Two Commercial Flights Re-Routed to Avoid Collision With US Spy Plane

Russia is criticizing the US military for a spy plane over the Sea of Japan near Russia which came too close to two civilian jetliners.

A KLM Dutch Airline Boeing-777, and a SWISS passenger plane were put in danger over the Sea of Japan by an US Air Force spy plane over in international airspace over the between Japan and Russia.

..The [U.S.] plane was on an air reconnaissance mission with all of its transponders having been shut off, it added.

The US crew had not provided any information regarding its flight to air traffic controllers in the region, despite it flying at the same altitude as scheduled civil aviation flights.

The US military plane was reportedly flying at 36,000 feet and non-responsive to air traffic control. A KLM Boeing 777 “had to immediately change the flight path” and a Swiss aircraft reported “visual contact with a large four-engine aircraft, which was in direct proximity to their plane” leading to a change in altitude.

The US is going to operate clandestinely in or at the very least near Russian airspace. The Russians are going to excitedly use any potential incident as an excuse to criticize the U.S. for doing so — and argue that they shouldn’t be because they’re jeopardizing safety (the Russians get to cloak themselves in a good cause).

However the US should never give the Russians this opportunity. While there’s no world in which US spy planes are going to “[t]urn on transponders for automatic identification by our radars” as the Russians request, because that rather defeats the purpose of a spy plane. But if you’re going to spy gosh darn it do it in a way that:

  • The Russians don’t know, or at least that leaves you with plausible deniability

  • And doesn’t place civilian airliners at risk.

Because even if you dismiss the news emanating from Russia as self-serving, which it is, the US aircraft wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding and certainly should have done a better job staying away from commercial flights — especially over the Sea of Japan, where the Soviets downed Korean Air Lines KAL 007 in 1983 mistaking it for a spy plane weeks before NATO’s Able Archer exercise convinced much of the Soviet military apparatus that the West was preparing for a pre-emptive strike

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I am certainly no covert pilot, but it is common knowledge that civilian commercial aircraft operate in a very narrow window of altitude. How hard is it to stay out of that window, especially when operating in busy airspace?

  2. @Doug – Perhaps they were trying to appear as if they were commercial traffic……

    @Gary – “…the US should never give the Russians this opportunity..” Without all the facts, that’s a subjective assertion. Perhaps the U.S. got some last minute intelligence on the Red October that required a reconnaissance plane put up at the last minute…… We’ll never know.

  3. One would imagine that the spy plane knew exactly where the other commercial aircraft were and there was no way the spy plane would collide with the commercial aircraft. The spy plane was probably intentionally trying to look like a commercial aircraft…well I hope the above is the case in any event

  4. I don’t think you “try to look like a commercial aircraft” with no transponders and not responding to air traffic control. I would say they were indeed not where they were supposed to be.

  5. “gosh darn it?”
    I bet you say that all the time, as well as “H-E-double toothpicks”

  6. this is the reality when a military mothballs an asset like the SR-71 with no replacement. that plane flew wherever it was needed at a moments notice. countless anti-aircraft were fired at it along with countless jets scrambled- nobody could touch it.

    aside from pet projects and waste (cough F-35), the US military is underfunded for it’s necessary multiple missions- from terror, regional to Global (China, Russia)- each require different equip and training. This is why Trump is right that our ‘allies’ need to pay their fair share. the days of the US paying to protect the rest of the world need to end. the EU can pay for its own defense, as can Japan, Korea, etc.

  7. @abby – You do realize the things called “spy satellites” are what drove the SR-71 and U-2 obsolete. Spy planes such as the one in this event are still needed for eavesdropping and other specific needs.

  8. The perspectives raised by the articles and the commenting readers are fascinating. One thing we know for sure, Russia has ZERO moral standing to criticize anyone for endangering a commercial aircraft. Russia intentionally shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, knowing that it was a commercial jet. Russia provided Surface-to-Air missiles in 2014 to ethnic Russian guerillas who then intentionally shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, mistakenly believing it to be a Ukrainian military transport. In both cases Russia lied about its involvement in the shootdowns, in the face of strong evidence. In the 1983 KAL case, Russia later changed its story, admitting the shootdown, but claiming it was justified. I am so done with listening to Russia complain about anything. Putin, STFU!

  9. Much as the Russians have ever shot down civilian planes, the United states Navy did the same to a Iranian airliner in1988. So at least let the U.S Armed forces have the moral obligation of staying out of civilian flight areas when carrying on their clandestine missions in Russian areas.

  10. Contrary to the statement in the third paragraph of this post, the US military does not operate any flights “in” Russian airspace. That is an act of war, and subjects an offending aircraft to immediate destruction without warning. Witness KAL 007, which was a civilian aircraft, and the Russian SU 24 the Turks recently downed after briefly penetrating Turkish airspace.

    It seems that operating a reconnaissance flight without a transponder provides little if any advantage. Unless its a F-22, its not like the plane does not show up on radar. If the Japanese air traffic radars saw the flight, you can bet the Russian military radars were watching it as well. Any aircraft not squawking a transponder code in that area is effectively announcing its purpose as a spy mission.

  11. @Abby. Oh dear Abby, how little u know yet pretend to know so much. Like someone else stated spy satellites were the SR-71 demise. You claim the military is underfunded yet we spend more than like 5 biggest countries in the world combined to the point we are buying planes that are junk. There are some areas in the military that are underfunded like our nuclear submarine fleet but in general our military is well funded unless of course there is another government shutdown and even then the money doesn’t totally stop flowing

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