On the morning of Jan. 17, 1991 — the first night of Operation Desert Storm — the U.S. Navy suffered its first loss of the conflict, when Lt. Cmdr Scott Speicher was shot down in his McDonnell F/A-18C Hornet, bureau number 163484, around 100 miles west of Baghdad.
Operation Desert Storm, popularly known as the first Gulf War, was the successful U.S.-Allied response to Iraq’s attempt to overwhelm neighbouring Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm began at 0300hrs on the night of Jan. 17, 1991.
Around 2:30 in the morning Baghdad time on the morning of Jan. 17, three US Navy’s strike packages Two SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) groups and an “alpha strike” formations of U.S. Navy fighters entered Iraqi air space on a mission to attack Tammuz, a large Iraqi air force base housing squadrons operating MiG-25s, MiG-29s and various bomber types.
Crossing the Saudi border between 25,000 and 29,000ft, the “alpha strike” formation consisted of Ten F/A-18C Hornets from squadrons VFA-81 and VF-83, From USS Saratoga (CV-60), arrayed in a wide “wall” (actually a wide right echelon), with two to five miles between aircraft and each “stacked” 1,000ft above the one ahead to avoid mid-air collisions.
Their task was to sweep the skies ahead of bombers and suppress enemy air defences.
Behind the Hornets were eight A-6E Intruders from VA-35 and VA-75, tasked with bombing Tammuz. Three EA-6B Prowlers from VAQ-130 and two pairs of F-14As from VF-32 supported the Hornets and Intruders. Because they lacked the latest electronic identification capabilities, the Tomcats stayed behind the Hornets as close escorts for the slow bombers and support aircraft.
Flying at high altitude, the American formation wasn’t hard to detect.
Because the remaining Iraqi radars had greater range at higher altitudes, the large US Navy strike formation was detected before it had crossed the border, headed northbound. By this time (approximately 0330hrs), the only Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) fighters still airborne were a pair of MiG-29s attempting to intercept B-52s hitting Talha.
Once the Tammuz IOC determined that the largest group of attackers was apparently headed north towards Qadessiya AB (Al Asad), No. 96 Sqn was ordered to scramble a MiG-25PD to intercept the approaching “alpha strike.”
One of four MiG-25PDs from No. 96 Squadron, standing alert at Qadessiya air base — known as Al Assad in the West — scrambled to intercept.
Taking the call was Lt Zuhair Dawoud, one of four “Foxbat” pilots “on standby alert in the main aircraft shelter” at Qadessiya.
Dawoud later recounted, “At 0238hrs [“Baghdad time”/0338hrs “Riyadh time”] the Air Defense telephone rang and I answered. There was a guy screaming at the other end of the line `MiG-25 IMMEDIATE TAKEOFF!’
So I hurried to the aircraft. In fact, the technicians were ready for this moment, as was the jet, so the takeoff was exceptionally fast — I was airborne just three minutes after I had received the call. After takeoff I switched to safe [secure] frequency and established contact with GCI of the Air Defence Sector. The sky was clear, with very good visibility. The GCI started to give me directions to a group of aircraft that had penetrated Iraqi air space to the south of the base.”
With Lt. Zuhair Dawoud at the controls, the big fighter turned south, climbing in full afterburner and accelerating to Mach 1.4. The Iraqi Foxbat flew almost directly toward the center of VFA-83’s phalanx. Unsurprisingly, squadron commander Cmdr. Michael Anderson detected the MiG-25 almost as soon as it took off.
About 70 miles south of Qadessiya, at 25,000ft, Anderson, flying aircraft “AA401,” saw the MiG-25 on his radar. “I got an immediate, radar contact on an airborne target climbing out of an airfield [ahead us],” Anderson subsequently recalled.
“I immediately knew it was an enemy airplane because we have some [EID] technology on board the F/A-18. I could see the afterburner flame, and it was an extremely long yellow flame that I had seen before on a MiG-25. There is no question about what you have when you see that. As soon as I took a radar lock on him, he turned right, and at that point he started to go around me in a counter-clockwise direction. I did a couple of circles with him.”
Dawoud confirmed the initial intercept and maneuvering geometry, stating, “My radar was still warming and I was 90km [48.6 miles] from the target formation when an enemy aircraft locked [onto] me with radar. So I performed a hard maneuver and the lock broke.”
Despite his positive EID and visual identification (VID), Anderson held his fire while awaiting a confirmation from AWACS (callsign “Cougar”).
However, the quick-reacting, fast-climbing “Foxbat” had just appeared at the far edge of the Sentry’s radar scopes and. without an electronic signature (Dawoud’s radar was not transmitting) to correlate with the radar contact, “Cougar” could not confirm the target was hostile.
The Hornet and “Foxbat” both turned towards each other, making a complete circle in the darkness —afterburners burning brightly — until passing each other “180-out,” then Dawoud rolled out and came out of afterburner, causing Anderson to lose sight of him, and “bugged out” headed almost directly east, roaring over Anderson’s wingman, flying “AA406.”
Flying “tail-end Charlie” in the long, wide echelon was Lt Cdr Scott “Spike” Speicher in “AA403” (BuNo 163484). Approaching his launch point at 364 knots and 28,160ft, he disengaged the autopilot at 03:49:43hrs, selected “burner” and “bunted” over slightly to accelerate for his first HARM launch — recovery of “AA403’s” digital storage unit during the 1995 examination of the crash site provided a detailed account of the jet’s flight parameters. In 17 seconds Speicher accelerated to 540 knots and descended to 27,872ft.
Dawoud reported what happened to his ground control. In response, the ground controllers advised him to turn around toward the east and attack another target around 20 miles away.
Dawoud continued his story. “I reported what happened to the GCI and he told me to return to my original intercept course as I had ‘targets at 38km [20.5 miles]. ‘ Meanwhile, my radar became ready.
I locked a target 38km [20.5 miles] from me and at 29km [15.6 miles] I fired [the] R-40RD missile from under my right wing. I kept the target locked with my radar [un]till I witnessed a huge explosion in front of me. I kept looking for the aircraft going down spirally to the ground with fire engulfing it.’
At 0350hrs an AWACS controller saw two contacts “merge.” The R-40RD detonated, from the left side, beneath the Hornet’s cockpit. The explosion of the 154lb high-explosive (HE) blast-fragmentation warhead instantly slewed the aircraft 50-60 degrees right, causing 6G side-forces that sheared off the external fuel tanks and their pylons, as well as one HARM. Speicher ejected but died later. ‘AA403″ crashed 48 miles due south of Qadessiya.
Dawoud searched for another target, as ground control advised him of an approaching second wave of American planes. Around 48 miles behind Speicher, Cmdr. Robert Besal — the skipper of VA-75 — led a string of three other Intruders.
This time, the Sentry detected the Foxbat in time and, around two minutes after Speicher went down, issued a warning about a “possible Foxbat … heading south.” Before too long, the MiG-25 came down toward Besal’s Intruder from his 1:30 high position, the Iraqi plane’s two large afterburner flames clearly visible in the night sky.
Besal’s pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Steinmetz, turned hard right, forcing the Iraqi to overshoot and pass to the left of the bomb-laden Intruder — and then zoom upward.
Pitching over the Americans, Dawoud turned back toward the Intruder, screaming down from the Navy bomber’s six o’clock. He locked his radar again and activated an R-40TD head-seeking missile. However, ground control turned down his request to fire. Instead, the controller asked him to confirm the target visually.
Approaching close enough to see the lights inside the cockpit of Steinmetz and Besal’s A-6E, Dawoud repeated the identification of his slow target and again requested permission to fire. Still uncertain, the ground controller ordered him to disengage and return to base.
As he flew back to base, Dawoud expected the Americans to counterattack at any moment. He kept his eyes glued to the display of his SPO radar-warning system.
Dawoud returned to find Qadessiya air base a big mess. Three Royal Air Force Tornados bombers had strewn hundreds of mines from their JP233 containers across the runway. These damaged one of the MiG-25s that attempted to scramble after Dawoud and badly injured its pilot. Because of this, Dawoud was forced to land on the secondary runway before rolling back into the safety of his hardened aircraft shelter.
At dawn, pilots from No. 96 Squadron gathered to discuss the events of the last night over cups of tea. Dawoud’s squadron leader correctly concluded that the U.S. pilot — or crew — was unlikely to have survived because of the R-40’s hefty warhead.
Michael Scott Speicher (12 July 1957 – January 17, 1991) was a United States Navy pilot who was shot down over Iraq during the Persian Gulf War becoming the first American combat casualty of the war. His fate was not known until 2 August 2009 when the Navy reported that Speicher’s remains were found in Iraq by United States Marines.
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