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Why F-14 Tomcats Crossed the ‘Line of Death’ and Battled MiG-25s

F-14 Tomcat
Right rear overhead view of an F-14AB Tomcat aircraft of Fighter Squadron 143 (VF-143), the Pukin' Dogs, in flight over desert terrain.

Back in 1986, about a year after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, the U.S. had a skirmish over Libya, whose dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was involved in that hijacking, as well as airport attacks a few months later.

The Aviation Geek Club, back in 2019, looked back at an air skirmish between U.S. F-14s and Libyan MiG-25s, over the Gulf of Sidra.

F-14s vs. MiG-24s

The incident occurred in 1986. That year, the U.S. Navy began “Freedom of Navigation” operations near Libya, carrying them out in January and February without any incident. For the third operation, in March, three aircraft carriers came to the region, with replenishment ships nearby.

The site quoted a book called Libyan Air Wars Part II: 1985-1986, in which David “Hey Joe” Parsons remembered the specifics of that operation. It was called Operation Attain Document III, which began on March 23, 1980, the site said.

“The Libyans got quite shy after we got three carriers on line in the Gulf of Sidra. But, our CO was VERY aggressive and we pressed the ROE to the limit. He even had the Libyan control tower frequency in one of his radios and taunted the Libyans at Benghazi to come out and play,” Parsons said in the book.

The Gaddafi regime responded by dispersing most of its Mirages, MiG-21s and MiG-23s to the central part of the country, which the site speculates was in order to avoid U.S. attacks on Libyan bases.

Gaddafi had claimed Libyan sovereignty over the Gulf of Sidra, proclaiming a “Line of Death” that foreign nations could not cross. But in the 1986 skirmish, the U.S. crossed Gaddafi’s “Line of Death” on multiple occasions, which led to no reactions from the Libyan regime. Robin Williams would joke about the Libyan dictator and his “Line of Death” in a famous stand-up special in 1986.

In the next phase, the “Line of Death” was crossed by F-14 Tomcats, in support of the surface-to-air group. In the subsequent confrontation with the Libyan MiGs, according to the site, “the two Tomcats dragged the MiGs into a descent to about 5,000ft, where they enjoyed a huge advantage in maneuverability, and then took a position at their opponents’ ‘six o’clock’- directly behind two Libyans.”

At that point, the pilots asked for permission to fire, and while they waited for an answer, the MiGs “switched on their afterburners, made a sharp turn to the left and disappeared in a southern direction.” The answer came back, but it was too late. There is footage of the incident.

Five years earlier, in 1981, the U.S. had shot down two Libyan jets, in what’s known as the Gulf of Sidra incident. Soon after, the U.S. launched sanctions on Libya.

The U.S. and Libya would tangle one more time in 2011 and 2012. When that year’s Arab Spring kicked off a Civil War, leading NATO to intervene on the side of the anti-Gaddafi rebels. They would capture and kill the longtime dictator in October of that year. In September of 2012, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three contractors were killed in Benghazi.

This year, Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, a son of Muammar Gaddafi, announced his intention to run for president of Libya.

 Stephen Silver 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.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to 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.

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