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(Commander Thompson S. Sanders, U.S. Navy (Ret.); Photo-Illustration by Théo)

Bait and Switch in Libya

Naval aviators push Qaddafi's buttons in a 1981 exercise

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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.

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.

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