“This is the first time to my knowledge that an airplane scored a kill while carrying four 2,000-lb bombs, then continued on to hit its target,” Lieutenant Commander Mark Fox, VFA-81 F/A-18 Hornet Pilot
On Jan. 17, 1991 Lieutenant Commander Mark Fox and Lieutenant Nick Mongillo launched with five other VFA-81 F/A-18 Hornets as part of a CVW-17 strike. In reality, Lieutenant Commander Fox was an airborne spare and was not scheduled to cross the beach. However, three of the scheduled strikers aborted for various reasons, and Lieutenant Commander Fox joined the three remaining aircraft as they headed inland.
CVW-17 in USS Saratoga (CV-60) flew the strike together with aircraft from CVW-3 from USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67). It was the first daylight strike of the Gulf war. The previous night had seen an intense first-strike effort by hundreds of allied aircraft against Iraqi facilities, especially around Baghdad and the major airfields in western Iraq, codenamed H-2 and H-3.
Although the enemy defenses had got everyone’s attention -there had been heavy concentrations of AAA and SAMs, and a few Iraqi interceptors had taken off – the planners had scheduled an ongoing series of around-the-clock strikes. Planes had been lost during the first strikes, all to flak and SAMs. The MiGs and Mirages had been in the air, but none had been flown aggressively. The threat was there, however, and not to be taken lightly.
The four Sunliner F/A-18Cs each carried four Mk 84 2,000-lb bombs, a hefty load for a single-seat aircraft. They approached their target, H-3 airfield in western Iraq, in a ‘wall’, lined abreast. The other two Hornet pilots were Commander Bill McKee, VFA-81’s Executive Officer, and Lieutenant Commander ‘Chuck’ Osborne.
High overhead, the ever-present AWACS and an E-2C from Saratoga’s VAW-125 monitored the strike. Although they were under visual ID (VID) Rules of Engagement, the Hornet pilots knew the E-2 could make the difference. The Hawkeye used various geographic reference points for its calls.
As he ran in on his target, Lieutenant Commander Fox was confident of himself, his aircraft and the rest of his flight, as he explains in the book Gulf Air War Debrief.
“I didn’t leave thinking I wasn’t going to come back later. During the few hours before we entered Iraqi airspace, I thought about a lot of practical things. I made sure everything was set up, switches were in the right position, and that I kept the other three planes in sight. There wasn’t time to think about anything but the mission.”
As they ran in from the south, the radio was alive with calls from other portions of the strike group. Kennedy’s package had run into a few MiG-29s that had tailed the strikers as they exited the target area after delivering their ordnance. The ‘Fulcrums’ stalked the CVW-3 planes as two F-15Cs from the USAF’s 33rd TFW, based at Eglin AFB, Florida, dropped from their CAP station. The F-14 escort watched as the F-15s streaked past and fired missiles at the MiGs. Two MiG-29s failed to return to their base.
When Lieutenant Commander Fox and his flight were about 30 miles from their target, their systems set up for the bomb delivery they would soon make, the E-2 called a bandit alert as MiGs seemed to head for the VFA-81 Hornets soon after the Kennedy group had left the area. The Hornets flew on.
Then, Lieutenant John Joyce, the E-2’s Air Control Officer (ACO) -one of the three Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) in the back of an E-2 – made another call, this time with a real sense of urgency.
“Hornets, bandits on your nose, 15 miles!”
That was it. Lieutenant Commander Fox and Lieutenant Mongillo each thumbed the knurled knob on the control stick that selected the missiles and changed their systems to the air-to-air mode. Their hands tightened on the stick-mounted trigger that fired their missiles.
As the flight flew on, Fox, in F/A-18C AA 401 (BuNo 163508) and Mongillo in AA 410 (BuNo 163502) looked for the oncoming MiGs. Fox got a lock-on at 10 miles – two MiG-21s in a left echelon, a standard Soviet formation. Commander McKee and Lieutenant Commander Osborne had also locked up the lead MiG.
“It all happened very quickly. I switched back to air-to-air and got a lock on one of them. I had the MiG on the right while the second Hornet in our formation -Lieutenant Mongillo – took the MiG on the left. The other two Hornets had also acquired radar locks.
“The MiGs approached us, nose on, supersonic at Mach 1.2. Our relative rate of closure Was more than 1,200 kt. They weren’t maneuvering.
“I shot a Sidewinder first. It was a smokeless missile and I thought, at first, that I had wasted it because I couldn’t see it tracking toward the MiG. I fired a Sparrow. The Sidewinder hit, though, followed by the Sparrow. The first missile actually did the job, and the Sparrow flew into the fireball. The whole event, from the E-2’s call to missile impact, took less than 40 seconds.”
Lieutenant Mongillo fired a single Sparrow which took out the second MiG-21.
“The Iraqi pilot knew what he was getting into when he climbed into that jet and took off after us.”
Following their two kills, the two new shooters rejoined their flight and continued with their bomb delivery. Throughout their engagement with the MiGs, they had kept their bombs, all 8,000 lb of them. As the four F/A-18s came off target and headed south, they could see the two columns of black smoke rising up from the desert where the two MiGs had crashed -in the same relative formation as when they were shot down.
Talking about the strike-fighter concept that the F/A-18 represents, Fox has a definite opinion. “This is the first time to my knowledge that an airplane scored a kill while carrying four 2,000-lb bombs, then continued on to hit its target. If the MiGs had got behind us, we would have had no choice but to honor their threat. You can’t do that with 8,000 lb of bombs. We would have had to jettison ( ordnance to face them, and would have served their purpose in stopping our strike. They failed we succeeded.” These two kills were the only confirmed air-to-air k Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force