Fighter pilots make movies. Bomber pilots make history.
— Stephen Coonts, Flight of the Intruder
On August 19, 1981, 35 years ago today, two fighter pilots and an iconic airplane did make history. US Navy pilots Commander Henry ‘Hank’ Kleemann and Lt. Lawrence ‘Music’ Muczynski catapulted their F-14A jets off the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, for a dawn combat air patrol, much like ‘Maverick’ and ‘Cougar’ did in the opening scenes of the movie TOP GUN five years later.
Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi had drawn a ‘Line of Death’ across a piece of the Mediterranean Ocean and claimed the Gulf of Sidra as Libyan waters. Two aircraft carriers of the US Sixth Fleet, the USS Forrestal and the USS Nimitz, steamed to enforce international freedom of navigation.
The Nimitz had two squadrons of the new Grumman F-14 Tomcats. The Tomcat went into service just five years earlier. It had never been in combat.
Kleemann was the Commanding Officer of fighter squadron VF-41, the ‘Black Aces’. He and his Radar Intercept Officer, Lt. David ‘DJ’ Venlet, had the call sign ‘Fast Eagle 102.’ After launching from the Nimitz at 0600, Kleemann and Venlet topped up on fuel at an air-refuelling tanker and were told to join up with Muczynski and his RIO, Lt jg James ‘Luca’ Anderson, who were flying in ‘Fast Eagle 107.’ Kleemann took overall command and flew a racetrack pattern at a patrol station inside the Gulf of Sidra.
F-14A Tomcat VF-41 Black Aces ‘Fast Eagle 107.’ Before the engagement, one of its Sidewinder weapons pylons went down, rendering the heat-seeking missile useless. During the engagement, its AWG-9 radar went down, rendering all its radar-guided missiles useless. ‘Fast Eagle 102’ was left with one heat-seeking Sidewinder and its 20mm internal cannon. (Image credit aviationgraphic.com)
Their radios chattered. F-14s from the Nimitz and older F-4 Phantoms from the Forrestal were intercepting Libyan fighter jets probing around the Gulf. The mission was intimidation, intercept and escort, not shoot. “We can target your ships any time,” the Libyan actions suggested. “We can shoot you down long before you do,” the US reactions signalled.
A U.S. Navy F-4J Phantom II of Fighter Squadron VF-74 Be-Devilers escorting a Libyan MiG-23 over Gulf of Sidra in August 1981. (U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
Kleemann and Muczynski flew on opposite sides of their north-south racetrack, so that one airplane’s radar always pointed at Libya. After 45 minutes, they were down to their minimum combat fuel load. They were light and agile, but would need to refuel soon.
Then Venlet, the RIO back seater in ‘Fast Eagle 102’, broke out a target on radar. Directly south, 190 degrees, 60 miles away. Climbing fast.
The unknown aircraft, or ‘bogey,’ was taking off from Ghurdabiyah air base in Libya. Muczynski in ‘Fast Eagle 107’ formed on Kleemann’s right wing, 2 miles out, both of them level at 20,000 feet. The bogey was headed straight at them at 540 knots, just below Mach 1.
Venlet, who had radar contact in the back seat of ‘Fast Eagle 102,’ commanded a turn 20 degrees to the right, then 40 degrees left, trying to offset themselves and turn in behind the bogey. The bogey turned to face them each time.
Ten miles. Kleemann decided to head directly at the bogey. He accelerated to 550 knots, going to minimum afterburner to burn off tell-tale smoke trails from their jet engines. Muczynski went to ‘combat spread,’ climbing 8,000 feet above Kleemann’s jet, 2 miles to the right. Total closure speed was 1,100 knots, 1 mile every 3 seconds.
Eight miles. Kleemann in ‘Fast Eagle 102’ now picked up the targets visually. There were two bogies, not one, in a ‘loose deuce,’ formation. They were Soviet Sukhoi Su-22’s, also swing-wing airplanes, designed for ground attack, not dogfighting. But they were armed with two AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles.
Libyan Su-22M2K, the aircraft that patrolled the Gulf of Sidra in August 1981
As briefed, the first one to spot the bogey, Kleemann, was now the ‘eyeball.’ Muczynski was the ‘shooter’. Muczynski hooked high and right (remember ‘Cougar’s’ line in the movie TOP GUN?) wanting to have an acute angle off the bandits’ tails, but found himself sucked behind the geometry of the merge, even as he went to Zone 5 afterburner.
The two Su-22s, slightly low, merged head-on with Kleemann. Kleemann rolled his left wing down, so that he could keep the Su-22s in sight as he passed over them. They were still on ‘Weapons hold.’ Muczynski, 8,000 feet up and 2 miles to the right, began a hard left turn to get behind the Libyans… .
Five years later, Lt Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) rolled his F-14 inverted directly over a bogey in the movie TOP GUN and gave the opposing pilot ‘the finger’, which his RIO ‘Goose’ (Anthony Edwards) later explained to TOP GUN instructor ‘Charlie’ (Kelly McGillis) as “Keeping up with foreign relations.” I like the shirt I was wearing as I wrote this article in a Boeing 777 32,000 feet over the Australian outback.
Writing this article on board SQ238, 32,000 feet, 520 knots.
Three things made the Grumman F-14 Tomcat a fighter pilot’s dream – the swing wings, the radar, and the Phoenix missile.
The swing wings achieved a perfect balance of speed and manoeuvrability. Extended forward, the wings gave maximum lift for slow flight, carrier landings or hard air combat manoeuvring. Wings swept back, the F-14 was a Mach 2.5 supersonic jet. The wings swung automatically. The airplane constantly re-designed itself to the demands of the pilot.
The Hughes AWG-9 radar had two spectacular features. It could see out to 200 nautical miles, farther and clearer than any fighter radar then. It could track 24 targets at a time, even as it continued to scan for more. And it could guide six missiles simultaneously to six different targets.
F-14A cockpit, with detail of AWG-9 Tactical Information Display. Image by Nose Art Guy.
Imagine a pistol with a tactical flashlight, a laser sight and six bullets. Your laser sight can keep red dots on six supersonic moving targets at the same time. You can fire six bullets one after the other. Your bullets will hit six different targets. All while your flashlight continues to look for more bad guys. This was Star Wars stuff.
The targeting computer could also read data from another radar on another airplane or a ship. The Tomcat’s own radar could stay turned off, and the crew could still engage the remotely-designated targets.
The ‘bullets’ were the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. They could reach targets out 120 nautical miles, over 10 times the norm then. Each missile had its own radar — it could home on its target even as the Tomcat broke away. Fire and forget.
F-14 firing an AIM-54 Phoenix missile. (Suburban Men)
Kleemann and Muczynski had Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. Nobody expected to fire. US President Ronald Reagan had personally crafted the ROE, Rules of Engagement, for the Gulf of Sidra manoeuvres – “Do not fire unless fired upon.” Another line copied by the TOP GUN scriptwriters.
The previous President, Jimmy Carter, had prohibited shooting at enemy airplanes even after they had fired and were heading home. Reagan changed that. If an enemy airplane shot at you, “Follow them all the way into their hangar,” Reagan decreed.
Now Kleemann and Muczynski, merging with two Libyan Su-22s, saw a bright flash and a trail of smoke erupt from the left side of the lead Sukhoi. Missile shot at ‘Fast Eagle 102’! The ‘bogeys’ were now ‘bandits,’ enemy aircraft.
The missile was not a factor. The Libyan pilot had fired less than 300 meters from Kleemann, way too close for the missile to acquire a target. Above, Muczynski saw the missile “do a banana” towards his own airplane, but already it was curving far behind the Tomcat.
The lead Su-22, the shooter, went into a climbing left turn, heading northwest away from Libya. The second Su-22 reversed course to the right, bugging out.
Both Muczynski and Kleemann turned left for the first Su-22. Kleemann asked Muczynski where he was going. Muczynski said he was going after the lead Su-22. Kleemann reversed his turn to the right to go after the second Su-22.
After the Libyan missile missed, the Su-22s split, the lead Sukhoi climbed left while his wingman reversed to the right. Both F-14s made hard left turns to go after the lead Su-22. Fast Eagle 102 then rolled right onto the wingman Su-22, waited until the target cleared the sun. Fast Eagle 107, coming down on a hard left turn from above the merge, rolled in behind the lead Su-22, which had begun to turn right, possibly to re-engage with the other F-14. (Combat Cartography)
Kleemann selected a heat-seeking Sidewinder missile. His target arc across the disc of the rising sun. He held fire for 10 seconds until the Su-22 was completely clear of the sun. At an angle of 40 degrees off the bandit’s tail, three-quarters of a mile behind, Kleemann launched a Sidewinder off his left glove weapon pylon. The missile pulled lead on the bandit, then turned 90 degrees, hit the Su-22 in the engine and detonated. Debris blew out as the Libyan’s engine shredded. The Su-22’s drogue parachute streamed and the pilot ejected. Kleemann saw the pilot’s parachute open.
Fox 2 kill by Fast Eagle 102. Image by GreyWolfeRun.
Muczynski drove to a firing position on his target’s tail. He was thinking, this guy is fleeing, not a threat, probably never saw his F-14.
“Hank, want me to shoot my guy down?”
“That’s affirm, shoot him!! Shoot him down!”
Muczynski fired a Sidewinder from half a mile behind the bandit. The heat-seeking missile went straight up the Sukhoi’s tailpipe and blew the entire back half of the airplane into debris. Muczynski was convinced that he had shot himself down, that debris would enter his own F-14’s engine intakes. He instantaneously pulled 10.2 Gs to put his F-14 into a hard vertical climb, Above the debris cloud, Muczynski rolled upside down to watch the Libyan pilot eject. Nobody saw a parachute open.
“Fox 2 kill for Music,” Muczynski said on the radio.
The entire dogfight, from merge to the shoot down, took 60 seconds.
Fast Eagle 107 destroys an Su-22. Image by John Clark.
The F-14 pilots jabbered over the radio net as they flew back to the Nimitz. In ‘Fast Eagle 102,’ Venlet said to Kleemann, “Hey Skipper, I bet the President gets woke up on this one.” Muczynski, shaking uncontrollably, put his F-14 on autopilot until he calmed down. The Captain of the Nimitz announced to the entire ship that their F-14s had just downed two enemy fighters.
Kleemann and Muczynski went straight for the landing pattern, where Kleemann missed the first approach with a bolter. Muczynski landed on this first try, and Kleemann boltered again. He finally caught a three-wire on the third try. By the time the pilots shut down and egressed the airplanes the cheering deck crew had spray painted a “Kill Marking,” a silhouette of an Su-22, on each Tomcat.
Fast Eagle 102 on the USS Nimitz right after the shoot down in 1981.
Admiral James Service, commanding the carrier task force, flashed the news up the NATO and US chains of command, all the way to Caspar Weinberger, US SecDef, and Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State. As Venlet predicted, President Reagan was awoken in California. He was due to visit the USS Constellation, an aircraft carrier of the US Pacific Fleet, off the coast of San Diego the next day.
All in all, US Navy F-14 Tomcats shot down five enemy airplanes in 30 years of operation, including two again in the Gulf of Sidra eight years later. In Operation Desert Storm an F-14 shot down an Iraqi helicopter. Despite (or because of) the F-14’s capabilities and movie stardom, very few enemy airplanes chose to do battle with the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.
Artwork by Jon Morrison, signed by all the pilots.
The Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981 was the combat debut of the F-14, where it scored its first kills. F-14 crews designed a patch that announced they were ready “Anytime, Baby.” The patch is iconic and a great souvenir item.
Anytime, Baby…! Tonet Rivera collection.
Just four years later Cmdr Henry Kleemann landed an F-18 at Naval Air Station Miramar, home of the TOPGUN Fighter Weapons School, after a thunderstorm. The landing gear squat switches suffered a fault, and the airplane hydroplaned on the wet runway and spun in a 180-degree ground loop. The jet dug a wingtip into the ground and flipped over. Kleemann’s canopy separated from the airplane during the crash sequence, and he was trapped in the upside down jet with his head driven into the ground by an armed ejection seat ready to fire. It took 45 minutes to free him, and he died of his injuries before reaching the hospital.
From the book, Fall From Glory, by George Vistica, 1997.
In January 1989 two F-14 Tomcats from US Navy squadron VF-32 shot down two Libyan MiG-23s over the Gulf of Sidra. The MiG-23, also a swing wing airplane, was then one of the most advanced Soviet fighters. VF-41 and VF-32 now shared combat honours in the F-14. Two months later, on March 11, 1989, James Anderson, RIO of ‘Fast Eagle 107,’ died in a skiing accident.
Something in common, VF-41 and VF-32 patches. Tonet Rivera collection.
In 1991 an F-14 Tomcat shot down an Iraqi Mi-8 helicopter during Operation Desert Storm. US Navy F-14s never shot down an enemy airplane again, likely because opposing pilots always chose to avoid combat with the Tomcat. (Iranian F-14s sold by the US to the former Shah of Iran shot down several Iraqi aircraft during the Iran-Iraq war.)
In October 1994 the US Navy’s first carrier-based female fighter pilot, Lt Kara ‘Revlon’ Hultgreen, was flying an approach to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the F-14 that used to be known as ‘Fast Eagle 107.’ As she lined up on short final she suffered a compressor stall in her left engine and the airplane rolled to the left. Her RIO ejected both of them but Hultgreen’s seat fired after the airplane had rolled past the vertical, and she impacted the sea. Her remains and the wrecked F-14, veteran of the Gulf of Sidra, were recovered weeks later.
The wreck of Fast Eagle 107. From the book, Fall From Glory, by George Vistica, 1997.
Lt David Venlet became an admiral and the executive officer of the F-35 project team. Lt Lawrence Muczynski left the Navy to become an airline pilot.
In 2006 the F-14 was retired after 25 years of service. Grumman built a total of 712 F-14As, F-14Bs and F-14Ds. The Tomcat was an even more potent fighter, with more powerful engines, upgraded radar and fire-control. It amassed significant combat achievements as a strike fighter in Operations Deliberate Force in Bosnia, Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom. At the height of its upgraded capabilities, The F-14 Tomcat was retired by Dick Cheney. Cheney favoured McDonnell Douglas, builders of the F-18 Hornet. Grumman disappeared. Eventually, so did McDonnell Douglas, acquired by Boeing.
In order to prevent Iran from acquiring spare parts, every surviving F-14 was shredded into scrap aluminium, except for a few destined for museums.
On August 19, 2012, exactly 31 years to the day after the dogfight that inspired the movie ‘TOP GUN,’ director Tony Scott committed suicide.
Cmdr Kleemann’s Fast Eagle 102 Tomcat is in storage in Midland, Texas. The Confederate Air Force began restoring it last month.
Fast Eagle 102 in storage at Midland, Texas. Warbirdnews.com.
Iran continues to operate its surviving F-14A Tomcats.
Posted from on board SQ238
19 August 2016
Actual audio recording and transcripts of US Navy radio calls during the shoot down, August 19, 1981. The intercept controller, “Bare Ace,” is actually an E-2C Hawkeye from Electronic Early Warning Squadron VAW-124, ‘Bear Aces.’
Diagram of the air combat manoeuvres, from Combat Cartography.
Preserving and restoring ‘Fast Eagle 102’
Jon Morrison artwork
Best F-14 site on the worldwide web
New York Times
Aviation Camouflage of Libyan Su-22M2K
Martin and Walcott have a detailed account of the shoot down. It’s a dated but excellent book that reflects the times – Desert One, the TWA hijack, the Dozier kidnapping, the seizure of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, the Beirut Marine barracks, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, Black September, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the good old peaceful days.
Vistica wrote about the tribulations of the Navy leadership throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Eye-opening.
Spears is the mother of Hultgreen, and so could have written a very one-sided account about her daughter. Her book, Revlon, is surprisingly unbiased and a deeply insightful account of her daughter’s experience in the US Navy as one of the first female pilots in the fighter community. Hultgreen’s journal and personal papers are extensively quoted, resulting in a candid and revealing account of the biases and harassment she faced in the Navy.
Kinzey included an extensive audio-taped interview of ‘Music’ Muczynski, the pilot of ‘Fast Eagle 107.’ His Detail & Scale volume is loaded with illustrations of both F-14A Tomcats from the Gulf of Sidra incident.
Tonet Rivera collection.