A Russian military spy plane cruised the skies over Washington on Wednesday, with plans for New York City and New Jersey — in a perfectly legal bit of aerial reconnaissance that nonetheless appeared to be an attempt to troll President Donald Trump.
A 1992 agreement known as the Treaty on Open Skies allows each member country to conduct surveillance flights over the territory of the others, something the U.S. and Russia have done a combined 165 times over the past 15 years, according to the State Department.
But Russia’s choice of targets this go-round have a decidedly Trumpian flavor, taking the spy plane past Trump’s current hometown of Washington on Wednesday. Its plans in coming days are expected to take it near New York — the home of Trump Tower — and not far from the part of New Jersey where the president is vacationing at his golf club in Bedminster, according to a source familiar with the arrangements.
"I don’t know of any military facilities there," remarked a Pentagon official, who confirmed the mission.
On Wednesday, the plane also flew at low altitude over Dayton, Ohio, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, before vanishing from a live flight-tracking website. The plane may have landed there, possibly to refuel.
The Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-154M — similar to a medium-sized airliner — appeared to have left Moscow early Wednesday and flown through Reykjavík, Iceland, before entering U.S. airspace around Virginia’s Chincoteague Island. The plane then made several passes around the D.C. metro area for about an hour at lunchtime.
It also veered into Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, often at low altitudes.
"The missions happen on a semi-routine basis," said the Pentagon official, explaining that the Russians gave the required notice of at least 72 hours and that the mission has American personnel on board as observers.
The official could not publicly discuss the flight plans or the duration of the mission, though they commonly last at least several days.
The Russian Air Force flight appears to be the 10th so far this year.
"They usually come in and they list out what locations they want to fly over," the official said. "We put together the flight plan and with a few exceptions — safety-wise or weather-wise — they are allowed to fly over pretty much the entire territory."
"It is very controlled and very proscribed," he added, including "when they are allowed to take sensor readings."
The flight came at a tense time in U.S.-Russian relations, and on a day when jitters were especially high because of nuclear brinkmanship between Trump and North Korean leaders.
But the Russian spy flight was, in fact, fairly routine, flown under the auspices of the Treaty on Open Skies, signed by the United States, Canada, Russia and dozens of other countries. The arrangement is intended to help promote openness among nations and their militaries.