Super Hornet Pilots Recall Downing of Syrian Aircraft
On June 18 in the eastern Mediterranean, Lt. Cmdr. Mike “Mob” Tremel, of the “Golden Warriors” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87, was about four months into his deployment on USS George Bush (CVN 77).
That day, while flying with three other fighter jets southwest of the Syrian city of Raqqa, he would shoot down a Syrian Air Force Su-22 Fitter attack jet that was attacking partner forces.
Tremel and the rest of the air wing were supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S. partner in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, as they fought to retake Raqqa, which had served as the Islamic State’s de facto capital for more than three years.
Conducting these missions was different from previous campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, where coalition forces had flown more or less alone in the airspace. In Syria, the airspace was crowded with aircraft from all over, including Iraq, Russia and Turkey.
“The difference here was that not all the aircraft that were airborne were friendlies,” explained Tremel’s wingman, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff “JoJo” Krueger. “They weren’t necessarily enemies, but we certainly were not on the same side. So you didn’t know what they would do.”
Earlier on the 18th, Tremel and Krueger launched their Super Hornets from Bush, which was operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Their jets carried air-to-air missiles for their own defense and that of ground units.
Over Syria, Tremel and Kruger had joined two other pilots when the Joint Terminal Attack Coordinator (JTAC) advised the four aircraft that pro-regime forces were firing upon the SDF near the town of Ja’Din.
“The advance [of pro-regime forces] into that area was very new,” Krueger said. “It had been just a couple days prior that things started heating up with them. They had always been in their own part of the world and us in our own.”
Approaching Raqqa, the JTAC continued to update the pilots on the situation below. In the area around Raqqa, they joined U.S. Air Force assets and encountered a Russian jet, a Su-35. The aircraft was supporting the pro-regime forces, which also were fighting the Islamic State.
Russian forces have backed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2015. Despite sometimes supporting opposing forces, Russian and U.S. pilots have assumed a respectful but vigilant attitude toward one another.
Tremel’s electro-optical sensor unit was performing a diagnostic, temporarily hindering his ability to track ground forces and provide the close air support. He volunteered to track the Russian jet.
“I’ll just extend out in air-to-air master mode, while [the other fighter pilots] are using air-to-ground master mode to monitor the situation on the ground,” Tremel explained in September, during a panel discussion at the 2017 Tailhook convention in Reno, Nevada.
“And that’s when I picked up another inbound aircraft from the south,” he said.
The Syrian Jet
The aircraft was many miles away, but northbound and approaching. A Boeing E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control aircraft used its more advanced radar to identify the inbound aircraft as a Syrian, Soviet-era Su-22 Fitter.
Tremel descended to execute a visual identification. He offset his jet’s position and maneuvered to join up with the Syrian jet, about half a mile away. As the Syrian jet proceeded north toward the SDF, Krueger coordinated with the JTAC to keep Tremel updated on how close the aircraft was to the SDF’s position.
“Within 10 nautical miles of there [overhead the SDF’s position], the Syrian aircraft executed a dive,” Tremel said. “At the bottom of his dive, he was about seven nautical miles from the position.”
With the aircraft fast approaching engagement range, Krueger advised executing a “head butt,” a maneuver in which a fighter jet passes close overhead another aircraft and shoots out flares, warning its pilot. Tremel executed three, but the Syrian jet was undeterred.
The Sentry issued warning calls over the aircraft emergency frequency, urging the Su-22 to reverse course, but the Syrian jet did not respond. Meanwhile, Krueger updated the JTAC.
“I’m talking to the JTAC to let him know we got this situation going on,” he said. “So the guys on the ground can get their heads down.”
After its dive, the Syrian jet executed a climb, from Tremel’s perspective turning right and then left, positioning itself over the SDF’s position. When Tremel observed the jet release its ordnance, he knew what he had to do next.
Following behind the Syrian jet, Tremel armed an AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile, and fired. The Syrian jet’s defensive flares diverted the missile.
“It came off the rails quick,” Tremel said. “I lost the smoke trail and I had no idea what happened to the missile after that.”
Next, Tremel fired an AIM-120, an advanced medium-range air-to-air missile. It struck the back of the Syrian jet, sending it pitching right and down. A cloud of metal debris flew from the jet as the force of the explosion tore it apart.
The whole incident lasted only about eight minutes—from the time he spotted the jet on his radar, to the moment the missile struck.
Today, six years into the Syrian War, the SDF backed by the U.S. have liberated the city of Raqqa but are still engaged in heavy fighting.
Tremel, Krueger and the rest of VFA-87 are home at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia. Though the incident quickly became widely reported by international media, Tremel, Krueger and the others say they treated the mission as any other.
Written by the Naval Aviation News Staff.