Four Belgian Air Force F-16AM jets are deployed to Siauliai, Lithuania, to support NATO BAP (Baltic Air Policing) mission in the Baltic region since September. As part of their mission to safeguard the airspaces over Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and the Baltic Sea, the Belgian Vipers (just like the fighters of all the other air forces which support the BAP mission with rotational deployments to the Baltic States) are regularly scrambled to intercept Russian/non-NATO aircraft that fly in international airspace near NATO airspace.
While Il-76s, Su-27s and other interesting “zombies” are often escorted over the Baltic, the Russian Navy Tu-134 UB-L, RF-12041 nicknamed “Black Pearl”, that the BAF F-16s intercepted last week is a real first. The Belgian Air Force shared an IR image (most probably taken by the F-16’s SNIPER Advanced Targeting Pod used in air-to-air mode for long range identification) of the rare bird, along with a file photo of the same aircraft taking off in 2019:
The Tu-134UB-L, NATO reporting name Crusty-B, is a variant of the civilian Tu-134B aircraft designed to train Tu-160 and Tu-22M3 strategic bombers aircrews (in particular, the Tu-134 was chosen because of the thrust to weight ratio and landing/takeoff characteristics were similar to those of the Tu-22M). The Tu-134UB-L (Uchebno-Boyevoy dla Lyotchikov, Russian for combat trainer for pilots) is indeed a Tu-134B airframe with a Tu-22 nose. According to Russia’s Warplanes Vol. 2 by Piotr Butowski, a total 109 Tu-134UB-L were built, with the first one making its maiden flight in March 1981.
Noteworthy, according to some sources, the “Black Pearl” is no longer used as a trainer, but was converted to be used for transportation tasks in 2017.
Whatever its current mission is the Tu-134UB-L RF-12041 is an extremely interesting and rare aircraft. Let’s just hope the BAF will release more images of this beauty!!