Flash back to 1988, and I am a guest-observer hunched over the turbaned gentleman occupying the flight engineer's chair in the surprisingly cramped cockpit of a Singapore Airlines Boeing 747-300. Some 12 hours out of Los Angeles, en route to Singapore-Changi International Airport (where I will attend the first Asian Aerospace exposition), the big Boeing plies the Kamchatka coastline, working its way southwest at FL410.

It is the height of the Cold War, and we are about to fly abeam some very dangerous airspace. Only a few years earlier not far from this very waypoint, a Korean Air 747 that blundered over the border was shot out of the nighttime sky by a Russian Air Force MiG interceptor with the loss of all aboard the airliner—a case of mistaken identity, or so we were later told. As I gaze through the 747's large cockpit windows, musing on that unfortunate incident and the sensitivity of our present position, a contrail suddenly materializes several thousand feet below, its tip moving extremely fast from right to left.

“What's that?” another flight deck guest and I ask simultaneously.

The Sikh flight engineer shifts in his chair to get a better look and casually replies, “Oh…that's a Russian fighter, probably a MiG 25. They patrol their side of the border all the time.” And then he goes back to his paperwork.