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The Tupolev 'Bear' bomber was an icon of the Cold War, and has lately made a return as Russia flexes its muscles. Here a CF-18 plays escort during a 2009 encounter.AFP / Getty Images

It's a sight Mike (Ahab) York has seen twice over the vast white horizon just outside Canadian airspace: a massive Russian Tupolev "Bear" bomber.

With its four propellers and lanky frame, the Tupolev long-range bomber was an icon of the Cold War. Three years ago, they returned to the arctic as Moscow, in a show of strength for its own citizens, began flirting with Canadian air space once again.

Capt. York is among the Canadian fighter pilots sent to intercept them. He's based out of Cold Lake, Alta., but flies out of Inuvik, NWT, when the Russians are near.

The bomber has been in use for more than 50 years, and the Canadian pilots fly against them in flight simulators. But Capt. York was still taken aback by the real thing.

"That surprised me - actually how big they are," Capt. York, 31, says of the Tupolevs. Intercepting them was not a job he anticipated when signing up as a young recruit. "I always thought fighter pilots were kind of the World War II, you know, fighting it out over the English Channel. I'd never really given that much thought to being up over the arctic. But it has been a huge part of our life here up in Cold Lake."

When the Russians are near (their exercises run one to three weeks, and typically end on a Friday - Russians like weekends off), Canadians scramble to intercept them in a "buffer zone" just outside Canadian airspace.

"Sometimes it will be so reactive that we'll just hear that horn," he said, referring to an alarm in his bunker. "You feel pretty proud about what you're doing."

Flying in the north is aided by GPS, but fliers say it gets boring (everything is white) and they're constantly concerned about a mechanical failure that could strand them in desolate terrain. If Canada goes ahead with the purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, this will become more of a concern - the F-35 has one engine, whereas the CF-18 has two, offering a backup in case one quits.

"When you're 300 miles off the arctic coast, every pilot will tell you that you hear the jet rumbling a little more than you would normally," he says. "There's so many things going through your head. Where am I going to go if I lose an engine? What am I going to do if my wingman can't refuel?"

It's a tête-à-tête decades old. The Russians go about their training, and the Canadian CF-18 fighters fly alongside keeping watch. Then, the Russians leave, and the Canadians return to their base. A wholly symbolic show of strength (an actual invasion of air space is an act of war, and would likely trigger an American response) but one in which Capt. York, a married father of one, believes.

"The second you give that [airspace]up," he says, "you're really giving up that sovereignty."