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When a RAF E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft was almost shot down by a Serbian MiG-29

by Till Daisd
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RAF E 3 MiG 29 1

On May 4, 1999, a Serbian MiG-29 piloted by Lt. Colonel Pavlovic targeted an RAF E-3D aircraft flown by a No. 23 Squadron crew

During Operation Allied Force, the RAF E-3D AWACS aircrews faced some challenging situations.

Even though offensive weaponry was drastically reduced during the Cold War, between 1989 and 1991, new conflicts that occurred a few months after the Warsaw Pact’s breakup made Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) planes even more crucial.

When the old Yugoslavia broke up into six sovereign republics in the summer of 1991, the Balkan Peninsula actually entered a period of unrest. Yugoslavia was reduced to the state of Serbia and Montenegro after losing Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing effort was the result of Serbian Nationalists’ eventual subjugation of the Kosovar Albanian community.

NATO was forced to employ force after Belgrade rejected the deployment of peacekeepers inside Kosovo, and a strategy was designed to strengthen the coalition that would have pushed Serbia to cede authority over Kosovo. On the evening of March 24, 1999, Operation Allied Force started.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) E-3Ds were one of the air assets stationed in Italy to coordinate the air operations over Serbia. In 1992, three E-3D aircraft from No. 8 Squadron moved to Aviano Air Base (AB), and more AWACS operators from No. 23 Squadron joined this detachment in 1999.

In the book Beyond the Horizon The History of AEW&C Aircraft, Ian Shaw, who spent 32 years in the RAF, discussed his experiences working closely with the RAF E-3D unit during Operation Allied Force, and co-wrote with Sergio Santana. Shaw claims that the AWACS aircrews’ most important lesson from this conflict was that their planes were a prime target for the enemy.

As he explains “we had been alerted as a wing at Aviano to the MANPADS threat in the area. Intel had been received that possible Yugoslav special forces had got on to mainland Italy with some shoulder-launched SAMs and were heading for Aviano.”

That time a RAF E-3D Sentry AEW&C aircraft was nearly shot down by a Serbian MiG-29  

The fast aircraft altered their departure profile, lit their burners, and spiraled ascended overhead to lessen the MANPADS threat, while the E-3Ds were obviously unable to do this and could only climb straight ahead at full speed regardless of the threat. This statement was frequently repeated to E-3D pilots because the MANPADS threat was considered serious: “You’ve got four engines, you’ll only lose one!”

The most terrifying incident happened on May 4, 1999. On that day, a Serbian MiG-29 piloted by Lt. Colonel Pavlovic from the 127th Fighter Squadron, 204th Fighter Regiment of the Air Force of Serbia and Montenegro engaged an RAF E-3D being flown by a No. 23 Squadron crew (Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo Srbije I Crne Gore – RVSiCG). Without permission, Pavlovic took off from Nis and flew quite low before landing at 12:41 local time.

A female weapons controller (WC) selected and tracked Pavlovic’s Fulcrum. As a sizable NATO strike package was leaving the target area, she noticed him approaching the AWACS. Although the majority of the allied aircraft had left the region, a few USAF Wild Weasel F-16Cs remained. When the AWACS link manager reached them and handed the two F-16s to the WC, the two Vipers were out of gas and on their way to the tanker.

She was able to successfully direct them toward the MiG-29 that was destroyed at 12:46.

That time a RAF E-3D Sentry AEW&C aircraft was nearly shot down by a Serbian MiG-29  

When the E-3D crew returned to Aviano and entered the operations room, according to Shaw, there was a tangible sense of relief. “Although not a ‘Top Gun’ moment the crew were congratulated on an excellent and professional job and immediately phoned the F-16 pilot who if I recall had also been flying out at Aviano that day. I must admit that episode bought it home to me how vulnerable our crews were and how this wasn’t a game or an exercise…”

Photo by Crown Copyright, Srđan Popović, and claudiu_ne2000 via Wikipedia

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