From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The F-14 Tomcat has been replaced from the Navy’s inventory with the F/A-18 Hornet, yet it was 26 years ago today when a pair of Tomcats on the prowl played cat-and-mouse with a matching pair of Libyan MiG-23s. Increasingly aggressive moves on the part of the Libyan aircraft forced the Tomcats to unsheathe their claws with Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. And just like their counterparts from 1981, where the Libyans actually fired on the F-14 Tomcats, just seconds later, both MiGs were “splashed” in the ocean, ending the 8-minute engagement. It was just another incident between the United States and Libya that had been building for 10 years since the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli was burned down in Dec. 1979 and the U.S. declared Moammar Gadhafi’s regime a “state sponsor of terrorism.” By May 1981, the Reagan administration had cut diplomatic ties with Libya, stating the U.S. would “not conduct business with a regime that grossly distorts the rules of international behavior.” Libya’s Washington embassy was closed and their diplomats expelled. While the U.S. Navy was conducting a routine exercise in August 1981, two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 fighter pilots challenged two Navy F-14 Tomcats from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CV 68) over the international waters of the Gulf of Sidra. The Libyans fired upon the F-14s, and the Tomcat pilots promptly responded by shooting down both Libyan fighters. The United States continued to tighten its economic sanctions against Libya. By 1985, Gadhafi called on his guerrillas to launch “suicide missions” against those who worked against his regime. In March 1986, Libya fired anti-aircraft missiles as U.S. jets approached his “line of death” in international waters. Navy aircraft and a missile cruiser fired back, destroying the Libyan missile ships and damaging a missile launch site. Gadhafi vowed to retaliate against NATO bases that harbored U.S. warships, and a few days later, a discotheque in West Berlin was bombed, killing two American servicemen. After an investigation confirmed Libya was responsible, the U.S. bombed military targets near Tripoli and Benghazi.
In late 1988, the United States accused Gadhafi of building a chemical weapons facility and stationed aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CV 67) off Libya’s coast as a deterrent. Libyan terrorists were also suspected in that month’s bombing of Pan Am Flight 101 over Lockerbie, Scotland. On the morning of Jan. 4, 1989, four F-14 pilots from VF 32 and VF 14 were conducting exercises with A-6 Intruders and a E-2C Hawkeye from VAW 126 about 130 miles north of Libya near Crete. The pilots had been warned to expect hostilities as they approached Gadhafi’s “line of death” in international waters of the Gulf of Sidra. Shortly before noon, the E-2C pilot reported four Libyan Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG-23) Floggers had left the Al Bumbaw airfield near Toburk, the first pair about 30 miles ahead of the second pair. The VF 32 pilots with their respective RIOs (radar intercept officer) turned toward the first pair of Floggers, Which were both armed with AA-7 Apex missiles. The F-14 pilots activated and locked their AWG-9 radar onto the Floggers as a warning signal. Yet the Libyans failed to turn away. At 61 miles and closing fast, the F-14 pilots performed defensive maneuvers, such as dropping from 8,000 feet to 5,000 feet. Yet for each move, the pilots reported the Libyans had “jinked” (aggressive maneuver) back to them, repositioning to continue heading straight for the Tomcats. “53 miles, bogeys (Libyans) coming straight at us,” a pilot stated, who dropped from 9,000 to 3,000 “angels (altitude).” “Bogeys jinked back into us, now starboard 30 degrees the other side.” Shortly afterward, Alpha Bravo (the on-scene commander, later identified as Rear Adm. David Morris) stated “Warning yellow, weapons hold.” At 35 miles, a pilot reported “bogeys jinked back into me for the third time – with noses on, angels 7. I’m taking another offset, starboard two one zero.” Moments later, the pilot reported the bogeys had “jinked back into me for the fourth time,” and indicated he was “coming back starboard” at 27 miles, the Libyans at 7,000 feet. After a fifth maneuver, the pilot reported “bogeys have jinked back at me for the fifth time, they’re on my nose now, inside the 20 mile.” Soon after, the pilot reported he was “centering up the t– Bogeys jinking back into me again.” As the MiGs continued their aggressive behavior, coming to within 13 miles, the RIO from the lead Tomcat deployed two Sparrow missiles, but neither found their target. Still, neither MiG turned back. The F-14s split up, with both MiGs turning onto the wingman as the lead Tomcat maneuvered to get behind the Floggers. As the aircraft drew to within four miles, the Tomcat wingman released its Sparrow, sending the first MiG into the ocean, and soon after, the lead Tomcat launched a sidewinder that sent the second MiG down. The pilots reported back to Alpha Bravo: “Down to 3,000, let’s get out of here. (The) other chute is high. We’re heading north.” Although both MiG pilots were able to get away from their stricken aircraft, they were not recovered. Libya would later claim the U.S. had shot down unarmed reconnaissance planes. According to a Pentagon spokesman at the debriefing conference afterward, it was explained while the pilots were under “warning yellow, weapons hold,” with tensions increasing and hostilities possible, the pilots were authorized to respond as necessary. The lead Tomcat from that dogfight is on loan to the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport. Although it was an F-14A model at the time of the incident, the Tomcat was part of the F-14D upgrade program and later assigned to VF-31 in a precision strike role. Gadhafi’s 42-year reign would end Aug. 23, 2011 after he was captured by the anti-Gadhafi National Transitional Council and killed during the “Arab Spring” uprising.