On the 21st of September (2022) Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a mobilization of troops to help with his illegal invasion of Ukraine. This was followed by the attempted annexation of Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Since these announcements, a pattern of flights has emerged which appears to show Russia’s Ural Airlines assisting the Russian state by ferrying their conscripted troops towards the Ukrainian meatgrinder.
[Scroll to the bottom of the article for updates.]
On the 28th of September, Ural Airlines began running flights from Koltsovo Airport in Russia’s Yekaterinburg with no destination. Even stranger is that when tracked most of these flights end without landing, usually once the plane has crossed the Don River north of Volgograd.
Posted below you can see the information and tracking information for both flights from FlightRadar24.
These flights also share a curious trait with their flight numbers and callsigns. Usually, Ural Airlines flight numbers / callsigns are usually made up of the prefix ‘U6’ or ‘SVR’, followed by the flight number. These flight numbers are in turn used as the aircraft’s callsign for that flight. However, the Ural flights that have been flying towards Ukraine have instead opted to use the plane’s registration number as their flight number and callsign.
There are a few instances where the U6 prefix is used along with the registration but in most cases, the registration number is all that we see displayed.
Example of Ural Airlines flight numbers/callsigns.
Another element of these flights is that they do not show up on any airport flight boards, which means they are not public flights. The last strange attribute of these flights is that occasionally they will indicate that they have a final destination of Volgograd or Rostov-on-Don, airports which are not usually served by Ural.
When digging through the histories of the planes involved, it did show a few flights that were listed as going to Rostov-on-Don using the aircraft registration as a callsign. Two of these flights were confirmed to have landed at Rostov-on-Don. However, in most instances, the flights stop being trackable long before that point so it is impossible to know if that was the final destination for the flights or if they continue into Ukraine.
Most of these flights vanish after crossing the Don River, north of Volgograd.
Over the 28th and 29th of September, I watched a handful of these strange flights appear on flight tracking after leaving Yekaterinburg only to make their way southwest towards Donetsk before disappearing. While I had a hunch that these flights may be something to do with the troop mobilisation I thought it was best to monitor and confirm the pattern of behaviour I was watching.
It was a long shot, but I hoped to see a flight entering or exiting Ukrainian airspace.
While it seems risky if not reckless that flights would fly into Ukraine – At around 1730 UK time on the 2nd of October, Flight RA78342 appeared to show that it had crossed the Ukraine-Russia border to the east of Kharkiv, however, while other tracking sites showed the same track there are issues with the timing and distance of the flight. Sadly, it is impossible to know if this was an ADSB glitch, or if the plane did in fact cross the border at that location and another element of the tracking is wrong.
(It could be that ADSB tracking close to the Ukraine border is currently not working as it should.)
By the afternoon of the 2nd of October, I had observed around 25 of these flights depart Yekaterinburg and head towards Ukraine, with every one of them following the same pattern – no callsign other than the plane’s registration, they all left Yekaterinburg, they all headed towards eastern Ukraine, and, they all dropped off tracking after crossing the Don River.
As of writing this article 12 Ural jets (A320’s and A321’s) – RA-73805, RA-73806, RA-73817, RA-73818, RA-73823, RA-73824, RA-73795, RA-73799, RA-73842, RA-73843, RA-73845 and RA-73846 – have been used for a total of 34 of these flights.
(By the time you read this, there will have been more flights).
In conclusion, it is hard if not impossible to know what airports these flights have ended up at using the openly available information which is available. There is a chance that the flights are landing at airports as close to the Ukrainian border as they can. My best guess is that Rostov-on-Don is being used as a staging post for troops who are being shipped to Ukraine. Tactically, this would make the most sense as Rostov-on-Don is Russia’s closest city to the areas of Ukraine that Russia is trying to annex.
What we do know is that since the announced Russian mobilisation, waves of flights have left Yekaterinburg, which is home to Russia’s Central Military district headquarters, and headed towards Ukraine. The pattern of behaviour with the flight numbers and the flight tracking (ADSB) being disabled at a specific point in the flight close to Ukraine’s borders all point to a need to obscure where the flight is heading.
The biggest question I am left with is why would the Russian army be using one of their country’s biggest consumer airlines to ferry their mobilised troops to Ukraine. Does their own airforce lack the ability to move troops or is this merely a case of a dictator-run state using anything it can to fuel its illegal war in Europe?
[UPDATE] As of 2330 (UK BST) on the 3rd of October, Ural Airlines has flown 47 of these flights towards the Ukraine-Russia border. A total of 15 different Airbus A320’s and A321’s have been used for these flights (aircraft are listed below).
If you would like to investigate these flights yourself, you can find them all via the links below. If you find something I may have missed get in touch with me on Twitter @BrokeBritannia.
Thanks to the flight tracking guru Gerjon (on Twitter) for lending his eyes and ears on this. Give him a follow.
New planes – Added 3rd October.