By Lt. Graham C. Scarbro, USN.
As U.S. combat aircraft went into harm’s way during March’s Operation Odyssey Dawn in support of U.N. Resolution 1973, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps again locked horns with longtime Libyan strongman, Moammar Gadhafi. The more than two-centuries-old relationship between the United States and Libya has long been punctuated by moments of unfortunate conflict. In the opening years of the 19th century, the young U.S. Navy battled the Barbary state of Tripoli to stop the holding of American ships and seamen for ransom. In the 1980s, several incidents in the air and at sea involved renewed efforts by the United States to assert the freedom of navigation and punish Libya for its support of terrorism. One of those incidents marks its 30th anniversary this year.
In August 1981, two American aircraft carriers, USS Forrestal (CV 59) and USS Nimitz (CV 68), patrolled the Gulf of Sidra—claimed in its entirety by Gadhafi. Proclaiming that moving into the gulf would constitute crossing a “line of death,” the Libyan dictator began a dangerous game with America’s new president, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan ordered Forrestal and Nimitz to enforce the American doctrine of freedom of navigation. The “line of death” was far in excess of the traditional territorial waters recognized by international law. On 19 August 1981, that belief would be put to the test when two Nimitz F-14A Tomcats from the VF-41 Black Aces intercepted two Libyan Su-22 Fitters. The U.S. aircraft, “Fast Eagle 102” and “Fast Eagle 107,” were fired on by the Libyans, turning what had been a game of cat and mouse into a deadly encounter.
The aviators on that fateful day were the squadron’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Hank Kleeman, and his radar intercept officer, Lt. David Venlet, in Fast Eagle 102, and Lt. Lawrence Muczynski and Lt. j.g. James Anderson in Fast Eagle 107.
Kleeman and Venlet fired first, successfully splashing their target. The junior aviators in 107 radioed their skipper, asking for permission to fire. “That’s affirm[ative],” came the reply. Muczynski’s next words were “Fox 2,” as a Sidewinder missile streaked toward the second bandit. “Did you get him?” the skipper calmly queried his wingman. “Yes, sir, I did,” Muczynski responded.1
Kleeman informed Nimitz’s radar controllers that they had scored “two enemy kills.” It was the Navy’s first air-to-air engagement since the Vietnam War and the first air-to-air victory for the F-14 Tomcat.
A few months after the incident, Kleeman reflected on what he and his fellow aviators had accomplished. “People are very ready to call somebody a hero,” he said. “What we did was the mission of the airplane. Its only mission is to shoot down other airplanes.”2
Twenty-four years after the F-14’s first dogfight, the historic moment was enshrined at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif. When the F-14 was retired from active service, one was donated to the library and repainted as Fast Eagle 102, complete with a Su-22 silhouette and the names of Kleeman (who, sadly, was killed in a flight mishap in 1985) and Venlet (now a vice admiral and program executive officer for the F-35 program) on the canopy. The original paint job was later complemented by the addition of the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder, and AIM-54 Phoenix missiles to the aircraft.
2011 is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Ronald Reagan as well as of Naval Aviation. In preparation for these multiple milestones, the aircraft received a fresh coat of paint in fall 2010. Led by the squadron’s corrosion control specialist, AM2 Daniel Price, a team of Sailors from VFA-41 worked long hours stripping, sanding, and repainting the F-14 with a new, durable coat of paint to help it weather the elements. The team also included AM2 Rachael Verwys and AMAN Keith Griego.
Lt. Scarbro is an instructor weapon systems officer with VFA-122 and is a former weapons tactics officer with VFA-41.
1 Mike Sasser, “Clash With Kadaffi,” http://home.flash.net/~treadwaj/HardCharger/Clash.htm.
2 Chicago Tribune, 1 Mar. 1982, p. 18.