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Tomcats Over the Desert: Naval Aviation Through the Decades

100 Years of Planes, Progress, and Personal Narratives: Part 12

When Operation Desert Storm began, the F-14 Tomcat was the only in-service fighter in the U.S. inventory to have scored an air-to-air kill in U.S. service.

Desert Storm didn’t exactly mimic the Hollywood film Top Gun: The F-14 scored only a single aerial victory when Lt. Stuart Broce of squadron VF-1 “Wolfpack” aboard the USS Ranger (CV 61) and his back-seater and squadron commander, Cmdr. Ron McElraft, downed a Mil Mi-8 “Hip” helicopter on Feb. 6, 1991, using an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. Their success balanced the loss of another F-14, this time an A (Plus), which was downed by an SA-2 derivative surface to air missle on Jan. 21. Helicopters rescued pilot Lt. Devon Jones, while back-seater Lt. Lawrence Slade became a prisoner of war and ultimately survived.

Lt. Cmdr. Dave “Hey Joe” Parsons was a Tomcat RIO with the “Swordsmen” of VF-32. He described his experience with the Tomcat at war: “After the ground war began, we were tasked to go to Al Qaim, a super phosphate plant up in the extreme northwest corner. It was the most heavily defended target outside Baghdad. They had four SA-3 [surface-to-air missile] batteries and two SA-2s, plus all the AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] and low-altitude SAMs. That’s where they shot down an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle. We didn’t feel good about going there, either. If they could bag the F-15E, they could easily get us.

A-6E of VA-75 and A-7Es of VA-46 during Desert Storm 1991

An A-6E Intruder from VA-75 and A-7E Corsair IIs from VA-46 fly in formation as they prepare for refueling during Operation Desert Storm. The Corsairs are armed with cluster bombs. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Rose Reynolds

“Al Qaim – we called it ‘the Al’ or ‘Big Al’s Place’ – reminded me of the Thanh Hoa Bridge in Vietnam. Everyone tried to get it. Nobody could. We sent B-52s up there and they couldn’t get it. The B-52s had problems because they bombed from such a high altitude. We had a jet stream with the winds changing considerably down on the deck and making bomb-impact prediction difficult.

“Our job was to go up there and protect the Alpha Strike that was going in to get ‘the Al.’ Before the mission, I must have talked to the Prowler crew for two hours, saying, ‘Which angle do we want to go in, which sites do you think are active, is this the right angle?’ They were confident. ‘Yeah, we’ll be able to protect you.’

“The Al Qaim mission was a ‘super-real’ moment for me. I checked out my 9 mm pistol and loaded it. Normally, I didn’t chamber a round, but I did this time, and put the safety on. Normally, my pilot – callsign Dog – and I talked a lot during a hop, but on our way to Al Qaim, we didn’t say a word to each other for 45 minutes.

“Finally, I called him. ‘Do you feel like talking?’

“He said, ‘No.’ I knew he was really serious. When we came up to our tanker, I looked up, and written on the KC-135’s belly in big, orange letters, was ‘KICK ASSS!’ I started laughing.

“‘Hey, Dog.’


“‘Just look up at the belly of the tanker.’

A-7E Corsair mission marks

A close-up view of the markings on the side of a VA-72 A-7E Corsair aircraft parked on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67). The markings include camel symbols representing the number of combat missions flown by the aircraft’s pilot during Operation Desert Storm and the number of general-purpose bombs, cluster bombs, anti-radiation missiles and television-guided bombs dropped or fired during those missions. DoD photo by PH3 Paul A. Hawthorne

“Shortly after, the airplane started shaking, and I knew he was laughing and having a hard time holding the stick steady.”

“‘Big Al’s Place’ was important because it produced uranium for the Iraqis’ nuclear bomb project. One of the by-products of phosphate is a really rough yellowcake. We had fired SLAMs [standoff land-attack missiles] at the facility, but, although we knew the SLAMs had hit it, the picture stops as soon as the missile hits, so we didn’t know how badly we had damaged the building.

“It was a huge place and we tried to destroy it. Some crews had gone up there the preceding day but turned back because of the intense SAM activity. No one faulted them; it was just a hornet’s nest with all the sites up. You could go in and get bracketed. As you tried to avoid one site, another would get you.

“We decided to come in at high altitude and come screaming down to 10,000 ft at Mach 1.2. I remember seeing the blue settlement ponds far away. It all seemed so serene. There was some gunfire but not the heavy flak you see in movies from Germany in World War II.

“As we closed on Big Al, I kept saying to Dog ‘Faster! Faster!’ I knew the airplane was going as fast as it could, but I couldn’t help it.

“We had an A-7 off our wing with four HARMs, plus an EA-6B. We knew the A-7 would preemptively fire one HARM, but anything after that meant that more SAM sites were up. Our callsign for a HARM shoot was ‘Downtown,’ after Col. Jack Broughton’s book on going downtown to Hanoi during Vietnam.

“We heard, ‘Downtown!’ Then, ‘Downtown, downtown … !’ There was no delay. That really got our hearts beating fast. There were three SAM sites up. We had an Expanded Chaff Adapter (ECA) on the airplane with 120 rounds of chaff. I yelled at Dog, ‘Chaff, chaff, chaff!’ We were continuously pumping chaff out. I watched the gauge to make sure the chaff was firing.”

Although Tomcats flew 4,124 sorties in the 1991 Gulf War and went into battle carrying the magnificent AWG-9 weapons system and far-reaching AGM-54 Phoenix missile, they did not get into the dogfights most crews wanted. “Naturally, the Navy fighter crews wanted a piece of the diminishing air-to-air action,” said RIO Parsons. Some F-14s were serving in the fleet without certain capabilities because the technology was not sufficiently advanced. Neither the F-14 nor F/A-18 Hornet yet had the electronic systems needed to completely and independently verify the identity of other aircraft as required by the rules of engagement. Navy fighters flew hundreds of miles inland from their ships and faced incredibly formidable defenses – but there were no MiG kills. Only Air Force F-15C Eagles had the capability to independently identify unknown aircraft; they were credited with shooting down 33 of 38 Iraqi aircraft during Desert Storm. However, few of the 33 F-15 “kills” were made beyond visual range using this capability.

There was another factor, too. Said Parsons: “It was obvious that the Iraqis definitely didn’t want to fight and were running from us, or we were shooting them out of the sky. They wouldn’t go anywhere near an AWG-9 of the F-14. That’s a big part of the reason why the F-14s didn’t get any kills.”

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...