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Global audiences ride aboard secretive Ukraine war surveillance flight thanks to Only-on-AP exclusive

A crew member is obscured by surveillance equipment that largely fills the fuselage of a French military AWACS surveillance plane as it flew a 10-hour mission, Jan. 9, 2024, to eastern Romania for the NATO military alliance. With a powerful radar dome that rotates six times a minute on top of the planes, AWACS can detect targets over hundreds of kilometers (miles). One AWACS can surveil an area the size of Poland; three can cover all of central Europe, NATO says. AP PHOTO / JOHN LEICESTER

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JOHN LEICESTER

Dogged source-building by Paris Chief Correspondent John Leicester secured rare and exclusive access for AP aboard a secretive French military surveillance flight to the frontiers of the Ukraine war. Over a 10-hour flight, as the only journalist on board, Leicester crafted an extraordinary all-formats report to illustrate how the NATO military alliance is watching Russian aggression like a hawk and scooped even France’s government-supported national news agency in the process.

Leicester’s previous trust-building reporting with the French military, including competition-beating coverage of France’s secretive training of Ukrainian troops, helped him negotiate with French officers, convincing them to let him work freely in the tight confines of the aircraft where surveillance equipment marked “secret” and classified documents couldn’t be shown. In difficult conditions for shooting — cramped, extremely noisy, with challenging lighting and French military security concerns — Leicester filmed video, took photographs and conducted interviews for text, serving all AP clients and audiences and even managing a to-camera stand-up for digital video, shot with a GoPro in his flight suit from 34,000 feet.   

Publication of the package followed hot on the heels of claims by Ukraine’s military that it shot down a Russian AWACS, a significant blow to the Kremlin. The French surveillance flight had also spotted a Russian AWACS over the Azov Sea, a telling and timely detail that Leicester confirmed with the commander of France’s AWACS squadron aboard the flight and included in his text story. The timing of the exclusive package put AP at the center of heightened news interest from global audiences for authoritative reporting about the air war playing out above Ukraine.  

While NATO and its member countries conducted more than 490 AWACS surveillance flights in 2023, AP took audiences aboard as the Ukraine war nears its second anniversary. It was the only top-10 story on APNews that wasn’t Mideast or U.S. related and had equal top-engagement score of the day.   

For securing rare and exclusive access then expertly delivering in every format, Leicester receives this week’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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