On September 22nd, 1987, a USAF RF-4C Phantom “Orange Team” launched from Aviano Air Base in Italy on a beautiful sunny afternoon for a training exercise with the US Navy.
The mission for the day was to locate the USS Saratoga’s “Blue Team” battle group, and perform a pass close enough to read the hull numbers to register as a kill.
A short time later, two F-14 Tomcats were catapulted off the Saratoga, and were vectored by the ships combat controllers to the location of a radar contact they were currently tracking. The contact was an Illinois Air National Guard KC-135 tanker that was in the process of tanking the lone USAF RF-4C Phantom.
Lt. Timothy Dorsey, one of the youngest, and least experienced pilots aboard the Saratoga, flying his F-14A-70-GR Tomcat, BuNo 162707, of VF-74 closed in on the contact, and identified the aircraft ”I did not get close enough to see any discernible markings on the aircraft, but at that time assumed him to be friendly,’’
Meanwhile in the USAF Phantom, WSO 1st Lt. Randy Sprouse said to his pilot Capt. Michael Ross ”Hey Mike, two F-14s that just joined up on our tanker,’’
After taking on 5 tones of fuel, the Phantom broke off and continued its hunt for the Saratoga. Unknown to them, Dorsey turned his F-14 to follow.
The Air Force had advised the Navy to be expecting the Phantom’s presence, but the Navy, most unfortunately, did not pass that information on to its pilots.
At this point the Phantom was closing in on the Saratoga. Capt. Michael Ross spotted the ship at 22 miles out, and initiated a descent.
Dorsey, still trailing in his F-14, radioed the ship ”Appears the Fox 4 may be inbound to mother,’’
On board the Phantom, the radar warning receiver came alive, alerting Capt Ross and his WSO that they were being tailed by the Tomcat. Sprouse spotted the aircraft and advised Ross ”There`s a Navy F-14 sitting on our left wing at about 8 o`clock,’’ ”Okay,” Ross responded. ”He`s a good guy.’’
Now 15 miles out, Capt Ross initiated his simulated attack on the Saratoga with a left roll, pushing its nose down, and diving for the ship.
4000 feet behind them, Dorsey yelled at Lt. Cmdr. Edmund Holland, his radar intercept officer (RIO) ”There he goes!’’ and requested instructions from the ship.
The response was ”Red and free on your contact,”
”Jesus!” Dorsey exclaimed. ”Do they want me to shoot this guy?”
”Yes-shoot!” Holland responded, not realizing his pilot had interpreted the commonly used war exercise phrase as a real world clearance to fire, and for Dorsey, the line between simulated and real world had suddenly become frighteningly blurred.
Dorsey then did the unthinkable ”Seeing the Phantom close in on the carrier, I armed up and squeezed the trigger.”
The first missile failed to fire, Dorsey quickly armed and fired a second Sidewinder at the diving Phantom.
Holland sitting in back was horrified when ”I heard a `whoosh` sound from the right side of the aircraft, and I looked out and I said, `What was that?` ‘’ then recounts ”I saw the front end of an F-4 and the back end was in flames-I said, `You shot him down!!
The crew of the Air Force jet were equally surprised when their aircraft became engulfed by a huge flash, followed by their aircraft commencing to shake itself apart. ”I`ve got fire lights-let`s get out of here!” Ross shouted.
”I`m gone!” Sprouse called as he pulled the yellow and black ejection handle, and the explosive seats launched them away from their stricken aircraft.
”Mayday! Mayday!” ”Got a kill on a Fox 4!’’ Holland called from the backseat of the Tomcat.
As the two air force crew silently descended on their parachutes, and the flaming wreckage of their aircraft slipped beneath the ocean surface, Dorsey and Holland circled above in their Tomcat.
Dorsey said “I’m sorry’ I guess I kind of screwed this up” 30 minutes later, the two crew of the air force Phantom were plucked from the ocean and brought to the very carrier that was their simulated target only a short time before
Capt. David Frost, commander of the Saratoga was in the uncomfortable position of having to advise his unwitting air force guests as to the reason for their unexpected afternoon swim…
”We shot you down,’’ Capt Frost said.
”We really shot you down and we`re really sorry.”.
”You`re kidding, right?” Sprouse asked.
”No, we shot you down,”
”Now, seriously-you`re kidding-right?” Sprouse asked again.
”In this case, I wish I was,” Frost said.
”Geez, guys, I thought we were on the same side,” Sprouse said.
”Well, normally we are,” Frost said. ”Today it didn`t work out like that.”
While on board the two were treated to a solid meal, and although the mission did not go exactly as planned, it was not a total loss…the Air Force crew were sent off with a couple of Saratoga’s gift mugs, and bumperstickers..
Unfortunately for Capt. Michael Ross, being forced to eject from his Air Force Phantom at over 600 miles per hour caused multiple spinal injuries that over years required many surgeries, and lives with pain to this day.
An investigation found that Lt. Dorsey was responsible for his lapse in judgment and his novice experience. Though he never flew again, he was allowed to keep his pilot wings and stayed in the Navy, advancing to the rank of Captain and submitted an application to be advanced to rear admiral, but was rejected.