The past week has seen an enormous amount of new and unusual activity in the airspace around Ukraine – first with Ukraine’s airspace being completely closed down and then a string of successive airspace bans in Europe and, in turn, of Europeans over Russia [you’ll find all the updates here.]
That’s meant a lot of us have been watching the region to see which planes are flying where – and we’ve been spotting plenty of military aircraft in the skies above the likes of the Black Sea, Romania and more. If you look closely enough, you’ll spot everything from US Army Blackhawk helicopters to British Royal Air Force RC-135s. So, what are these aircraft, and what are they up to? In some cases we can only make educated guesses, but here’s a look at some of the most notable.
RC-135 gathering info
The RC-135 is a reconnaissance aircraft and as we can see here this particular example from the UK’s Royal Air Force, which took off from RAF Waddington in England, is flying alongside not just Ukraine’s western border but also that of Belarus. There’ve been a number of RC-135s in the area lately. ZZ665 had its first flight in 1964.
NATO E-3A Sentry aircraft provide “airborne early warning, battle management, and command and control” (AEW&C) capabilities for NATO affiliated forces operating in Europe. Commonly referred to as “AWACS”, these aircraft and their large rotating radar dome fly close to battlefields to provide real-time intelligence. The NATO AWACS aircraft are based on the Boeing 707 airframe and were first delivered to NATO in the early 1980s. The Sentry aircraft operate out of NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen in Germany.
Blackhawks in Poland
US Army Blackhawks have been busy in Poland. It’s anyone’s guess exactly who is onboard or what the specific mission is here, but we could imagine they’re busy carrying US embassy staff or other personnel to and from the area around the Ukrainian border. The US Blackhawks in Poland tend to fly under callsign DUKE followed by a number. Did you know that some Blackhawks are actually built in Mielec, Poland?
UAVs in the area
US-operated drones or UAVs have been in the air around Ukraine lately, and we’ve been able to track those that have chosen to remain visible. These are RQ-4 drones, aka the Global Hawk, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, and they tend to make very distinctive flight paths, to say the least. They can fly high (50,000+ feet) and they can stay in the air for a long time, over 30 hours. In one case an RQ-4 was seen doing repeated patterns over the Black Sea, having taken off from Sicily. These usually carry the callsign FORTE followed by a two-digit number.
KC-135 and KC-10A for refueling
The KC-135 and KC-10A, many belonging to the US Air Force, have both been spotted all over eastern NATO skies from Romania to Slovakia and more. Both are used for mid-air refueling and the KC-10, as the name suggests, is based on the DC-10 platform. The KC-10s this week have been flying under the NCHO callsign.
The C17 Globemaster
Here’s a C17 with the SAC Heavy Airlift Wing flying from Trollhattan in Sweden to what looks like a destination in Poland (quite possibly Rzeszow). The SAC Heavy Airlift Wing is based in Hungary and “is an independent and multinational programme that provides assured access to strategic military airlift capability for its 12 member nations.” It works within the structure of NATO but exists separately from it.
The Airbus A400M
Pictured is an Airbus A400M from Belgium’s Air Force, which took off from Brussels, headed for Rzeszow (RZE) in Poland. This may have been carrying people or cargo, or both. Rzeszow, as you’ll notice, figures largely in a number of the special and/or military aircraft movements related to the Ukraine situation. That makes sense because it’s one of the closest airfields in NATO territory to the Ukraine border and it has a nice long runway. In normal times this is a relatively quiet international airport with passenger service. Here’s a bonus A400M belonging to the Turkish Air Force landing at, you guessed it, Rzeszow.
Keep an eye out for Russian aircraft like the IL-76. This particular IL-76 belonging to the Russian Air Force has been spotted lately moving between Crimea and Moscow, among other places. See our post for more information on the old Ilyushin.
What else have you spotted? Let us know. And in case you want to look for any of these aircraft on the map don’t forget you can use the Filters tool to do that quickly. Here’s the list of aircraft ICAO codes you’ll want to use:
- KC-135: K35A
- RC-135: R135
- E-3A Sentry: E3TF
- RQ-4: Q4
- UH-60M Blackhawk: H60
- C17: C17 (easy one)
- An-124: A124
- IL-76: IL76
Invalid transponder codes
We identify aircraft based on their ICAO 24-bit address, which is supposed to be unique to each aircraft around the world. Some aircraft broadcast an incorrect address which makes it impossible for our system to correctly identify the aircraft. It may be possible for a human looking at the flight path or call sign to make an informed guess about the aircraft’s identity, but without a proper ICAO 24-bit address it is not possible for our system to do so.