Commercial jets carrying hundreds of people had to be diverted in mid-air or else prevented from taking off to avoid potential collisions with two Russian bear bombers which “cloaked” their presence during their latest incursion into Irish-controlled airspace.
The Irish Examiner can reveal that the Tu-95 bombers, which flew just 40km off the coast, criss-crossed into major civilian airline traffic lanes, including incoming flights from North America on February 18.
Following the first publicised incursion two weeks previously, the Department of Foreign Affairs signalled its officials had spoken to the Russian ambassador and sought reassurances that its military aircraft would not fly into our area of control without advance notification, especially if their transponders were off.
However, that request seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the Kremlin.
After an investigation by the Irish Examiner, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) admitted that on February 18 the Russian bombers — which flew at 8,200m around the west, south, and east coasts, had caused problems for civilian aircraft operating in our airspace.
The IAA said its air traffic controllers were notified by British counterparts that they needed to take action to ensure the safety of commercial aircraft, because yet again the Russian bombers had entered our area of airspace control with their transponders turned off.
If transponders are turned on, they notify air traffic controllers of the type of aircraft, their height, location, and other information.
The IAA statement confirmed “the Russian military aircraft did not have their transponders switched on at the time” and, at the request of British counterparts, they took action to ensure that “one aircraft’s departure from Dublin was delayed”, as it could have flown into the path of the bear bombers which were by that time in British-controlled airspace.
The IAA also confirmed that “as a precautionary measure to ensure safety was maintained, the routing of one en route aircraft was changed to ensure that its track was sufficiently separated from the track of the two Russian military aircraft”.
The first Russian incursion into Irish-controlled airspace was 88km off the coast. The second was much nearer, just 19km outside our sovereign airspace and the incursion lasted from 3pm to 7pm.
In both cases, the bombers travelled toward British airspace, where they were met by RAF Typhoon jets.
Defence Minister Simon Coveney said the Government “was clearly not happy” that Ireland was not told that Russian bombers were approaching on Irish airspace with their transponders turned off again.
However, he added: “I’d be surprised if it was a Russian tactic to upset Ireland, and the IAA managed the incident safely and effectively.”
It is believed that the Russians were testing British air defences and sending a message to London that they did not want any political interference in their internal affairs or in Ukraine.
He said further interaction with the Russians over their incursions into Irish-controlled airspace without prior notification and with transponders switched off was a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs.
However, Fianna Fáil spokesman on foreign affairs Brendan Smith said it was time the Government dealt with Russia at the highest levels.
He said Mr Coveney and Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan must speak to their Russian counterparts.
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