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Think Russian Jets Buzzing Boats is new? Think again. This Russian TU-16 Crashed After Buzzing U.S.S. Essex


Flashback Friday: Boys (pilots) and their toys (jets) can lead to some provocative and dangerous flybys.

Last month, the destroyer USS Cook on two occasions was buzzed by Russian military planes. On the first incident, two unarmed Sukhoi Su-24 fighters flew within 1,000 feet of the ship and one of the passes was within 30 feet. Navy officials called them simulated attacks. The other incident involved a low-flying Russian Ka-27 Helix helicopter that appeared to be on a photo recon mission.

Incidents between the U.S. and Russian forces – the Americans are typically involved in air-to-air close encounters – have been plentiful over the last 70 years. Most have been harmless.

But on May 25, 1968, a Russian Tupolev TU-16 reconnaissance plane crashed in the Mediterranean about five miles off the bow of the USS Essex (a World War II era aircraft carrier, pictured above). The plane had made several low-level passes before crashing. (The accompanying video has a Russian narrator so if you can translate it, bonus points.)

Russian pilots apparently loved to prove their testosterone edge with these figurative middle finger passes.

But during the height of the Cold War – this incident was just five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis – it’s unfathomable that this kind of brinksmanship was being practiced. Imagine if whatever caused this TU-16 to crash – a mechanical failure, perhaps – had occurred when it buzzed the carrier. Even if unintentional, a “kamikaze” crash of a Russian plane into a U.S. aircraft carrier could have led to war.

In the 1970s and into the early 1980s, the Soviets challenged the presence of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. The Russians often dispatched two aircraft – one to make 100-feet-off-the-deck passes while the other took photographs that could be displayed in military HQs in Mother Russia.

A Soviet reconnaissance jet and an American F-4 Phantom collided over the Mediterranean in March of 1970. It was a mid-air fender bender – the Phantom suffered some scraped paint while the Russian plane came away with a bent wingtip.

While the Russians like to display their machismo by buzzing warships, aerial encounters with U.S. pilots tend to be more mutual respect and jovial. One U.S. pilot displayed the latest Playboy Playmate of the Month during a close encounter with a Russian pilot while on another occasion a Soviet pilot saluted his American counterpart and held up what appeared to be a bottle of vodka.

While U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said last month that the U.S.S. Cook would have been justified on firing on the two Russian fighters who buzzed the ship, for the most part the U.S. just accepts the fact that the Russians like their flybys.

What typically happens after such an incident is that the U.S. military attaché in Moscow visits his Russian counterpart to “express a level of concern.” Once that is done, case closed.

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Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.

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