On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded its southern neighbour Kuwait, provoking the affair that was to result in UN-sanctions and US-led Operation Desert Storm, aimed at liberating the latter country. In reaction to the Iraqi invasion, Washington ordered the USS Saratoga, with her embarked Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17), and her escorting ships to the Red Sea. CVW-17 included two squadrons equipped with the then brand-new F-14A+ model of Grumman’s Tomcat, powered by General Electric F110-GE-400 engines: VF-74 “Be-Devilers” and VF-103 “Sluggers”. Fate would have it that this cruise would see their baptism of fire against a combat-experienced and well-equipped enemy: the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF), fresh out of the eight-year-long and bloody war with Iran.
Saratoga’s Tomcats got their first taste of combat against the Iraqis early during the morning (local time) of Jan. 17, 1991, while MiG sweeping for a strike package consisting of McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18C Hornets and Grumman A-6E Intruders against the complex of airbases in western Iraq, known as “H-3”. Although locking up bogies on their AWG-9 radars while approaching the target zone, the Tomcats didn’t obtain permission to fire due to the E-2C Hawkeye contacting them on the wrong frequency. Thus, they passed the combat zone and began curling back south. In turn, the Iraqis attempted to sneak two of their MiG-21bis interceptors upon the strikers unobserved but the ploy did not work. Two VFA-81 “Sunliners” Hornets shot the two MiG-21s in the face and went on to show the multi-mission ability of the Hornet by subsequently bombing the airfield with 2,000 pound bombs.
Later that night, another airstrike was to be conducted, this time against H-3 and what was known as H-2 which was northeast of H-3. A-6Es from the USS Saratoga were destined for H-3 while A-6Es from the USS John F. Kennedy would hit H-2. Two VF-103 Tomcats took off to provide MiG sweep in front of the strike package for any Iraqi opposition. On the wing of the section leader was F-14A+ AA207 BuNo 161440 piloted by LT Tim “Glaze” Glaser with a LT RIO in the back seat. The mission went wrong quite early: while attempting to refuel from a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker of the US Air Force (USAF) in bad weather, their section leader could not get enough fuel and eventually had to return to the Saratoga early when he hit bingo. Left on their own, Glaze and his RIO went over Iraq sweeping for all the strike aircraft by themselves. Shortly after entering the Iraqi airspace, they passed two McDonnell-Douglas F-15C Eagles of the USAF. The Eagles were performing a defensive CAP along the border, rendering anything flying north of the lone Tomcat a bandit (confirmed enemy aircraft) as there were no other friendly aircraft in the vicinity. Once deeper inside Iraq, Glaze and his RIO had to make a decision: either to turn left, or west, and make a circle to the north of H-3 before returning, or turn right, or east, and make a circle around H-2. Since there were no radar contacts, Glaze took the former option and started a left turn when, all of a sudden, a radar contact popped up northwest of their position at a range of 44 miles flying fast and climbing. Almost instantly, his RIO called the E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft supporting their mission, reporting the emerging target. However, while doing so he used the wrong reference: instead of citing the new target’s position relative to bullseye (H-3, codenamed “Manny”) he cited its bearing and range relative to the Tomcat, leaving the crew of the Hawkeye wondering where the Tomcat’s nose was pointed.
Remembering that there could be no friendly aircraft north of him, Glaze cut the range to the target down to 20 miles and repeatedly told his RIO to lock up the target. Glaze then fired a single AIM-7M Sparrow air-to-air missile at 13 miles and cranked left as both jets approached each other at a combined closure rate of around 1,200 knots. To his dismay, his RIO then committed a mistake and called “Fox 3” on the radio: this was a code-word for deployment of one of mighty AIM-54C Phoenix long-range missiles. Unsurprisingly, his call sent everyone on board the E-2 into a frenzy, because nobody was sure at whom Glaze was shooting. Misinterpreting the situation, the E-2 began calling one of the A-6E’s (which were 30 miles south of Glaze’s position) as a bandit. AWACS corrected the call twice and said, “That’s a friendly.” Confused by the friendly calls, Glaze’s RIO turned off the AWG-9 radar, thus causing the Sparrow to lose a radar lock. Recently reviewed HUD tape footage shows that the AIM-7M had 20 seconds TOF (time of flight) from its firing from station 1B to the radar being turned off. An F/A-18 simulator instructor at NAS Oceana ran the missile shot in the simulator and it showed that the AIM-7M would take 15 seconds to hit the Iraqi interceptor.
The unknown Iraqi aircraft, most-likely a MiG-23ML from No. 73 Squadron, was thought to have escaped. Frustrated, Glaze wrenched his F-14 into a hard left turn worried the MiG might counterattack him. TOT (time on target) was a minute after the missile shot and after watching the bombs hit they continued to egress and had to evade three SA-6s which were shot at them. His RIO then set a course to the tanker aircraft to top-off the tanks for the trip home. That was no end of his difficulties: the weather prevented him from refuelling in the air and forced him to divert to al-Jauf airfield in Saudi Arabia instead, together with an A-6E that was damaged by an Iraqi Roland SAM.
Yet more problems were still ahead: after refuelling at al-Jauf, Glaze flew back to USS Saratoga, caught the wire, and was pulled up just below the island. A sea of deck crew swarmed his Tomcat in a scene reminiscent of the movie “Top Gun” since everybody was convinced that the VF-103 crew got an air-air kill. On the contrary, the AWACS community was spreading news that they shot down a friendly. Subsequently, the intel officers became convinced that Glaze and his RIO shot down the A-6E flown by LT Robert Wetzel and LT Jeffrey Zaun. Unsurprisingly, the unfortunate crew was subjected to a thorough investigation until the U.S. Navy managed to establish that Wetzel and Zaun were actually shot down by an Iraqi Roland SAM. Until Glaze was cleared of any wrongdoing and granted permission to fly combat sorties over Iraq, he had only been regulated to fly CAPs over the Saratoga.
While the overall outcome of the engagement might appear meager, the results of the encounter left no doubt of the F-14’s ability to fight a determined and well-equipped foe. VF-74 and VF-103 would go on to perform admirably throughout the remainder of the conflict even as the threat from the Iraqi Air Force diminished through CAP, TARPS and BDA missions.
Special thanks to David F. Brown for providing photographs for this article. Please check out his website – www.facebook.com/ThingsWithWingsPhotography – for some of finest aviation photography from one of the industry’s best.
• U.S. Navy
• U.S. Air Force
• Tim “Glaze” Glaser
• Tom Cooper
• David F. Brown
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
Top image: U.S. Air Force and Tom Cooper Collection
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