Published on January 4, 2013
On January 4, 1989 — today in aviation history — based on an intelligence advisory, two Grumman F-14A Tomcats of VF-32 “The Swordsmen” launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVG-67) over the waters of the central Mediterranean. At the time, US Navy exercises were underway in the area. With the impending change in the American presidency, Libya’s rogue leader, Muammar Qaddafi, sought to bloody Ronald Reagan’s nose. Based on the intelligence, the American Navy put its two most experienced and highest trained pilots from VF-32 into the cockpits. After launch, they turned south into the Gulf of Sirte, a territory that Libya claims and that is not recognized by the United States nor Europe.
As predicted by the intelligence advisory, the Libyan Air Force launched MiG-23 Flogger jet fighters from al-Bumbah AB, near Tobruq, and proceeded north. What followed was a classic 1980s style jet on jet fighter engagement that pitted the technically superior US Navy pilots, who were also more experienced and skilled, against lower quality, poorly trained Libyan fighter pilots who were almost certainly expecting a one-way trip.
A Closing Combat
Despite the public posture and positive media coverage at the time, the engagement showed that even the best trained flight crews can make mistakes — and still win. The combat could well have “gone the other way”, except for the persistence of the American pilots and radar intercept officers (RIOs) in the two-place F-14A Tomcats and their mastery and control over the aerial situation at all phases of the engagement. Put simply, the Naval pilots made mistakes but recovered quickly and never let the aerial combat situation break out of their control.
Throughout the engagement, even as the Libyans were turning and twisting, the American pilots made the best of each move and counter-move. Far from a one-sided engagement, the combat illustrated very good command and control on the part of the Libyans, who nonetheless lost both aircraft. In fact, Libya’s MiGs and their pilots were simply inferior in all respects. If the US Navy made small mistakes, the Libyans were soon making huge ones.
The Transcript and Analysis
Before the final phases of the engagement, the US Navy pilots used their long range radars and locked onto the Libyan MiG-23s. In past brushes with the Libyans, they would usually retire to the south, taking the warning at face value. This time, however, despite repeated radar lock-ups, the Libyans bored straight in.
The fight was on — and the radio transcript reveals the stress of the situation.
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Gypsy 207 contact at 175, 72 miles, looks like a flight of two, Angels 10.”
CLOSEOUT: “Closeout concurs, showing 78 miles.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Throttle back just a little bit here.” (The Radar Intercept Officer is asking the pilot to slow so as to provide more time for him to lock on and for the Libyans to respond.)
CLOSEOUT: “Closeout shows 25 mile separation for an inbound”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Contacts appear to be heading, ah, 315 now, speed 430, Angels approximately 8,000.”
CLOSEOUT: “Roger Ace, take it north.”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Looks like we’ll have to make a quick loop here.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Come starboard, ah I need to give ya collision here. Yeah, come starboard about 40.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “207 ah, 61 miles now, bearing 180, Angels 8, heading, uh, 330.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Steady up.”
CLOSEOUT: “Alpha Bravo this is Closeout.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Come back port, ah, 20 degrees here, he’s jinkin’ now.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Bogies appear to be coming, ah, jinking to the right now, heading, uh, north, speed 430, ah, Angels 5,000 now in the descent. So lets take her down now, we’re goin’ down.”
A Closing Engagement with Positioning
At this point in the conflict, the aircraft are still far apart, but closely rapidly. The F-14A Tomcats elect to descend so as to ensure that their radar gets a clear lock-on without ground clutter that might foul-up the radar picture of the engagement.
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Closeout, 53 miles now. Bogies appear to be heading directly at us. I’m coming towards…. Steady up 150 for 33 offset, 50 miles. 49 miles now, speed 450, Angels 9, I’m goin’ down to 3.”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Yes, they did not go over.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Roger.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger that, 30 degree offset now. Bogies heading 340, speed 500, lets accelerate.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Okay, it looks like they are at 9,000 feet now.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger, bogies are jinked back into us now, now let’s come starboard 30 degrees the other side.”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Coming starboard, say your Angels.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger, Angels now 11, ready up.”
CVG-67 Kennedy Shipboard Air Command (Alpha Bravo): “Closeout ah, Warning yellow, weapons hold, I repeat, warning yellow, weapons hold. Alpha Bravo out.”
CLOSEOUT: “Roger, Gypsies, pass up, Alpha Bravo directs warning yellow, weapons hold.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “35 miles here.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger that. Bogies have jinked back into me now for the third time. Nose is on at 35 miles, Angels 7.”
CLOSEOUT: “Alpha Bravo, Closeout, did you copy?”
At this point, the US Navy pilots have repeatedly attempted to turn and maneuver so as to position themselves favorably against the incoming threat. Each time, however, the Libyan pilots receive GCI (Ground Control Intercept) guidance to adjust course so as to ensure that the F-14s do not gain any advantage. With each turn (or “jink” in the parlance of US Navy fighter pilots), the Libyans cancel out the American maneuver and press in, ensuring a head-on engagement, which is their best (if slim) hope of effectively engaging the Americans.
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Okay, I am taking another offset, starboard, starboard, ah, 210.”
CLOSEOUT: “Guys, I’m locked up here 30 miles, Angels 13,000, he’s the trailer.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger that, level off here, bogie jinked back into me for the 4th time. I’m coming back starboard. I’m back port now. Port 27 miles, bogie is at 7,000 feet.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “We’re at 5.”
CVG-67 Kennedy Shipboard Air Command (Alpha Bravo): “Watch out, bogies 135-50, Angels 16, heading 340.” (This call is for the second pair of Libyan MiGs, but it is misinterpreted by Closeout to mean the pair being engaged and the threat is not passed on.)
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Okay.”
CLOSEOUT: “Roger, same bogies.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Okay, you’re in collision now, steering.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Okay, bogies have jinked back at me again for the fifth time. They’re on my nose now. Inside of 20 miles.”
Final Engagement and First Shoot Down
The Libyans have now closed to within a reasonable range. For the US Navy pilots, this means that they have to engage and shoot down the planes. The Libyans are positioned nearly 11,000 feet higher than the American planes, which elected to go low to improve their radar performance, as earlier described. The Libyan planes, however, have vastly inferior radar systems and probably could not get a good radar picture of the threat they were facing. They went by GCI guidance alone — at no time is the Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) heard in the audio files from the F-14s, thus the Libyans never locked out for a firing solution. The Americans proceed to engage with the intent to destroy the two Libyan planes.
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Master arm on, master arm on.” (Sound of Master Arm Alert in background.)
CLOSEOUT: “Okay, good light”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Good Light”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Okay, centering up the T, bogie has jinked back into me again, 16 miles, at the center of the dot.”
CLOSEOUT: “Say your Angels.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “I’m at Angels 5, nose up.”
CLOSEOUT: “No, his Angels.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “No, wait a minute.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Angels are at 9!”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Alpha Bravo from 207.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “13 miles. Fox 1! Fox 1!”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Ah, Jesus!”
The pilot of Gypsy 207, Joseph B. Connelly, is surprised to see one of his missiles launch, as the attack wasn’t properly coordinated by his RIO, Steven P. Collins. Seconds later, the AIM-7M Sparrow missile fails to track properly. RIO Collins had improperly set a switch on the missile prior to launch, which resulted in its failure (this was a recurring problem with AIM-7M Sparrow missile launches from F-14A Tomcats at the time.
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Breaking right.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger that, 10 miles, he’s back on my nose. Fox 1 again!” (This time, he has the switch set correctly and the missile tracks true — it takes time, however, to reach the target.)
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Watching ’em up.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “6 miles, 6 miles.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Tally 2, Tally 2! Turning into me.”
The RIO in Gypsy 204, Leo F. Enright, spotted the two Libyan MiG-23s as they were now just six miles dead ahead. The Libyans were closing quickly and had negated the F-14’s long range systems advantage, despite all. At this point, the engagement threatened to devolve into an old-school gunfighter-style dogfight. The Libyans had played their cards well and the US Navy’s lead plane, Gypsy 207, had made two critical firing mistakes with its AIM-7M Sparrow radar-guided missiles.
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger that, 5 miles. . . 4 miles.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Okay, he’s got a missile off.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Breakin’ right.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “Good hit, good hit on one!” (The second AIM-7M Sparrow missile fired hits the MiG-23 and scores a kill.)
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger that, good kill, good kill!”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “I’ve got the other one.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Select fox 2, select fox 2!!”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “I got fox 2.” (Cook refers to the selection knob being already turned to select the heat-seeking AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles.)
CLOSEOUT: “Keep your eye for the trailer.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Comin’ hard starboard.”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Those fuckin’!”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Shoot him!”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “I don’t got tone.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “That’s the second one.”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “I’ve got the second one on my nose right now.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Okay, I am high cover on you.”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Get a fox, get a, lock him up! Lock him up.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “There! Shoot him, fox 2!”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “I can’t! I don’t have a fucking tone.” (The calmness and matter-of-fact tone of the pilot, almost academic in phrase even if swearing, is interesting; he seems to be working the problem and is momentarily angry that his system doesn’t seem to be working like it should — yet he is taking the time to work the issues while he trails the MiG in firing position.)
Second Shoot Down
At this point, Gypsy 204’s pilot, Hermon C. “Munster” Cook III, has the Libyan MiG-23 lined up perfectly in his HUD. Everything is right on and he is within 1.5 miles of the MiG, directly behind it. Incredibly, the pilots hears no missile tone from the AIM-9M Sidewinder missile. Moments later, Cook realizes that he simply has the volume turned down to the stops. Turning up the knob, he is greeted by the perfect growling tone of the missile, which is tracking the target perfectly.
As for the Libyans, they seem unable to keep up with the rapidly changing air combat. Gypsy 204 did an early break and then reversed to come in behind the Libyan MiG, pulling a continuous 5Gs in the maneuver. Once too close for radar-based weapons-systems, Gypsy 204’s pilot selected heat-seeking missiles, which are fired from up front and the RIO, Leo F. Enright, transitioned to a different role in the fight, keeping his eyes open and tracking the overall combat picture and planning for the egress afterward, thus freeing up the pilot to concentrate on the attack.
The Libyan MiG pilot, who should have pulled out sharply into a tightly turning dogfight, is tentative and does not maneuver effectively. It would appear that while the GCI instructions had been perfect and had countered the F-14s in their earlier positioning, now that the combat is engaged, the Libyans lack the individual pilot initiative to fight “head-to-head” in a turning fight.
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Tone’s up!” (Once volume knob is twisted, the tone growls instantly to high volume.)
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Fox 2.” (The RIO calls the pilot’s launch of an AIM-9M Sidewinder heat-seeking missile.)
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Good kill! Good kill!”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Okay, good kill.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Pilot ejected.”
CLOSEOUT: “The pilot’s ejected out of the second one.” (The E-2C Hawkeye is relaying the radio report to the USS Kennedy’s Air Command (Alpha Bravo).
Disengagement and Aftermath
For a few brief seconds, the two F-14s track the two parachutes of the Libyans as they descended toward the water. They also watch for the impact of the two MiG-23s into the water. Then they turn and descend, accelerating away and to the north. As earlier briefed, the Libyans had another two MiG-23s airborne, even if they were 50 km further south, and this was a threat that was on the minds of the pilots and RIOs. Though they would have likely been able to engage and shoot down those as well, they didn’t know where the other aircraft were.
Their assumption was that the other two MiGs were far enough away or had turned off the track since the early warning radar aircraft, the E-2C Hawkeye “Closeout” did not provide reporting during the engagement. In fact, “Closeout” called the two other aircraft earlier but the call was misinterpreted by the two Tomcat crews.
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Okay Munster, lets head north, head north.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Okay. Port side high, comin’ down hard.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Roger.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger that. Just revert. Blowin’ north, let’s go down low on the decks, unload, 500 knots, lets get out of here.”
Gypsy 204 Pilot Cook: “Okay, two good chutes.”
CLOSEOUT: “They’re showin’ two good chutes in the air here, from Munster.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “Roger that, I see the, ah–.”
Gypsy 207 Pilot Connelly: “I’ve got the splash, one splash.”
Gypsy 207 RIO Collins: “One splash.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Take that down to, ah, 3,000 here Munster.”
CLOSEOUT: “The, ah, splash 160 at 96.”
Gypsy 204 RIO Enright: “Lets go, Munster down to 3,000 and lets get outta here.”
The engagement had its flaws, no doubt, but this is not uncommon in air combat when the enemy is “real” and can shoot back. The training of the US Navy pilots was vastly superior to that of the Libyans, who relied on by the book GCI tactics throughout the engagement. Once in close-quarters, even when mistakes hobbled the US attacks, the flight crews reacted quickly, adjusted and continued to prosecute the combat. At no point in the engagement did the Libyans get an effective firing solution or move into a shooting position — the US Navy pilots and RIOs simply never gave them a chance.
Incredibly, though both Libyan pilots apparently survived being shot down, the Libyans did not send out any ships or helicopters on a SAR (search and rescue mission). Perhaps Qaddafi was angry that they had not succeeded shooting down the Americans and their punishment was abandonment to death on the high seas. Perhaps the Libyans simply didn’t plan on taking losses (though that seems far-fetched). Perhaps the pilots were just assumed killed in the engagement.
It is likely that nobody will ever know.
One More Bit of Aviation History
Click HERE to listen to the original US Navy audio track of the engagement.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
As the F-14A Tomcats have been retired from the US Navy, what is the final disposition of the two aircraft involved in the shoot down that day, January 4, 1989.