“The TAO’s voice was several octaves higher than normal and they were going into “warning red, weapons tight”. As we swung our nose in the direction of the vector we got, I got an immediate lock on an extremely fast and high-flying aircraft…” David ‘Hey Joe’ Parsons, F-14 Tomcat RIO.
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. As explained by Tom Cooper in his book In the Claws of the Tomcat: US Navy F-14 Tomcats in Air Combat against Iran and Iraq, 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. On the evening of May 17, 1987, it was flown down the Saudi side of the Persian Gulf, before turning east, and releasing two Exocets: both struck the guided missile frigate USS Stark, killing 37 of her crew.
Code-named Suzanna (probably after the French girlfriend of one of the Iraqis involved), the Falcon 50 in question was never deployed in combat again. However, and although officials in Washington made repeated statements that the attack on the USS Stark was flown by an ‘Iraqi Mirage’, henceforth, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was on alert and ‘very aware’ of the jet’s existence and capabilities.
Suzanna caused serious concerns that the Iraqis might deploy it via Jordan and into the northern Red Sea, and attack one of the US Navy’s warships there: the threat that the modified business jet emanated was constantly on the minds of everybody embarked aboard the CVBGs operating in the Red Sea. It was for this reason that ever since the first US Navy CVBGs arrived on station in that area, in August 1990, its Tomcats flew rigorous CAPs above the carriers, 24/7, and aggressively intercepted whatever came their way. The patrols in question were continued all through operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, from August 1990 until March 1991, and – regardless of so many other urgencies — the USAF supported them by providing at least one KC-135 around the clock.
How tense such CAPs could get became clear in August 1990, when one of the Aegis cruisers deployed in the northern Red Sea detected a high-speed aircraft approaching from the north, and a pair of Tomcats kept on alert was scrambled to inspect. By accident, David ‘Hey Joe’ Parsons, a RIO serving with the VF-32, was in the rear cockpit of one of two F-14As returning from a training sortie over Saudi Arabia:
“Our mission that day took us into Saudi Arabia and out of the Kennedy’s control. However, as we switched back into the Red Sea control frequency, we could hear excited dialogue about a high-speed flying and alert aircraft being launched and ships going on general quarters. We were well to the north-east of the ships and, from what I could tell, in the best position to execute an intercept. Thus, I checked in [and] advised the controller that we were ready, willing and able to do so.
“The TAO’s voice was several octaves higher than normal and they were going into “warning red, weapons tight”. As we swung our nose in the direction of the vector we got, I got an immediate lock on an extremely fast and high-flying aircraft. The TCS could not resolve the identification, but I had a 300mm camera lens in my bag and broke it out. The AWG-9 was giving us a huge lead via the steering cue, so I was looking out the starboard side — as we spotted a white contrail high above us. As I twisted the lens, the beautiful silhouette of the Concorde came into focus…”
Identified as a supersonic airliner, the jet was left to continue its voyage. After the end of the Second Persian Gulf War it became known that the Iraqis had evacuated Suzanna to Iran in late January 1991 — but without her weapons system: ever since, the jet has been used for VIP-transport in Iran.
In the Claws of the Tomcat: US Navy F-14 Tomcats in Air Combat against Iran and Iraq, 1987-2000 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: CDR David Parsons / US Navy, Tom Cooper and Adrian Meredith / Crown Copyright