By Mark Thiessen
Flying at 34,000 feet over the Bering Strait, the Russian pilots had a singular focus: making sure they smoothly received the hand-off of a “hijacked” jetliner from their U.S.-Canadian counterparts.
Up here, there were no thoughts about strained Russia-U.S. relations. Those were for another day, and for high-level officials. This training exercise was to make sure Russia and NORAD forces could find, track and escort a hijacked aircraft over international borders.
NORAD’s director of operations, Canadian Major Gen. André Viens, said there were never any discussions about canceling the exercise, known as Vigilant Eagle. It’s been held five times since 2003. But the exercises on Tuesday and Wednesday were the first since U.S.-Russian relations became strained because of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Syria, human rights and other issues.
“The cooperation with the Russian Federation Air Force personnel has been ongoing for the past year for this particular serial, and at no time there was any discussion about canceling the event for this year,” Viens said Thursday at the conclusion of the two-day exercise.
His counterpart, Gen. Major Dmitry Gomenkov, commander of the Aerospace Defense Brigade for eastern Russia, agreed. “I see no problems,” Gomenkov said through a translator.
Col. Patrick Carpentier, the deputy commander of NORAD’s Alaska Region, was an observer on the “hijacked plane,” and said the exercise is about cooperation.
“All these other factors really don’t play in this,” said Carpentier, a member of the Canadian Air Force. “This is a mission that we have to accomplish, so it really is beyond those types of frictions. We cooperate because we have to.”
Russian observers were at NORAD facilities in both Anchorage, Alaska, and Colorado Springs, Colo., while NORAD personnel were sent to Khabarovsk, Russia, to observe the exercise.
The drama played out twice this week over western Alaska and eastern Russia, involving the Russian Federation Air Force and for the first time ever, Canadian Air Force planes representing NORAD, a bi-national command of Canada and the United States.
It involved a small plane, representative of a 757 passenger jet, being hijacked shortly after taking off from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Two Canadian CF-18 Hornets intercepted the hijacked plane, flying at about 575 mph, a little bit west of Mount McKinley, the highest peak on North America. The two Canadian fighters escorted the plane over Alaska’s western coast, where it was handed off to three Russian Sukhoi (SU-27) fighter jets at the border.