A Russian Air Force surveillance plane was tracked flying at low altitude north of Gibraltar yesterday, in what appears to have been an approved flight through Spanish airspace.
The plane, an unarmed passenger jet, flew south along the length of the Costa del Sol before cutting inland north of the Rock and over the Strait of Gibraltar up towards Cádiz, according to plane spotters using Flightradar24, a commercially-available flight tracking software.
Flying at just over 4,000ft, it then turned inland towards Seville before turning back and heading to Portugal, from where it had taken off in the morning.
Its flight path passed over key ports such as Algeciras and came close to major military installations in Spain, including the Rota naval base and the air base at Moron de la Frontera.
Officials here described the flight as “highly unusual” but said the plane did not enter British airspace.
Spanish authorities had previously confirmed that the flight, which had 28 Russian military officials on board, was approved under an international arms control agreement that allows signatories to carry out surveillance over each others’ territories.
The plane was tracked by spotters on both sides of the border and was photographed [below] near Huelva yesterday afternoon.
The aircraft is a Tupolev Tu-154M that has been used as a zero-gravity trainer by Russia’s Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center.
It is also used by Russia for flights under the Open Skies Treaty of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The treaty establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the territories of its signatories, which include Russia and Spain. The UK and the US are also among the treaty’s 35 signatories.
The agreement establishes a cooperative regime of carefully-monitored flights to promote confidence, predictability, and stability between participating nations.
The Russian plane also carried out a flight over northeast Spain last December, according to the Spanish Ministry of Defence.
Last November, Spain and Canada carried out a joint surveillance flight over Russia and Belarus under the same treaty.
According to the US State Department, Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international arms control efforts to date to promote openness and transparency in military forces and activities, although it has proved controversial in the past.
According to the military information website GlobalSecurity.org, the aircraft in question has additional duties including environmental monitoring, mapping and geological survey.
Main image courtesy of Flightradar24.com