How to read tail numbers off Russian military planes from satellite imgs

An investigation into Fraport AG and it’s ties to Pulkovo Airport (St. Petersburg) hits the bullseye by propelling Putin to kick foreign players out of Russia. Here is how the satellite investigation played a key role in the reporting.

5 min readDec 1, 2023
High-resolution Google Earth image of Pulkovo Airport

The German company Fraport AG, a stock listed “Airport Services” firm and operator of Germany’s largest airport at Frankfurt-am-Main, closes business deals with whoever offers the most lucrative conditions.

That’s just good business practice. But how far the company is willing to go, to, for instance maintain business ties in places where few western companies would want to keep operating, that is a totally different question.

A bit of research finds alleged links to IVO KAMENOV GEORGIEV and MARIN VELIKOV MITEV, both members of the most dubious circles in Bulgaria — the by now legendary TIM group.

TIM, was uncovered as part of a WikiLeaks document from 2005 from the US Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. It described TIM as “the up-and-coming star of Bulgarian organized crime”. After it found its way into media reporting by the New York Times.

But certainly, one of the most obvious points of criticism critics in Germany and Europe held against Fraport in the past two years was its remaining stake in the Russian civilian flagship airport, Pulkovo Airport.

Despite the harrowing and unjust aggression war by Putin's military apparatus on Ukraine, Fraport stayed. Repeated allegations that Pulkovo Airport could aid Putin's war in some or other way, circulated. The company stuck to its guns and stayed. But then a report by German media hit in 2023 where it hurt. It provided enough evidence that the civilian airport offered war jets and military planes — many with alleged links to the notorious Wagner Group — a home to operate. Despite claiming to be a purely civilian airport.

How Fraport's stock price nosedived as Russia attacked Ukraine

After the reporting concluded, there was a hiatus for several months. Then just this week, a decree dropped in Russia. Putin himself took action, according to Bloomberg. All rights to managing Pulkovo airport are now to be transferred from foreign shareholders into a new Russian entity. That erases the stake Fraport held and means the firm is out (and a huge success for the reporters).

How the OSINT Snooping came about

That Pulkovo played nicely with the Russian military came as no surprise. The civilian airport hosts a commandant’s office of military Communications. They surely allow military officers on civilian planes — the same way that american airlines chauffeur members of the military on civilian flights.

But Russian flightspotters — flight spotting seems to be as popular in Russia as it is here in Europe — kept on uploading images of Russian military linked aircraft present at the airport.

RA planes spotted at Pulkovo airport at flightspotting websites

Dozens of those landed and started. But how much weight and merit do those images hold in the age of misinformation and image tampering? They can be fakes, of course. Metadata in the image files could have been altered. It could all be a false trail. Real evidence was needed to back up these photos. Satellite images were used to double-check if these planes really appeared at Pulkovo.

Google Earth high resolution satellite images confirm at day of review presence of military linked planes

So-called “fingerprinting” allowed to check and confirm airplane models on the runways by comparing the length and wingspan.

On one satellite image, an Airbus images, the resolution was so high and clear, it was literally possible to witness the registration number. It showed the plane with the tail number RA-82014 in large black capital letters on the right wing of the Antonov An-124.

Research with online sanction lists suggests this and other planes that visited the airport were sanctioned in America. It is part of a dubious flight unit and the US Authorities judged that the whole Russian 224th Flight Unit maintains links to the Wagner mercenary Group, that human rights analysts impute grave human rights violations.

But there is more. In March, a military jet lands at Pulkovo. Images of the 40-meter-long Russian warplane, a TU22, circulated on the internet. Again, they could be fake. The geolocation, however, fits the bill. The weather the photos show, too.

The bomber was heavily armed and loaded with highly potent long-range missiles. The same destructive missiles used against Ukraine’s civilians.

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To confirm that the plane was indeed stopping by — by the way, a clear breach in the investor agreements of Fraport — synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images helped. SAR is used to create two-dimensional images or three-dimensional reconstructions of objects, such as landscapes. The data now confirmed at the exact spot the photo was taken, there was an object.

That the Russian narrative for this awkward incident does not work — an emergency landing due to bad weather — show open weather records for the day and night clearly.




Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice