MiG-23 pilot Hazem al-Bajigni subsequently found himself accused of intending to steal a C-130 transport and fly the plotters out of the country. Eventually, he was forced to flee in quite a spectacular fashion.
Relations between Libya under Gaddafi’s rule and the US gradually worsened after Tripoli’s announcement that the Gulf of Syrte (known as the `Gulf of Sidra’ in the USA) would be considered as Libyan territorial waters. In the spring 1974, Washington issued a diplomatic protest calling this announcement ‘unacceptable’ and a ‘violation of international law’, but otherwise did nothing to challenge Libyan claims, de facto accepting them as such. In fact, preoccupied with other issues, successive US administrations had several times rejected Pentagon proposals for large scale ‘freedom of navigation’ (FON) exercises designed to assert US rights in the gulf and illustrate Libyan inability to back up the claim with military force. Therefore, and because Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) interceptors vigorously patrolled the area, even if US and French reconnaissance aircraft that operated along Libyan borders tended to stay well away from the area, with few exceptions.
As explained by Tom Cooper, Albert Grandolini and Arnauld Delalande in their book Libyan Air Wars Part 1: 1973-1985, the situation changed once Ronald Reagan was elected into the White House in early 1981. Reagan wasted no time in increasing defence spending, developing a tougher policy towards the Soviet Union and its allies and announcing his intention to combat international terrorism. The latter decision brought Washington on a direct collision course with Tripoli.
However, even before Ronald Reagan took over as President of the US, a series of incidents including, or apparently including, LAAF aircraft took place in the skies over the Mediterranean Sea. The first, and certainly the least known occurred in 1978. At that time the Armé de l’Air (AdA, French Air Force) was deploying its Douglas DC-8 Sarigue ELINT/SIGINT gathering aircraft from Electronic Squadron 51 ‘Aubrac’ (Escadre Electronique, EE) to fly a series of reconnaissance missions over and around several African countries allied with the USSR, in order to find details about the extent of their recently established radar networks. In the course of one such mission flown, on May 16, 1978 a Sarigue crossed much of Libya using gaps within the LAAF’s radar network and without being intercepted, before continuing for Kinshasa in Zaire.
The number of such incidents increased significantly during 1980. On Mar. 23, two LAAF Mirage 5s opened fire on an Atlantic of the Aéronavale (French Navy) that was flying over the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast. The crew of the French plane skillfully avoided this attack and nobody on board was injured.
In 1980 the LAAF interceptors did become involved in other several incidents with foreign aircraft. At an unknown date, the same DC-8 of the EE.51 that had flown the mission `across Libya’ in 1978, was intercepted by two Libyan MiG-25P interceptors while underway over the central Mediterranean. LAAF ground control ordered both MiGs back to their base after Colonel Michel Gambs, the pilot of the Sarigue, changed his course towards the north. However, the Number 2 in the Libyan formation ignored this order. He manoeuvred his MiG beneath and then in front of the DC-8, before engaging afterburners. Gambs commented:
‘I still recall, vividly, the terrific crescendo caused by his afterburners and shock-waves that almost caused us to lose control over our aircraft.’
Another incident of a similar type occurred on Sep. 16, al 1980, though this time involving an USAF Boeing RC-135 SIGINT/ELINT reconnaissance aircraft and two LAAF MiG-25s. Libyan pilots first approached the US plane and signalled the crew la to turn away from what they considered to be the Libyan border. When the Americans ignored their signals, one of the MiGs fired a single air-to-air missile, though this missed its target (probably decoyed by deployment of electronic countermeasures). Five days later, on Sep. 21, 1980, five Mirage 5s intercepted an RC-135 while it was flying 200 miles off the Libyan coast. However, this time the reconnaissance aircraft was escorted by three Grumman F-14A Tomcats from the aircraft carrier USS John F Kennedy (CV-67), and they managed to force the Libyans away without opening fire.
Some of such, rather nervous, Libyan actions were related to rumours about another failed coup attempt against Gaddafi, that was reportedly plotted by nineteen military officers during the fall of 1980. MiG-23 pilot Hazem al-Bajigni subsequently found himself accused of intending to steal a C-130 transport and fly the plotters out of the country. Eventually, he was forced to flee in quite a spectacular fashion:
‘I fled to Crete on Feb. 11, 1981. My defection was marred by technical problems and fiascos with the NATO Southern Command. Early on after taking off from Benina AB, I made a mistake. While escaping from Libya, I flew much too fast at much too low an altitude. A MiG-23 can sweep its wings to fly faster but there is a limit of what the aircraft structure can support. If it is flown too fast with wings fully swept back while underway at low altitude, the swivelling mechanism would be damaged and the wings could not be moved forward. While flying away from Libya I accelerated to Mach 1.5 while underway at less than 100 feet (30m). This caused structural damage. I was planning to Iand at Iraklion AB, on Crete. But, arriving there, I found it covered by clouds. I circled several times flying low, right over the top of buildings, simply trying to get some attention. All the time I used the international frequency of 121.50MHz, calling for help. But, there was no answer (NATO was later very embarrassed about this). There were a few military jets flying in that general area, some looked like A-6s, but I could not intercept them to communicate with their crews because of my damaged wings. It’s a long story, but eventually I got the wings to go forward to the landing configuration and ended up crash landing into the bushes at a remote site. This turned out to be the old, disused airfield of Maleme, famous from the times of World War II. I attempted to eject while doing so, but my seat did not work. Once outside of the aircraft I found myself all alone with nobody around. This was another hard-to-believe blunder by the local NATO force.’
Although the wreckage of al-Bajigni’s aircraft was returned to Libya three days later, tensions in the airspace along the northern Libyan borders remained high all through 1981.
Libyan Air Wars Part 1: 1973-1985 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and Israel Air Force