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Altman: Centcom deputy commander recalls MiG shootdown

The last American pilot shot down by an enemy aircraft was Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, a Florida State University graduate who was shot down by an Iraqi MiG on Jan. 17, 1991. He was later promoted to captain, but his body wasn’t found until 2009.

There have been other fixed and rotary wing aircraft taken down since then by anti-aircraft fire, surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, but for the most part the U.S. has owned the skies for a long time. In the future though, pilots may have to contend with very robust aerial adversaries; Chinese J-20 Chengdu fighters perhaps, or Russian MiG-35s.

There are nearly 1.4 million active duty service members. But there is only one who knows first-hand what it is like to shoot down an enemy aircraft, and he works at MacDill Air Force Base.

“It was the first day of the war,” says Vice Adm. Mark Fox, referring to Jan. 17, 1991, the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

Now deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, Fox at the time was a lieutenant commander and pilot of an F-18 Hornet.

He and Speicher were in the same squadron aboard the U.S.S. Saratoga.

“We were peers,” Fox, 58, recalls, sitting on a couch in his Centcom office. “We were both department heads together. Our wives knew each other. Our children went to the same pre-k. We lost Spike on the original strike.”

Fox was part of a mission to strike an Iraqi airfield in the western part of the country.

He wasn’t part of the original plan, but another pilot was having problems with his airplane, so he was called in.

“There was a pretty high pucker factor,” says Fox. “The Iraqi airforce under Saddam had sophisticated, fourth-generation airplanes and a lot of surface-to-air missiles. This particular site had six SA-6 sites, SA-2s, SA-3. It was really well-defended.”

Fox was flying toward the target at about 600 miles an hour, tuning out most of the radio chatter, until he heard “400, that bandit’s on your nose at 15.”

Suddenly, says Fox, “it was very obvious who he was talking about, so I went into a quick lock mode and got an immediate lock on a MiG-21, nose onto me at 10 miles.”

The Iraqi pilot was heading straight for him at about 800 miles an hour.

“We were closing on each other very fast,” he says.

There were only seconds to react, says Fox, but years of training kicked in.

The Hornet carried two types of air-to-air missiles, says Fox. Sidewinders, which are short-range, heat-seeking, and Sparrows, which are longer-range and radar-guided.

“Inside of 10 miles, you always select Sidewinder,” he says. “Now, if I had been completely sane and rational at the time, after having gotten the lock...I would have gone to the Sparrow and taken a nine-mile Sparrow shot on him.”

The two jets screamed toward each other through Iraqi skies.

“I got a good tone on him,” says Fox. “And he is very fast. He is on afterburner, so I took a Sidewinder shot against this guy.”

In practice, Fox fired Sidewinders that gave off a tell-tale plume of smoke, allowing him to follow the missile’s flight. But these missiles were brand new smokeless models.

“The missile came off and whoosh,” says Fox, fanning out his fingers to simulate a missile in flight.

But it seemed to have “just disappeared,” he says. “There was no smoke trail.”

With the Iraqi still closing even faster now, Fox wondered if he missed.

“I’m going, ‘it’s the first day of hunting season, I may have gotten a little buck fever,” he says, using a slang term for a hunter who has the jitters. “So I’m thinking, “this is probably a dirt-seeker,” he says, dropping more slang, this time for an errant missile shot.

Instead of waiting for the Iraqi to take him out, Fox hit the switch on his throttle for the Sparrow.

“The Sparrow is like the Saturn V in comparison to the Sidewinder,” says Fox. “The Sparrow is a 500-pound missile, with a much bigger warhead and a much slower acceleration.”

Despite how fast everything was moving, time slowed down, says Fox.

“You felt like you could look down and feel like you could see the serial number on the missile,” he says. “Whoosh and it’s burning. You can see the smoke trail, so as I’m squeezing the trigger on the Sparrow, the Sidewinder hits this guy and, so now he is on fire.”

The result, he says, is not like the movies.

“You see ‘Top Gun’ or something and the missile hits and it just, pooooh, disintegrates,” he says. “This guy is supersonic. The missile comes off the rail and it finally gets about two-and-a-half Mach over launch speed. The missile and the MiG are closing at about Mach 5 or so and there is this little thing called the target detecting device - TDD - that senses the airplane and it says ‘warhead blow up.’ and so it did it’s job.”

The MiG had damage on its rear end, says Fox.

“The Sidewinder was a valid shot but having self-doubt, I followed up before the Sidewinder even hit with the Sparrow shot,” he says. “He had a Sidewinder hit him, then a Sparrow hit him too and he’s really on fire now. His fuselage was on fire from mid fuselage aft, and he went right underneath me, less than a 1,000-foot pass, so I rocked up on my wing, take a peak at him. His canopy was still on the jet.”

The whole event took about 40 seconds, says Fox.

“It takes a lot longer to tell the story,” he says.

The Iraqi no longer a threat, Fox continued his mission.

So too did his wing man, Nick “Mongo” Mongillo, who also took out a MiG.

But they were not out of harm’s way just yet.

Fox was moving a little slower than the others. Because he was a late addition to the four-plane flight, he didn’t have the jamming pod attached underneath that helped avoid surface-to-air missiles.

“They ran out of the pods, so they just stuck another 2,000-pound bomb on my jet,” he says. “I was having to use a little more throttle to stay up with these guys because they were in slightly lighter and less draggy jets. I’m feeling fairly, well, I don’t want to be the last guy crossing the street.”

About 30 miles from the target, Fox and the other pilots locked onto another set of Iraqi fighters, this time moving very slowly.

Deciding that these jets were no threat, Fox opted to pass them by and continue to the target.

“I broke lock on him, I rolled in and put my bombs on this hangar,” says Fox. “If I had a 100 years to do a better dive bombing run I couldn’t to it. It was one of those days where I was just in the zone.”

After all he had been through, Fox says he wanted to see his four bombs hit the target. So he started a series of maneuvers, called “jinking” that would give him a glimpse without being a sitting duck.

“I can see smoke and dust and flash all over the place,” he says.

And something else.

The tell-tale sight of SA-7 missiles heading for him.

It was time to leave.

On the 2.5 hour flight back to the carrier, Fox says he wondered whether he took out a MiG, the highest honor for a fighter pilot.

“It was kind of the little devil and the little angel,” he says. “The little devil’s going, ‘you got a MiG kill’ and the little angel’s going, ‘if you think that, you’re gonna bolter — you’re gonna miss the wire when you come back for a landing.’” That, says Fox, would be something he’d never live down.

“In spite of the fact that a MiG kill is a very cool thing to do, if you bolter, when you get back to the ship you are going to take merciless grief from your buddies. So I am happy to say I got aboard the first pass.”

Fox didn’t have much time to savor his victory. A few hours later, he was back in his Hornet, making another run over enemy territory.”

Afterward, Fox and Mongillo each received a Silver Star, the third-highest military honor. And 12 years later, Fox would be back over the skies of Iraq, this time leading the first coalition bombing run of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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The Pentagon announced the deaths of two soldiers last week in Afghanistan.

Sgt. Shawn M. Farrell II, 24, of Accord, New York, died April 28, in Nejrab District, Kapisa province, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light), Fort Drum, New York.

Pfc. Christian J. Chandler, 20, of Trenton, Texas, died April 28 in Baraki Barak District, Logar province, Afghanistan, when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light), Fort Drum, New York.

There have now been 2,306 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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