Two U.S. Jets Were Out On A Routine Mission When Suddenly A Missile Came Out Of Nowhere

It’s August 19, 1981, and two F-14 Tomcats – top-of-the-line U.S. jet fighters – are patrolling the skies over the Gulf of Sidra off Libya. Ahead of them are two Libyan SU-22 Fitters. The Tomcats move toward them. But suddenly one of the Fitters has let loose an Atoll missile, and a routine interception has turned hot.

The F-14s have nothing else in mind but to warn off the Fitters. That’s the mission for today: let the Libyans know that they’re approaching a zone where they’ll face fire if they don’t back off. But in a flash, an air-to-air missile is shooting toward the lead American plane, and the Top Guns of the U.S. Navy are in a real fight-or-flight situation.

Both the Tomcats and Fitters are what’s known as swing-wing fighters. And these types of airplane have never been engaged in combat with each other – prior to today. Plus the Tomcat has never even found itself in a dogfight before. But the squadron leader’s first problem is that there’s an Atoll missile barreling toward him, and this fight might be over before it’s even begun…

The Tomcats were in the Gulf of Sidra on a freedom of navigation exercise. This is a military operation in which U.S. ships and planes demonstrate their rights to move around under international law. They do this by protesting claims to international waters – made by other countries – that are considered excessive. How much “excessive” is depends on the waters in question.

The United States was showing the Libyans that, in this case, it would defend the right to sail in the Mediterranean. So it sent a task force that included the supercarriers U.S.S. Nimitz and U.S.S. Forrestal into the area. Each of the carriers was home to dozens of airplanes and helicopters, among them the F-14s.