A War Game Error: Navy Plane Downs Air Force Jet

Posted: April 24, 1988

WASHINGTON — It was an American war game over the Mediterranean, and the pilot of a Navy F-14 Tomcat was hot on the tail of an Air Force jet.

Suddenly, the Air Force jet broke sharply to the left and dove threateningly toward the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga.

The Tomcat's pilot sought advice from the ship.

"Red and free on your contact," the Saratoga told him.

The phrase "red and free" stunned the pilot. "Do they want me to shoot this guy?" he exclaimed to his radar officer.

"Yeah," the radarman said. "Shoot!"

The pilot squeezed his trigger.

The first missile failed to fire. But a second missile - a live missile - did fire. It hit the Air Force jet, setting off a fireball.

Moments later, two parachutes opened and safely deposited two bruised Air Force officers into the Mediterranean.

The incident - in which a U.S. Navy plane shot down an unarmed U.S. Air Force plane on Sept. 22 - highlights the role that human error can play in military defense, and the vital role people still play in high-tech warfare.

The Navy is continuing its investigation of the incident, and its report is not yet available. But a lengthy Air Force report of its investigation, which included interviews with the fliers, details how an apparently unrelated series of minor glitches and misunderstandings mushroomed into disaster. The following reconstruction is drawn from that report.

Two Navy F-14s left the Saratoga at midafternoon on a clear day. Both were armed with live missiles, which was contrary to an agreement on war games with the Air Force.

Eight minutes later, the unmarked Air Force RF-4C Phantom reconnaissance plane left Aviano air base in Italy, playing the role of an intruder seeking to hunt down the Saratoga's battle group.

Soon, the F-14s were ordered by the Saratoga's combat controllers to track down a radar blip that proved to be the Air Force plane being refueled by an Illinois Air National Guard KC-135 tanker.

"I did not get close enough to see any discernible markings on the aircraft, but at that time assumed him to be friendly," said the pilot of one of the F-14s, Lt. Timothy W. Dorsey, referring to the Phantom.

After taking on five tons of fuel, the Air Force plane began its final search for the Saratoga.

Dorsey's plane hung back, firmly planted on the Phantom's tail.

The Phantom had to scrap its primary mission to hunt down the fleet electronically when its gear malfunctioned. Instead, its backup mission - already approved by the Navy - was to alert the Saratoga of its presence when it drew within 10 miles, and then to fly within 1,000 feet of the carrier and read its hull number for a war game score. But while the Air Force had alerted the Navy that the Phantom might be in the neighborhood, the Navy had not told its pilots.

Capt. Michael W. Ross, piloting the Air Force plane, first spotted the Saratoga from 22 miles away.

Dorsey, speaking to his ship's combat controllers, took note of the Phantom: "Appears the Fox 4 may be inbound to mother."

The Phantom's radar warning receiver shrieked, telling Ross and his crewman, First Lt. Randy H. Sprouse, that they were being tailed. No effort was made to communicate between the planes.

"There's a Navy F-14 sitting on our left wing at about 8 o'clock," Sprouse told Ross.

"OK," Ross responded. "He's a good guy."

But Dorsey didn't feel that way about the Phantom.

"At 15 miles, the Phantom initiated a hard, nose-low left dive toward the carrier in what appeared to be an attack run," Dorsey said later.

"There he goes!" Dorsey yelled at Lt. Cmdr. Edmund D. Holland, his radar intercept officer in the F-14's back seat. About 4,000 feet behind the Phantom, Dorsey and Holland asked their ship what they should do.

"Red and free on your contact," the Saratoga radioed.

"Do they want me to shoot this guy?" Dorsey exclaimed.

"Yeah. Shoot!" Holland responded.

"Keep in mind," Dorsey said later of Holland, "he's thinking 'simulated' and 'exercise' the entire time."

But to Dorsey, the call "red and free" was real.

"I was taught and told that 'red and free' was an expression that would never be used unless it was a no-kidder, a real-world threat situation," he said. Although Dorsey had never heard it used before outside a simulator, Navy pilots interviewed by the Air Force said the phrase is used routinely during air combat exercises off the Saratoga.

Dorsey admitted he had forgotten that the Phantom had refueled from a National Guard tanker only minutes before. "That did not enter my mind when I heard 'red and free,' " he said.

Holland recalled later, "I heard a 'whish' sound from the right side of the aircraft, and I looked out and I said, 'What was that?' I saw the front end of an F-4, and the back end was in flames. I said, 'You shot him down!' and I was absolutely amazed."

The Phantom's crew was amazed, too.

"The airplane just starts shaking like you wouldn't believe," Ross said. Both he and Sprouse thought they had collided with the F-14.

"I've got fire lights - let's get out of here!" Ross shouted.

"I'm gone!" Sprouse said from the back seat as he pulled an ejection handle rigged to both seats.

Back on the F-14, Holland took to the airwaves. "Mayday! Mayday!" he shouted. "Got a kill on a Fox 4!" Within moments, the Navy brass was on the radio, demanding answers.

"I'm sorry," Holland recalled Dorsey saying as they circled the downed aviators and watched the burning wreckage sink. "I guess I kind of screwed this up."

Within 30 minutes, a rescue helicopter from the Saratoga plucked Ross and Sprouse from the water and took them to the carrier. Their injuries were relatively minor - primarily a badly bruised hand for Ross and a dislocated shoulder for Sprouse.

Dorsey, 25, was a "nugget" - the least experienced fighter pilot aboard the Saratoga, with only 245 hours in the F-14's cockpit and only three months aboard a carrier.

He later reflected on the day's events.

"If called upon to do so, I've been trained to react decisively and smartly," he said. "In this most unfortunate mishap, I believe that I indeed reacted decisively and, at the time, with the information I had received and interpreted, believed I was acting smartly.

"If flying tomorrow, I'd have a heck of a lot more things I'd do differently," he said.

But Dorsey won't get that chance. The Navy said April 7 that while he will be allowed to keep his pilot wings, he never again will be allowed to fly a Navy aircraft.

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