Podcast listener and high school student Ryan W. Gilchrist is back with another well-written naval aviation article. In this account, F-14s and F/A-18s from the Persian Gulf-based USS Carl Vinson enforcing the UN-imposed no-fly zones over Southern Iraq have a run-in with Iraqi MiGs.
Ryan’s story debuts as an exclusive here on the FPP…
With the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm on February 28th 1991, coalition aircraft began to patrol recently established no-fly zones in Iraq, confining Iraq’s aircraft to an operating area in the middle of the country between the 33rd and 36th parallels. Operation Southern Watch officially began on August 27th, 1992 in order to keep Iraqi aircraft from intruding south of the 33rd parallel. While the USAF had taken part in a couple MiG engagements during southern no-fly zone enforcement flights (12/27/1992 and 1/17/1993), the Navy’s F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets did not participate in any such action. This changed on Tuesday, January 5th, 1999. On that day, multiple variants of Iraqi fighter aircraft including MiG-23 Floggers, MiG-25 Foxbats and Mirage F.1s would test the no-fly zone enforcers.
Rewind to December 1998, the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) had just arrived on station in the Persian Gulf to relieve the USS Enterprise (CVN-65). Embarked on Carl Vinson were the strike fighters from Carrier Air Wing Eleven (CVW-11) in the form of one squadron of F-14D Tomcats and three squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets (one A model squadron and two C model squadrons). These squadrons took part in the last few strikes against Iraqi targets in Operation Desert Fox on December 19th. Once Desert Fox concluded, CVW-11 resumed what they had expected their cruise to be: flying combat air patrols (CAPs) near the southern no-fly zone. Any Iraqi aircraft flying south of the 33rd parallel would be considered fair game. However, for the few days after Desert Fox, the Iraqi Air Force remained quiet and did not launch any of their fighters. In early January, this began to change as Iraqi aircraft became bolder in their flight paths. For example, when the “box” wasn’t being patrolled, single-ships of Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbats would make high speed runs all the way down to the Saudi border before turning around and heading back north.
January 5th started out as usual with aircraft being assigned CAP stations near the no-fly zone. That day, a pair of F-14D Tomcats from VF-213 “Fighting Blacklions” were assigned a no-fly zone enforcement mission. The mission’s objective was as usual to keep any Iraqi aircraft that would be airborne above the 33rd parallel. Crewing the lead Tomcat, F-14D “Lion 107” BuNo 163903 (ATO callsign “Rocky 1”), was pilot LCDR Vince “Bluto” Saporito and RIO LCDR Bob “Jumby” Castleton. The other Tomcat, F-14D(R) “Lion 106” BuNo 159619 (“Rocky 2”), was flown by LT Jonathan “Shoe” Shoemaker and RIO LT Mike “Bufi” Bilzor. The F-14D(R) designation denotes that the airframe was a remanufactured F-14A. Each F-14D was armed with one AIM-7M Sparrow, two AIM-9M Sidewinders and one AIM-54C Phoenix. While spooling-up on deck, Bufi heard over the radio there was Iraqi MiG activity above the 33rd parallel. Wanting to get the section airborne as soon as possible, Bufi requested a covey launch that would launch both Tomcats off separate catapults simultaneously. This would allow the Tomcats to join-up immediately and quickly proceed north without having to hold above the carrier to join-up. However, due to Lion 106 being parked next to the island and Lion 107 being parked near the fantail, the Tomcats were instead launched one by one off the same waist catapult just after sunrise. Behind the two Tomcats off the catapult were four F/A-18 Hornets and an EA-6B Prowler.
On the ingress to their CAP station, the section of Tomcats was contacted by the USAF AWACS on-duty to see if they could take an immediate air-air commit as the Iraqi MiGs were now coming south, into the no-fly zone. With a greater fuel payload than the Hornets, the Tomcats did not have to hit the tanker and were able to proceed north immediately. After a few CAP circles, Rocky 1 and 2 gained radar contact on a bogey. The controller declared the contact coming south as a hostile MiG-23 Flogger. As the pair of Tomcats closed the range, the MiG began an offset to the west in an attempt to bait the Tomcats. A pair of Mirage F.1s were also holding off to the northwest. The Tomcats did not proceed into the likely trap and were soon met with another bogey coming at them at very high speed. The Tomcats assembled into a combat spread and made headway towards the bogey, which was off the northeast of the original MiG. The contact was declared as a hostile MiG-25 Foxbat (this was already obvious to the F-14 crews based off the incredibly high rate of speed the target was exhibiting). The Tomcats were cleared to engage.
Bluto and Jumby in the lead in Lion 107 locked-up and fired first from long range. They felt the thud of their AIM-54C as it fell away from the wing rail as advertised, but they did not see the missile accelerate out towards the MiG. Bluto came over the intercom and said, “Confirm op. away?” to which there was no definitive answer. Bluto then directed Shoe and Bufi on their wing to fire. Shoe centered the nose of Lion 106 on the rapidly-approaching MiG and fired his AIM-54C. They too heard the thud but did not see the smoke trail. Bluto asked a second time, “Confirm op. away?”, which Bufi confirmed because they were sure that the missile did leave the aircraft, but they weren’t sure if it had indeed taken off towards the MiG. At the time, it was somewhat conceivable to lose the missile’s smoke trail in the wispy winter clouds. Nevertheless, the Tomcats maintained radar support, in an offset heading, until the AIM-54 missiles, if either was traveling downrange, should have been close enough to track the target autonomously. Closing into Sparrow range was an option, but as Shoe explains, they would have gone from a low-threat situation to a high-threat situation as they closed with their MiG while other MiGs were in the area as well as SAM batteries. To make matters worse, the Tomcats were now low on fuel and close to the Iranian border. The Tomcats turned cold with the MiG-25 at a safe distance and no longer threatening.
Meanwhile, a bit farther behind the Blacklion F-14s was the section of F/A-18 Hornets. The lead was F/A-18C “Redcock 314” BuNo 164012 from the VFA-22 “Fighting Redcocks” flown by LCDR Tim “Drac” Aslin, a former A-7 pilot and Desert Storm veteran. The F/A-18C was armed with two AIM-9M Sidewinders and two AIM-120C AMRAAMs. The wingman was an F/A-18A from the VFA-97 “Warhawks” armed with two AIM-7M Sparrows and two AIM-9M Sidewinders. The A-model, “Warhawk 207” BuNo 163092, was flown by LCDR Neil “Waylon” Jennings, also a Desert Storm veteran and a former Tomcat pilot. While tanking, they received notice that a MiG-23 Flogger was within the no-fly zone and coming south. The F/A-18s formed into combat spread and set-out in afterburner towards the approaching bandit. Drac noted that he was trying not to spook the MiG and trigger its RWR gear so the MiG wouldn’t turn and run prematurely before the Hornets reached a weapons envelope.
Realistically, Drac would likely employ first as his F/A-18C’s AMRAAMs had longer range than the antiquated Sparrows Waylon’s F/A-18A was carrying. In fact, Waylon was part of the last remaining F/A-18A squadron which could not carry AMRAAM. The A-models were rapidly being replaced with more advanced F/A-18Cs. Nevertheless, Waylon was busy scanning the skies, making sure the pair wasn’t tagged by a low-flying MiG that snuck-in unexposed below radar coverage. The pair of Hornets quickly closed the range, however shortly before reaching a LAR (launch acceptability range), the MiG, realizing his predicament, turned around and hurried back north back across the 33rd parallel. Not being allowed to pursue past the 33rd parallel, the Hornets turned cold and egressed the area.
During their egress, the F-14D crews heard through the Link-16 JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, which the F/A-18s lacked) that an Iraqi aircraft had crashed and SAR efforts were being launched from Al-Asad airbase. To Shoe and Bufi in Lion 106, this was puzzling because they were not confident that the AIM-54s had fired. They pondered whether the missiles had somehow ignited and soared off after a few extra seconds of free fall.
After returning to the Carl Vinson, both the F-14 crews and F/A-18 pilots were debriefed about two hours after landing along with the admiral. During this debrief, the F/A-18 crews first heard of the report that an Iraqi MiG had crashed. The MiG had been flying in the “lane” of sky the Navy pilots had enforced. The MiG in-question was a MiG-23, not the MiG-25 that the F-14s engaged with AIM-54s. It turned out the MiG-23 pilot realized he was being targeted by both the F-14s and F/A-18s and accelerated back to his airfield as the pair of F/A-18s were giving chase. In his mad dash, the Iraqi pilot left his aircraft in afterburner, burning all of his small amount of fuel (their fuel tanks weren’t filled completely as senior Iraqi commanders were worried about defections). The MiG-23 consequently crashed short of the runway while on final approach to his airbase on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Why the AIM-54s didn’t work remained a mystery until it came to light that since both Tomcats were launched from the same catapult, they were both armed by the same aviation ordnanceman trainee who was not from an F-14 squadron. The trainee was not completely aware of the proper AIM-54 arming technique which led to the rocket motors of the missiles not igniting when the missiles were launched in the skies over Iraq that day. Bufi pointed out that although they were all disappointed, what mattered is that the trainee learned for next time. This brings the story full circle, because had Bufi received clearance for the covey launch like he had requested before the sortie, the Tomcats would’ve been launched off different catapults and would’ve been armed by two different ordnance crews.
Waylon offered a fitting statement, “All I know is that a MiG ran away from a section of CVW-11 aircraft, and then it crashed on its way back to its field. Someone in our flight played a role in that incident, and as a result the Iraqi Air Force was deprived of one of their few operable fighters. In my book that’s a kill, and ‘a kill’s a kill.’” While no kill was ever officially awarded as there was no direct action against the MiG that crashed, the members of the flight agree their threatening posture, missile lock-ups, and the brief chase by the F/A-18 pilots all heavily contributed to the fact that the probably inexperienced and nervous Iraqi pilot left his afterburner engaged leading to an indirect kill as a result of their collective actions. One could look at the situation as a failure, but that is not looking at the whole picture. Air combat is a demanding arena that in order to be successful needs almost every factor to fall in place. Yes, two missiles did not work when needed. However, the experienced crews of the F-14s and the F/A-18s cooperated efficiently and ensured the enforcement of the no-fly zone while they were on-station. In that case, mission accomplished.
I would like to personally thank Captain Mike Bilzor for allowing me to meet with him in his office at the United States Naval Academy, where he is a permanent military professor. I would also like to thank Suzanne Jennings for her assistance in finding Neil’s logbook and allowing me to use the information in Neil’s unfinished book, “Slipping the Bonds”. Additional thanks are in order for Jonathan “Shoe” Shoemaker, Tim “Drac” Aslin, Vincent “Jell-O” Aiello, Jonathan “Tonka” Ross, Nicholas “Mongo” Mongillo, and Robert “Sod” Soderholm for the gracious support lent me while preparing this article.
Finally, this article is dedicated to the memory of Neil “Waylon” Jennings.