June 14, 2004 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Belgian F-16 fighter jets from 349 Sqn, stationed at Zokniai airbase in northwestern Lithuania as part of NATO's Baltic air-policing mission, were srambled on June 2nd to intercept a Russian IL-18 approaching Estonian airspace.
On the morning of June 2, radar operators in Lithuania detected a low-flying aircraft in Russian airspace traveling 160 kilometers north of Tallinn. The aircraft was identified as an IL-18. Before entering NATO
airspace, the IL-18 had been followed by F-18s from the Finnish Air Force.
After attempts to contact the pilots of the aircraft (which had its IFF
trasponder disabled) failed, two F-16s on Quick Reaction Alert were scrambled to intercept and visually ID the intruder. The two F-16s went supersonic over Riga.
Upon reaching the intercept point, the F-16 pilots were unable to detect the aircraft. NATO officials did not rule out that the IL-18 was on a spying mission.
This scramble was the first for NATO's Quick Reaction Alert mission, which took responsibility for patrolling the skies above the Baltic states within hours after they joined NATO. The QRA
mission is currently performed by 4 F-16s from the Belgian Air Force 349 Sqn. At the end of June, 350 Sqn will take over.