhoons launched from NATO’s main airbase in its southeast, Mihail Kogălniceanu Airport, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of the Romanian Black Sea port city of Constanta at about 10:00 a.m. local time, accelerated to 500+ knots (925+ kph) and reached airspace above eastern Hungary a little more than an hour later. Their flight paths were annotated with, per open-source data, a transponder code display of RRR96661 and a call sign of Ascot 963.

The British combat jets closely followed the flight path, trailing or preceding by 10 kilometers (6 miles) or less [flying an escort profile, compensating for the fighters' tactical airspeeds], of an Iran Airways civilian airliner, an Airbus A330-243. The aircraft, with the call sign Iranian Airbus Flight 772, flies a regular route between Tehran and Hamburg.


Kyiv Post graphic using FlightRadar data to show air space and government aircraft traffic above southeast Poland on Monday at about 12:00 local/08:00 UTC. Two Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters head north tailing a Royal Air Force KC3 Voyager Airbus paralleling Ukraine’s and Belarus’ western borders. At least one Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter tails a civilian IranAir Airbus flying at about half normal operating speeds to Hamburg from Tehran. This graphic shows aircraft with their transponders on. Other military aircraft may have been in the vicinity.

It was not clear why the two RAF Typhoons were seemingly escorting the Iranian civilian airliner. According to the civilian flight tracker FlightAware, as this article was being prepared, the airliner was scheduled to arrive 11 minutes early in Hamburg.

The Iranian Airbus, after reaching a cruising altitude of flight level 380 (38,000 feet with standard altimeter setting, or about 11,500 meters) flew a route from Iran to Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, far-eastern Hungary, eastern Slovakia, Poland and Germany without incident. However, once over central Romania, and until it had reached airspace in southern Poland, the Airbus dramatically cut its groundspeed [airspeed plus wind effects, which is all that can be seen by a ground tracking system] from a standard cruise speed of 520-540 mph down to an average of 280-290 mph, the flight tracker platform FlightAware showed. It was not clear why the civilian airliner’s crew reduced its speed, but it was likely descending to a lower altitude for approach vectors where airspeeds are limited by international flight rules.


Open-source flight tracking data shows an uncommonly significant slow-down on flight speed by an Iran Air Airbus heading from Tehran to Hamburg, on Monday, while over eastern Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. During the flight, Royal Air Force fighters appeared to escort the Iranian passenger jet, Kyiv Post research showed.

NATO air reconnaissance operations on Monday in eastern and southeastern frontier air space showed new wrinkles from flights in the past.

An RAF Airbus Voyager KC.Mk3, transponder display RRR9271, on Monday, flew a typical south-to-north route along the eastern edge of NATO air space, at one point passing within about 50 kilometers (31 miles) of Belarus’ far-western border. The aircraft typically performs air tanker and strategic transport missions. In past months, the British military or other NATO air forces have deployed an aircraft of that type, or similar, along that patrol route almost daily.


However, one of the three RAF Typhoon FGR.4 fighters, with the transponder code display  RRR96663, appeared to peel off and followed the Voyager north, apparently escorting the British twin-engine towards Lithuania, or simply air refueling. This aircraft seemed to turn its transponder on over eastern Hungary several minutes before taking up station with the Voyager. Kyiv Post was unable to determine where and when this Typhoon had taken off.

Most air forces operate fighters in pairs, with the wingman aircraft usually turning its transponder to standby. NATO tactical practice operates fighters almost exclusively in flights of two to four. Kyiv Post in reviews of open-source flight data, identified three British Typhoons in the area, two following the Iranian airliner and one in proximity to the RAF Voyager.


The escort of the Voyager marked a very rare instance when NATO flight planners placed a fighter with a transponder turned on, near a reconnaissance jet flying near Belarusian airspace.

To the south, over Romania’s Danube delta, airspace which typically has seen one, and on infrequent occasions, two, US Navy Poseidon maritime reconnaissance jets fly search orbits for 8-12 hours daily, skies were empty of NATO search aircraft visible to civilian radars.

Monday also saw the US Air Force, for the first time in the Russo-Ukrainian War theater, operate a maritime-configured Northop Grumman MQ-4C Triton long-range spy drone in waters over the Black Sea.

Monday flight tracking data showed the first-ever open sortie by a US Triton maritime reconnaissance drone over the Black Sea. Previous flights by similar Global Hawk drones have traveled hundreds of kilometers eastward and at times flown within 150 kilometers (93 miles) of the Russian mainland.

The Pentagon had flown an earlier model, the land-configured version of the drone, called a Global Hawk, hundreds of times since mid-2022 over the Black Sea, at times approaching as close as 150 kilometers (93 miles) to the Russian mainland.

The MC-4Q Triton is a modernized version of the Global Hawk and designed specifically for over-water operations. The high-tech robot plane on Monday flew to a range of some 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the Russia-occupied Crimea peninsula before turning around and heading back to its Sicilian air base, flight tracking data showed.

Advertising published by the manufacturer Northrop Grumman describes advanced reconnaissance equipment aboard the Triton as “The most advanced maritime ISR capability deployed today.”

By 5:00 p.m. local time, the US Navy Poseidon had made it to its typical orbit over the Danube River delta. An RAF Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint, a four-engine reconnaissance jet loaded with electronics intercept gear and technicians to run it, arrived in the airspace at much the same time and took up a north-south track pattern about 290 kilometers (180 miles) due east of Crimea and Sevastopol, headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

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