“I am pretty sure that was a frightful sight for those in the Mi-2 helicopter to see two Tomcats with wings back at 68 degrees coming right at them…they probably had to clean their flight suits out…” Retired Three-Star Vice Admiral Mike “Smiles” Bucchi, former VF-33 F-14 driver.
When Grumman’s F-14 Tomcat is associated with Libya, most of the attention is paid to the two dogfights in which the United States Navy (USN) opened and closed the 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s presidency with air-air kills. Two kills were scored in each incident, with the phrases such as “USN – 4, Libya – 0” arising from the engagements. However, the year 1986 is often overlooked when it comes to USN Tomcats and Libya. In fact, during March 1986, the rate at which F-14s were engaging Libyan aircraft was much higher than it was in August 1981 or January 1989 when the much-publicized kills were scored. In early 1986, the USN initiated Operation Attain Document I, Attain Document II and finally Attain Document III in March. These operations were aimed at testing Muammar Gaddafi’s so-called “Line of Death” in the Gulf of Sidra off the coast of Libya — well past Libya’s internationally-recognized territory of three miles out to sea. With the build-up of U.S. forces in the region came the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) with Carrier Air Wing One (CVW-1) embarked. Retired Three-Star Vice Admiral Mike “Smiles” Bucchi was a commander and the executive officer (XO) of Fighter Squadron Thirty-Three (VF-33), the “Tarsiers” (unofficially “Starfighters” until Bucchi’s time as CO). Flying F-14A Tomcats over the Gulf of Sidra, Smiles would end up having multiple interactions with Libyan aircraft during Operation Attain Document III in March.
By late March 1986, the Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) was constantly challenging U.S. assets, warranting some Tomcat crews to fly up to three missions in each twenty-four-hour period. The LAAF fighter arm mostly consisted of MiG-23 Floggers and MiG-25 Foxbat interceptors along with French-built Mirage F.1s. Sukhoi SU-22 fighter-bombers also challenged USN assets on occasion along with multiple variants of helicopters.
March 24th was a turning point for USN operations off Libya when two F-14As from VF-102 “Diamondbacks” were targeted by an SA-5 surface-air missile (SAM). This was the first time USN aircraft were targeted in such fashion. Meanwhile, Libyan MiG drivers were given orders to shoot down any USN aircraft intruding Libya’s self-proclaimed Line of Death. USN pilots taking off for sorties after the SAM launches expected lots of action against the LAAF, so much to the point that the rules of engagement (ROE) were being altered to allow USN crews to fire if they were being threatened. This was a stark contrast to the previous ROE which stated that USN crews could not fire unless they were fired upon first and had to defend themselves. Around noon on the 24th, Smiles suited-up and climbed aboard F-14A BuNo 159015 callsign “Starfighter 206”. He was crewed with his usual radar intercept officer (RIO), VF-33’s maintenance officer LCDR Ken “Heimy” Heimgartner.
They took off as the section lead for a pair of VF-33 Tomcats that would be occupying a combat air patrol (CAP) station inside the Line of Death. Smiles along with his wingman were both armed with four AIM-9L Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and four AIM-7F Sparrow radar-guided missiles along with a full complement of 20mm ammunition for their M61A1 Vulcan cannons. After orbiting on the CAP station, a section of MiG-23MFs came head-on to challenge the Tomcats, intent on shooting them down. Smiles led his wingman, whose Tomcat had a non-functioning radar, into the intercept. Smiles remembers:
‘The setup was a hard right turn off CAP station located inside the Line of Death with wingman on my left wing. Heimy used his pulse radar mode to break out the formation — two bandits in about a mile trail formation. Heimy locked the lead bandit until I could get a SEAM lock with my Sidewinder missile. As soon as I had a good SEAM lock, Heimy broke lock on the lead and then locked up the second bandit…We were running on a “bandits” call which meant it was important to get missiles in the air from our aircraft before we reached their firing positions…The plan was for us to shoot the lead with a Sidewinder (AIM-9L), then as soon as the 9L was off the rails, switch to Sparrow and shoot the trailer with the AIM-7F. But, the clearance to fire never came, so we did a standard reattack on the trailer, keeping the lead bandit in sight.’
The clearance to fire was in the process of being given before the merge, however Smiles and Heimy weren’t able to hear this important message. This was because the air warfare commander aboard a cruiser experienced communication problems while the message was enroute to the E-2C Hawkeye from VAW-123 “Screwtops” that was controlling the Tomcats. If not for this issue, the MiGs would have certainly been splashed courtesy of Smiles and Heimy.
Since they could not fire, the Tomcats then pulled in behind their adversaries and acquired AIM-9 locks as the E-2 controller inquired regarding the Floggers’ armament. Each Flogger was carrying four heat-seeking missiles and two radar-guided missiles. The F-14s remained at the MiGs’ six o’clock until told by their E-2 controller to disengage. Fifteen minutes later, Smiles and his wingman were vectored to intercept another section of Floggers. In identical fashion to the first intercept, the Tomcats again locked them up and then rolled in behind the MiGs and maintained their advantage until ordered to disengage and return to their CAP station.
Later on the 24th, Smiles was again flying a CAP sortie with Heimy but in a different F-14 — “Starfighter 212” BuNo 159446. This time they would not intercept one of the usual assortments of Libyan MiGs but a Libyan Mi-2 rescue helicopter.
The helicopter was operating approximately fifty nautical miles from the CAP station on alert for any downed airmen. Once given the vector Smiles set out with his wingman, a crew from sister-squadron VF-102. Smiles picks up his account:
‘Although we requested clearance to fire on this run, AW would not clear us to fire. We simply flew in section at very high speed (approximately 450 knots) past the helo as it frantically tried to depart the area. We took it between us, flew about 2 miles out in front of it, then did a level cross turn and took it back between the two of us. I am pretty sure that was a frightful sight for those in the helo to see two Tomcats with wings back at 68 degrees coming right at them…they probably had to clean their flight suits out…Definitely, 24 March was a big and exciting day for us!’
The Tomcats would return to their CAP station and the remainder of their sortie would prove to be uneventful. On the contrary, the rest of America’s cruise would not be as uneventful for on April 5th, Libyan agents bombed a nightclub in West Berlin, triggering a U.S. response. This response came in the form of a series of airstrikes against Libyan military targets from USN aircraft off America and the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) along with U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-111 Aardvarks from the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom. As for Smiles and Heimy:
‘Heimy and I [flying “Starfighter 200” BuNo 161142, seen below] were part of that large package off the America. I forget how many airplanes we launched in the mirror image event and the actual event, but it was in the 40s or low 50s. Birds were all spotted on flight deck and in the hangar bay. It was awesome and not a single bird went down either night. Divisions were spotted so the they would launch 1 and 2 off cats 1 and 3 simultaneously, then launch 3 and 4 30 seconds later off cats 2 and 4. The fighters off America did CAP missions and provided support for the Air Force F-111s. We all stayed low below Libyan radars until execute time, then elevated to pre-determined altitudes. Any MiGs who got airborne flew south, away from us.’
The cruise ended up being a massive success for VF-33 and at one point, the squadron completed 895 straight sorties without an abort. Highlighting the Tarsiers’ exceptional leadership under the command of CDR Craig W. Hoffman and the hardworking maintenance staff, the unprecedented sortie completion record was accomplished with some of the oldest Tomcats in the fleet. However, the Tarsiers did not finish the cruise unscathed for “Starfighter 213” BuNo 161148 was lost in an inverted flat spin on a post-maintenance test flight. Both crew members ejected and were rescued successfully.
Smiles would go on to succeed CDR Hoffman as CO of VF-33 and later participate in Operation Desert Storm as Deputy CAG of CVW-8 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. He later became Commander, CVW-3 and rose to the rank of Vice Admiral. His last tour was commanding the Third Fleet. Smiles would retire from the Navy in 2003 as a Three-Star Vice Admiral.
Special thanks to David F. Brown and Michael Grove for providing photographs for this article. Please check out David F. Brown’s website – www.facebook.com/ThingsWithWingsPhotography – for some of finest aviation photography from one of the industry’s best.
- Mike “Smiles” Bucchi
- Ken “Heimy” Heimgartner
- David F. Brown
- Michael Grove
- USS America 1986 Cruise Book
- U.S. Navy
Top VF-33 F-14 Photo: Michael Grove