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 3 of 4)
Meanwhile, speeding along at 450 mph 300 feet over the gulf, fuzz-buster-less, we had no way of knowing if or when the Libyans had fired at us. Then again, as slow and defenseless as we were, we really didn’t want to know exactly when a missile might hit us.
Thankfully, at the same time, the Hawkeye directed two F-14s, Fast Eagle 102 and 107, flying combat patrol off the Nimitz, to “turn and burn, expedite intercept.” Once the Libyans realized the Tomcats were headed their way, the Sukhois turned to engage head-on.
The first Sukhoi fired an AA-2 Atoll short-range, heat-seeking missile at the first F-14. It missed, and the Sukhoi tried to escape. The Tomcats, without being cleared to return fire by the E-2C Hawkeye, followed combat rules of engagement on self-defense: They pulled hard 180-degree turns, dove on the Sukhois’ tails, and fired AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
At this point, we were busy thinking supersonic thoughts, hoping to stay ahead of the Su-22s—until we heard “Fox-2 kill” and then “Fox-2 kill, trailing chute,” which meant the F-14s had knocked out both Sukhois, and the pilots had spotted one parachute.
Our mission was complete. Because the Forrestal’s air boss wanted to keep his flight deck free of traffic in case a real battle ensued, we continued north past the carriers to land at Sigonella.
Taxiing in, I was surprised to see fellow aviators who had flown off the ship before the operation sprinting out to meet us, shouting questions. Because they had been out of the range of ultra-high-frequency line-of-sight radio, they had heard very few details.
We did our best to respect the secrecy of the mission, giving only a general idea of what we’d done: just sort of monitored the situation.
Back then, our role as bait was classified. The entire operation had a bit of a covert feel, so when I returned Stateside, I was surprised to see names of the F-14 crews and squadrons in the news. I was perfectly happy that the role of our S-3A remained under wraps for years. Little was said of the Forrestal’s role—the Nimitz and its Tomcats were always the stars.