Tomcats Battle Floggers

F-14 Tomcats assigned to the VF-32 Swordsmen pictured in flight in 1990.

Thirty years ago,  just weeks away from the inauguration of his successor (and Vice President), President Ronald Reagan received word of air combat action over the Gulf of Sidra, the latest chapter in a longstanding standoff with Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi lasted his entire presidency.

On January 4, 1989, a pair of F-14 Tomcats assigned to the Fighter Squadron (VF) 32 Swordsmen off the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CV 67) began tracking two incoming aircraft heading over water after taking off from a Libyan airfield. During the ensuing few minutes, the Tomcat crews varied their course and altitude to open space between the incoming aircraft, gauge their intent, and put themselves in a favorable position. The Libyan aircraft, a flight of two MiG-23 Floggers, correspondingly adjusted their course and increased speed to head straight toward the Navy fighters.

Just over 4 minutes after making initial contact with the Libyan airplanes, the first AIM-7 Sparrow missile roared off the Tomcat flown by pilot Lieutenant Herman C. Cook III and radar intercept officer (RIO) Lieutenant Commander Steven P. Collins at a distance of 12 nautical mile. It missed, but within seconds the pair fired another one at a distance of around 10 nautical miles, this one tracking and hitting one of the Libyan airplanes. In the other F-14, VF-32 Commanding Officer Commander Joseph B. Connelly and his RIO CDR Leo F. Enwright, Jr. engaged the second MiG-23 at closer range, the enemy aircraft visible in the pilot’s Head Up Display (HUD) as they launched an AIM-9 Sidewinder that splashed the hostile fighter. Observing two chutes, the F-14 crews departed the area and returned to John F. Kennedy.

The engagement occurred within a broader context of the reported construction of a chemical weapons plant by Libya, with President Reagan telling a reporter in December 1988 that military action against the target had not been ruled out. Any connection between this and the F-14 engagement with the MiG-23s was discounted.

Commenting on the air battle, Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, stated, “You cannot, in this day and time and modern technology, wait until another plane has fired in order to defend yourself. It’s too late then.”

In the face of “hostile intent,” naval aviators were not too late.  

Footage of the engagement is accessible below.