The story of Suzanna, the Modified Iraqi Falcon 50 Business Jet that almost Sank US Navy’s guided missile frigate USS Stark

That time a Modified Iraqi Falcon 50 Business Jet nicknamed Suzanna almost Sank US Navy guided missile Frigate USS Stark

By Dario Leone
Jun 26 2023
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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Following a series of training flights, on the morning of May 17, 1987 Suzanna’s crew received the order to load two Exocets and then transfer to Wahda AB for an operation over the Persian Gulf.


At the high point of the ‘Tanker War’, in late 1986, the Iraqis had a Dassault Falcon 50, operated on behalf of their General Military Intelligence Directorate (GMID), flown to Villaroche in France, where it was subjected to an unusual conversion. The jet received the weapons system of the Mirage F.1EQ-5 R fighter-bomber – including the Cyrano IVQ-C5 radar and two hardpoints for AM.39 Exocet anti-ship missiles. Back in Iraq in in February 1987, it was subjected to a series of comprehensive tests before it was deployed in combat for the first — and only — time. This is the story of her only combat sortie.

All through 1985 and early 1986, director of the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) Intelligence Department, Brigadier-General Mudher al-Farhan, was collecting intelligence about the work of the Iranian tanker-shuttle (‘shuttle tankers’ were oil tankers equipped with upgrade fire-fighting equipment operated by specially trained crews, they made way in convoys of four ships escorted by warships of the Islamic Republic if Iran Navy). Every day at 1800hrs, he would brief Major-General Sha’ban about related developments.

The Story of the Giraffe Missions and how IrAF Mirage F.1 fighter bombers were able to shoot down four IRIAF F-14 Tomcats

As explained by Tom Cooper & Milos Sipos in their book Iraqi Mirages The Dassault Mirage Family in service with the Iraqi Air Force, 1981-1988, at one point in time, Sha’ban realized that the IrAF was in possession of no reconnaissance photographs of any of the new loading terminals in the lower Persian Gulf. About a week after a related report was submitted to the GHQ, two officers of General Military Intelligence Directorate (GMID) arrived in Sha’ban’s office, making him an interesting offer: the intelligence service was ready to provide one of the Dassault Falcon 50 business jets operated on its behalf for a clandestine operation the purpose of which would be to ‘visually inspect’ some of the future targets. Masquerading as a biz-jet carrying `three wealthy Iraqi businessmen’, on Jun. 24, 1986, the Falcon 50 made a trip from Amman in Jordan, via Iraq and Kuwait down the commercial corridor in the Persian Gulf, to Mumbai, in India while carrying three experienced Mirage-pilots and a professional photographer. Underway, it made an ‘unintended navigational error’ and thus passed as close to Sirri as possible — enabling the photographer to take a series of photographs. The Iranians noticed this overflight and this prompted them moving the T-14 Terminal further south: before this could be done, the Iraqis attacked Sirri, on Aug. 12, 1986.

Falcon 50 Suzanna
The Iraqi Air Force Falcon 50 YI-ALE (dubbed Suzanna) that fired two Exocet missiles against USS Stark.

While studying the resulting report, Sha’ban then came to the decision to deploy the same aircraft for anti-shipping operation in the lower Persian Gulf. On his request, the IrAF Technical Directorate (then commanded by Brigadier-General Attya) prepared a study that proposed the installation of the same Cyrano IV-C5 radar and the fire-control system of the Mirage F.1EQ-5 info a Falcon 50. With such work being beyond the IrAF’s capabilities, decision was taken to request help from the DIA in Paris. As result of related negotiations, the Falcon 50 with the registration YI-ALE was sent to France. During its rebuild at Villaroche, it retained usual controls on the left side of the cockpit but received a complete cockpit of the F.1EQ-5 on the right side. External changes were even more dramatic: its registration was deleted and it received the typical pointed nose of the Mirage F.1 containing the Cyrano radar — and one launcher for AM.39 Exocet missiles under each wing. Following extensive testing in France, it was flown to Iraq on Feb. 9, 1987 and commissioned into the IrAF service — reportedly under the designation ‘Yarmouk’ — six days later. Within the GHQ in Baghdad, the aircraft became known by her code-name, Suzanna.

Following a series of training flights, on the morning of May 17, 1987 Suzanna’s crew received the order to load two Exocets and then transfer to Wahda AB for an operation over the Persian Gulf.

USS Stark FFG-31
In the Persian Gulf, a port quarter view of the guided missile frigate USS STARK (FFG-31) listing to port after being hit by two Iraqi Exocet missiles.

Launched early in the evening under protection of a pair each of MiG-23s and MiG-25s, this brought the aircraft to the usual position north of Bahrain, at which the pilot turned left and then handed the commands over to his co-pilot, the one handling the Mirage-controls. After acquiring a suitable target, at 2108-2109 two Exocets were released from ranges of 35 and 24 kilometres. Both missiles hit their target — the US Navy’s frigate USS Stark (FFG-31), the senior officers of which failed to realise she was under threat. While the first missile failed to detonate, the second went off, killing 37 sailors. The lukewarm attempt by two RSAF F-15Cs to intercept the Iraqi aircraft as this was returning towards the north, ordered by the crew of one of the ELF-1’s E-3A AWACS, remained unsuccessful (in September 1980 after Iran and Iraq declared war four USAF E-3s deployed to Saudi Arabia to provide round-the-clock airborne radar coverage, and enhance Saudi air defences in an operation called ELF-1 which continued for over 8 years). Shaken, but understanding the seriousness of this affair, Baghdad subsequently apologized for this unintentional attack, and compensated the Pentagon and the families of the sailors killed for all the damage caused. In sum, the US entered an uneasy strategic alliance with Baghdad, and — under excuse of ‘better coordination’ with the Iraqi military in order to avoid further incidents of this kind — began providing Iraq with, amongst other items, intelligence about the movement of Iranian shuttle tankers in the lower Persian Gulf.

Iraqi Mirages The Dassault Mirage Family in service with the Iraqi Air Force, 1981-1988 is published by Helion & Company Limited and is available to order here.

Damaged USS Stark
A view of damage sustained by the guided missile frigate USS STARK (FFG-31) when it was hit by two Iraqi-launched Exocet missiles while on patrol in the Persian Gulf.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and PA via Wikipedia

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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