Blunder In Air! US Navy’s Fighter ‘Shoots Down’ USAF Aircraft! How NATO Wargames Went Wrong In 1987

This year has been high on energy for the US military, which has conducted extensive and large-scale war games with allies, including some that specifically caught eyeballs, such as with India, Australia, and The Philippines.

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War games have traditionally been used by militaries worldwide to simulate real-life combat situations and test tactics and strategies to prepare against potential enemies. The US military, for one, has long held several iterations of military drills and war games intra-service, as well as with allies.

However, one particular war game held several years ago in 1987 went terribly wrong. The “Display Determination 87” exercise, a regular NATO drill, saw one of the biggest peacetime blunders ever when a Navy F-14 shot down a USAF RF-4C during the war game.

NATO exercise “Display Determination 87” pitted F-14 Tomcats from the USS Saratoga in the Mediterranean Sea against Phantoms of the US Air Force (USAF) from Zweibrucken Air Base in West Germany. It was easy: All the Phantoms were required to do was find the Saratoga and launch an assault if the F-14 didn’t see them first.

The Tomcats had to go close enough to the USAF aircraft to read their hull numbers. However, a pilot flying the Tomcat, Lt. Timothy Dorsey, somehow went overboard and aimed at the Navy aircraft with his Sidewinder missile, in what was called “illogical” and “deliberate” by the Navy later.

When the Tomcats lifted off the Saratoga’s deck, they were instantly informed of a radar contact — a KC-135 tanker from the Illinois Air National Guard refueling a single RF-4C Phantom. To investigate, the Tomcats entered the area.

Despite moving closer, Dorsey could not get close enough to read the Phantom’s hull number. “I did not get close enough to see any discernible markings on the aircraft, but at that time, I assumed him to be friendly,” Dorsey said.

After refueling, the Phantom crew — Captain Michael Ross, the pilot, and 1st Lt. Michael Sprouse, the weapons systems officer — started looking for their intended target. They located it 22 miles offshore.

Ross started his pretend attack run, unaware of what was coming for the Phantom he was flying. Trailing the Phantom, Dorsey asked the ship for directions while flying his F-14. “Red and free on your contact,” Saratoga said as the war games began. According to reports, Dorsey was confused and questioned whether they meant for him to shoot at the RF-4C Phantom as part of the games.

Without realizing Dorsey was asking if he should shoot down the Air Force plane, the relevant officials answered in the affirmative. The first sidewinder that Dorsey attempted to fire was unsuccessful. However, the second one went through, and the F-14 Tomcat shot down the USAF RF-4C Phantom.

The ship realized what exactly had happened by the sound of a missile firing. Dorsey had taken out the Phantom. Fire lights were blazing inside the USAF aircraft, and the plane started to shake violently. The crewmen of the Phantom managed to evacuate right before a giant fireball enveloped the plane.

File:McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II USAF.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
RF-4C Phantom- Wikimedia Commons

A spokeswoman for Naval Air Force Atlantic, Cmdr. Jolene Keefer later said in an announcement that the Air Force RF-4C jet was downed by an air-to-air missile fired by the F14. At the time, she noted that the F-14 could carry missiles like the Phoenix, Sparrow, and Sidewinder, but she wasn’t sure which missile was used by Dorsey.

Within 30 minutes, a helicopter from Saratoga picked up the two Air Force aircrew and flew them on board. “Neither of the men suffered any apparent injuries, and both are in good health,” she said.

What Happened After The Phantom Was Shot Down?

A year after a Navy F-14 Tomcat shot down the RF-4C surveillance plane, the Navy released an investigation report that blamed the mishap on the “rookie” fighter pilot’s “basic error in judgment” and “an illogical act.”

The report prepared by the investigating officer, Capt. JW Lovell noted that even though Lieutenant Dorsey had determined earlier that day that the RF-4C was a “friendly” plane and that he was aware that he was participating in an exercise, he responded to a radio command from his carrier authorizing a simulated attack by carrying out an actual attack.

The Associated Press got a copy through the Freedom of Information Act. It reads, in part, “The destruction of USAF RF-4C was not the result of an accident, but the consequence of a deliberate act. His subsequent reaction demonstrated an absolute disregard of the known facts and circumstances.

“He failed to utilize the decision-making process taught in replacement training and reacted purely mechanically. Lieutenant Timothy W. Dorsey’s performance raises substantial doubt about his capacity for good, sound judgment.”

F-14A of VF-32 alongside an F-4M Phantom of the RAF during a simulated air combat sortie in December 1990- Wikipedia

The report and endorsements of the information later notified that new measures were taken to ensure that Navy fighters would not be launched off carriers with live weapons for war games with Air Force jets. As a result of the accident, the Navy ordered F-14 pilots to verbally advise the radar intercept officers flying with them when they flew with the plane’s weapons.

The pilots of the two aircraft pitted against one another that day met very different destinies. Ross was a young Air Force pilot flying reconnaissance missions when a Sidewinder medium-range air-to-air missile shot at him. “It took the tail off the airplane,” Ross said.

Ross managed to eject at 630 mph, resulting in 32 surgeries over the years due to degenerative leg, shoulder, and spine injuries. Ross claimed that it “ruined his life,” and he continues to experience anguish. “It made me 100 percent disabled by Air Force standards,” Ross said. The Phantom pilot could never take to the skies in his jet again.

On the other hand, Dorsey continued to live his life as usual without any life-altering consequences, except that he was not allowed to fly again due to the grave error that he had committed. However, he became an intelligence officer and was promoted by the Navy despite the blot on his record, which many believed should have led to his dismissal from service.

Things took a surprising turn in 2013 when Dorsey was recommended for promotion to the rank of Admiral. Navy authorities claimed that Dorsey was chosen for the admiral position because of how well he performed as an intelligence officer after making that one awful error early in his career.

After the promotion became public, Ross received a letter from Dorsey saying, “I was unaware you suffered from any lingering injuries… I am truly sorry for the incident and its impact on you.”