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How Scots RAF pilots are policing the skies above Romania

Jets tasked to quickly respond to and intercept Russian military jets.

The emergency call came just two days after the team arrived.

Their fast response skills have been honed in the skies above RAF Lossiemouth and exported from Scotland to Eastern Europe, part of a mission to help face down Russian aggression.

But they didn't expect to be forced into using them so soon.

"It was a Russian Coot aircraft, which is a reconnaissance aircraft," says Squadron Leader Roger Cruishank, who led the response that day.

"And routinely they would patrol around the Black Sea.

"On this occasion they were coming towards our airspace, so that's why we had to get airborne to make sure that they didn't come any closer into territorial airspace over Romania."

They weren't forced to intercept that time, but should they need to, the men and women who serve the Moray airbase know exactly what to do.

As many as 150 of them have been deployed to Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase near the city of Constanta in Romania to bolster NATO operations.

Operating in the heat of the Romanian summer, constant drills keep the pilots and ground crew in a permanent state of readiness.

Cruikshank put himself and his crew through their paces for STV's cameras, sprinting across the tarmac.

Wing Commander Chris Ball.
Wing Commander Chris Ball. STV

Leaping into the cockpit of his Eurofighter Typhoon he straps himself in to the sound of wailing alarms, the perspex canopy sliding smoothly down over his head.

They can have the engines of this multi-million pound warplane running full pelt in just over two minutes. It takes less than ten seconds to be armed and airborne over the Black Sea.

"As soon as the buzzer goes we are sprinting out to the aircraft as fast as possible," says Cruickshank. "Because every second counts.

"But at the same time we try not to rush things so that we don't miss checks and we don't miss a critical part of the start-up and getting out, so that we get airborne as quickly as possible."

Later, the aircraft screams down the runway and shoots into the sky. Twisting and turning at 400 miles per hour, the four Typhoons police the eastern edge of NATO airspace alongside Romanian counterparts.

To the north Ukraine and far across the water Georgia, these skies were until recently seeing an average of three Russia-related 'scrambles' every week.

Pilots make sure the planes are in tip-top condition.
Pilots make sure the planes are in tip-top condition. STV

The man in charge of the mission insists this extra presence has led to a significant drop in incidents.

"It's very hard to draw any conclusions about how any non-native NATO aircraft may operate in the region," says Wing Commander Chris Ball.

"But I think we can see that overall if we look at the number of scrambles, I think our deployment here and the Canadian deployment that happened last year was significant in terms of the impact it had."

The Romanians still rely mostly on the same planes that were patrolling these skies at the height of the Cold War. The multi-coloured MIG21 LanceR emits a deafening roar on take-off; during maintenance on the ground it's not unusual to see them being hit with a hammer.

It's tempting to describe it as an ageing workhorse but one Romanian airman is quick to reject the idea it's a relic.

"Imagine your car was built in 1970 and still working perfectly," he counters. As the Migs arc and circle stealthily in the skies above the airfield it seems like a decent point. Most of them have been shipped overseas to have new parts put in too. We're assured beneath the bonnet, everything is in working order.

They have also invested in F16 fighters over the past few years but the support and partnership of numerous nations gives a stronger guarantee of security.

Romanians still rely on their Cold War planes.
Romanians still rely on their Cold War planes. STV

On the ground the massive base bristles with American troops, HUMVEES and Black Hawk helicopters working alongside the Europeans.

It's a serious business but not without its lighter moments. We arrive on Bingo night, the RAF inherited a pub from the Canadians who were here before them.

The mission is codenamed Operation Biloxi and, perhaps inevitably, the pub is known as 'The Dogs Biloxi'.

Outreach and engagement activities abound, the top brass speak proudly about the work they are doing with schoolchildren and local communities.

But work never stops and Russia remains the word on everyone's lips. The military personnel we speak to stress repeatedly this is a peacetime mission but some might see it as further evidence of a new Cold War.

That's something to focus minds in Romania - a country still emerging from the long shadow of the last one.

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