Cold War Era

[Video] That time a US Navy F-14 Tomcat shot down a USAF RF-4C Phantom II during a war game

F-14 shooting down RF-4C

On Sep. 22, 1987, a US Navy F-14 Tomcat shot down a US Air Force (USAF) RF-4C Phantom II during NATO Exercise Display Determination 87 over the Mediterranean. The RF-4C was conducting a simulated recce mission on USS Saratoga (CV-60) when the F-14 pilot became confused and launched a live Sidewinder. The RF-4C crew ejected and were recovered. The F-14 pilot never flew again.

USAF Phantom pilot Captain Michael Ross and his Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) 1st Lt. Randy Sprouse (aboard RF-4C, 69-0381, ZR tailcode, of the 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, out of Zweibrucken Air Base, West Germany) were searching for an ‘enemy’ fleet comprised of the US carrier USS Saratoga as part of the multi-force exercise.

The Saratoga’s radar picked up a contact that was a neutral KC-135 airborne tanker and directed its F-14 Tomcat fighter jets towards it. The Tomcats arrived as Capt. Ross’s Phantom was refueling at the same tanker. Sprouse looked back and saw the pair of F-14s following them and thought nothing of it. The Tomcats at first mistook the unmarked Phantom for a friendly, but when the Phantom refueled and departed, they followed.

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Confusing the orders

A short time later, the Phantom tried turning on its scanners only to have them malfunction. Carrying on their mission visually, the Phantom crew spotted the ‘enemy’ fleet. The rule was, if they could read the carrier’s hull number, then the mission was accomplished. New pilot Lt (Jg) Timothy Dorsey (aboard F-14A BuNo 162707 from VF-74 Be-Devilers) followed the Phantom and informed the Saratoga of the recce aircraft. With the Tomcat on the Phantom’s tail, Lt. Sprouse looked back and called out, “There’s a Navy F-14 sitting on our left wing at about 8 o’clock!”

Captain Ross replied, “Okay. He’s a good guy.”

At the same time, the Tomcat pilot, Lt. Dorsey, asked the Saratoga if he should engage and was given the clearance, “Warning Red, Weapons Free,” that was a standard exercise call at the time (vice Weapons Tight or Hold).

This is where Lt. Dorsey confused the orders. Lt. Dorsey asked, “Jesus! Do they want me to shoot this guy?” To which his own RIO, Lt. Command Edmund Holland, replied, “Yes-shoot!”

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Application to be advanced to rear admiral

Because this was supposed to be a training mission, both Command and Lt. Commander Holland meant for Lt. Dorsey to ‘fire’ a simulated missile, meaning he lock up the target with the AIM-9 Sidewinder‘s infrared tracker. When he got the tone the infrared was tracking, that would be a kill. However, Lt. Dorsey fired a live Sidewinder missile and shot down the Phantom (The very end of the film here).

Both managed to eject, but suffered numerous injuries. The explosion and spiral down pressed them against the side of the cockpit when they punched out. Both men were picked up by the Saratoga. Captain Ross required 32 surgeries for his many injuries and Sprouse suffered a dislocated shoulder.

An investigation found that Lt. Dorsey was responsible for his lapse in judgment and his novice experience. Though he never flew again, he was allowed to keep his pilot wings and stayed in the Navy, advancing to the rank of Captain (Colonel in the Army) and submitted an application to be advanced to rear admiral, but was rejected.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force

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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