Bait and Switch in Libya
Naval aviators push Qaddafi's buttons in a 1981 exercise.
- By Commander Thompson E. Sanders U.S. Navy (Ret.)
- Air & Space magazine, July 2012
Commander Thompson S. Sanders, U.S. Navy (Ret.); Photo-Illustration by Théo
(Page 2 of 4)
At 5:30 a.m., while I finished the preflight checks of our S-3A, call sign “Diamond Cutter 702,” the squadron executive officer, as pilot in command, received the final mission briefing. I copiloted, handling radios and navigation.
The XO, a senior aviator and respected leader, was an obvious choice for the mission. I may have been selected because I spent 1975 at the U.S. Army Defense Language Institute, studying Turkish and some Arabic, and had spent two years in a pilot exchange program with the Turkish naval air force (where I earned the call sign “Turk”), teaching pilots in the Grumman S-2E Tracker. Apparently our carrier air group commander thought my language skills might be helpful that day. I hoped he wasn’t assuming that if we ended up having to parachute into Libya, I’d win over the locals with my language skills: I was fluent in Turkish, but the extent of my Arabic would have probably landed us in a bar or a bathroom.
At 0600, we taxied to catapult number one. Once hooked to the catapult and at full power, the XO snapped a salute to the shooter, who signaled us to launch. We blasted from zero to 170 mph in under three seconds.
About 20 minutes later we reached our operating area off the Libyan coast. Our mission was fly low—300 feet above the waves, to avoid alerting Libyan radar—then pop up to 10,000 feet once we were 15 miles from shore, and stay over international waters. We would fly a racetrack—essentially a holding pattern—parallel to the shore, just to see what would happen. This turned out to be nerve-wracking: Our unarmed S-3A had no radar warning receiver (“fuzz buster”), no radar-confusing chaff, and no flares to defeat heat-seeking missiles—defensive systems added shortly after to the S-3B model. We expected to be detected by Libyan radar, but we also needed to make it clear that we had no intention of flying into Libyan airspace.
Minutes after we leveled off at 10,000 feet, an airborne early-warning E-2 Hawkeye radioed that two Su-22s were lifting off from Okba Ben Nafi Air Base, near Tripoli, and to stand by. This is not comforting advice when supersonic enemy fighters are headed toward your unarmed airplane. “Uh, stand by for what, exactly?” I asked the XO.
A moment later, the Nimitz Combat Information Center radioed, “Diamond Cutter 702: Buster North, I say again, Buster North!” The naval aviation manual translates “Buster” as “To make haste by all available means.” As the XO pushed the throttles forward and banked north, I replied: “Diamond Cutter 702, roger Buster North.”
We immediately activated the direct layer control system, which deploys huge spoilers on top of the wings, eliminating almost all lift. The DLC is unique to the sub-hunting S-3, designed to allow us to descend quickly from high altitude, then attack a submarine before it can evade us. Or, in this case, try to evade Mach 2 enemy fighters. Our 50,000-pound Viking dropped at 10,000 feet per minute.
At 5,000 feet, we needed to start pulling out of our dive so we could level off at 300 feet without inadvertently “splashing,” which would have ruined our whole day. Our dramatic descent, and the resulting sudden loss of radar contact with Libyan controllers, was likely the source of Qaddafi’s later claim that his fighters had shot down an American aircraft.