Aviation Geek Club recently wrote about a rare occurrence: The day USAF RF-4C Phantom II was shot down by a US Navy F-14 Tomcat, in a training exercise. And not only that but there’s a video of it, from a Head-Up Display.
The incident took place on Sep. 22, 1987 during NATO Exercise Display Determination 87, over the Mediterranean Sea. The pilots were USAF Phantom pilot Captain Michael Ross and his Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) 1st Lt. Randy Sprouse.
The Geek Club story looked at what happened that very unfortunate day. The Air Force pilots were searching for an “enemy” fleet, during the exercise, which was played by the US carrier USS Saratoga (CV-60.)
“The Saratoga’s radar picked up a contact that was a neutral KC-135 airborne tanker and directed its F-14 Tomcat fighter jets towards it. The Tomcats arrived as Capt. Ross’s Phantom was refueling at the same tanker. Sprouse looked back and saw the pair of F-14s following them and thought nothing of it. The Tomcats at first mistook the unmarked Phantom for a friendly, but when the Phantom refueled and departed, they followed,” the report said.
When the Phantom turned on its scanners, they malfunctioned. Then, a confusion in orders led to the errant shot.
“Because this was supposed to be a training mission, both Command and Lt. Commander Holland meant for Lt. Dorsey to ‘fire’ a simulated missile, meaning he lock up the target with the AIM-9 Sidewinder‘s infrared tracker. When he got the tone the infrared was tracking, that would be a kill. However, Lt. Dorsey fired a live Sidewinder missile and shot down the Phantom,” the Aviation Geek Club report said.
The pilots managed to eject, but the jet was lost in the Mediterranean. Captain Ross was made to undergo “numerous surgeries,” while the other pilot suffered a dislocated shoulder.
According to the Associated Press, a Navy report was issued the following year noting a ″basic error in judgment″ and ″an illogical act″ on the part of the young pilot.
″The September 22, 1987, destruction of USAF RF-4C … was not the result of an accident, but the consequence of a deliberate act,″ the investigator wrote. ″His (Dorsey’s) subsequent reaction (to the radio command) demonstrated an absolute disregard of the known facts and circumstances… He failed to utilize the decision-making process taught in replacement training and reacted in a purely mechanical manner. The performance of Lieutenant Timothy W. Dorsey on September 22, 1987, raises substantial doubt as to his capacity for good, sound judgment.”
Dorsey, though he never flew again, was allowed to remain in the Navy and also keep his pilot wings.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.