Bait and Switch in Libya

Naval aviators push Qaddafi’s buttons in a 1981 exercise

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

On a sunny Saturday two decades later, I took my grandsons to the National Air and Space Museum, where we toured a mockup carrier air operations center. On the ready room briefing board was the August 20, 1981 New York Times account of the Gulf of Sidra incident. Neither the Forrestal nor our Viking was mentioned, but the clipping, enshrined in the Museum, was, to me, a confirmation of the small role we played in the event.

A naval aviator and NATO instructor from 1966 to 1988, Tom “Turk” Sanders flew the S-2 Tracker, S-3 Viking, TA-4 Skyhawk, and SH-3 Sea King helicopter. He lives in Marietta, Georgia.


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