How a U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagle shot down an Iraqi Mig-23 Flogger during Desert Storm

Developed at the end of the 1960s to be the best air superiority fighter in the world, the F-15 proved to be a real MiG Killer during the Operation Desert Storm scoring most of the allied aerial victories.

During the Air War over Iraq the mighty Eagle proved also to be a very robust airframe, bringing back its pilots also after suffering serious damages.

After the first ten days of the first Gulf Air War, to avoid the destruction of their air force, Iraqis flew their aircraft to Iran and to prevent this “exodus” the U.S. Air Force was forced to establish a permanent BARCAP (BARrier Combat Air Patrol) whose aim was to protect the zone between the Iraq and Iran borders, 24 hours in each day of the week.

The task to fly these missions was given to the F-15s flights: each of them was composed by four airplanes which covered a six hour window before being replaced by the following four ship of Eagles.

On Jan. 28, 1991 one of this BARCAP was flown by four F-15s belonging to the “Wolfhounds” of the 32nd TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron) from Soesterberg, deployed to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.  Capt. Don “Muddy” Watrous piloted the Eagle number four of the formation. It was in the midst of their air refueling that the AWACS contacted them to tell that four bandits were airborne: the flight completed the refuel and headed towards the enemy aircraft.

As the four ship approached the bandits it became clear that “Muddy” and the number three of the formation, “Bagwan” Baughan were the lead in the engagement: due to “Bagwan” F-15 radar breakdown, the clearance to engage was confirmed to “Muddy”.

So the F-15s approached the bandits, which were flying in a line abreast formation and had entered in the Sparrows shot range:  Watrous locked the nearest and fired its first AIM-7, followed, five seconds later, by another one. But both missiles missed the target.

At this point the F-15s were above the bandits and “Muddy” saw them under its Eagle: he nosed over and simultaneously jettisoned its three tanks still full of fuel: the reduced weight produced a great jolt followed by an instantaneous acceleration at supersonic speed.

Thanks to the speed he had achieved “Muddy” was close enough to lock again the nearest bandit and fire the third Sparrow; once again the missile missed the enemy aircraft, so Watrous fired its last AIM-7 and finally the Sparrow hit the bandit which lost its right wing and crashed on the ground inverted, leaving no time to the pilot to start the ejection sequence.

F-15 vs Mig-23

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

“Muddy” had also a good tone on its AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, but the other bandits were outside the IR air-to-air missile range, the F-15 was close enough to Iranian border and at Joker (the fuel level that dictates the end of the mission and the beginning of the recovery). So Watrous formed up with “Bagwan” and it was at this point that he noticed something strange at his left wingtip.

The jettison of the three tanks produced the sudden jolt which broke two feet of the left wingtip, leaving the wire of the position light in the air.

The two F-15s moved to the tanker again since they were low on gas and during the air refueling the boomer took a picture of Muddy’s Eagle without the left wingtip.

Once the tanks were full of fuel again, “Muddy” and “Bagwan” were able to safely return to the base, while the other two F-15s ended the BARCAP:  Watrous had to wait several days before its kill was confirmed and the bandit was identified as a MiG-23 Flogger. This delay was due to the fact that during the explosion of the enemy fighter, “Muddy” was alone and separated from the rest of the flight. But the greater surprise came few months later when he received a package with the picture of its Eagle without the wingtip taken by the boomer, as a reminder of a hard workday.

“Muddy” Watrous aerial victory was the only kill for the  “Wolfhounds”  during Desert Storm, their last major deployment, before being disbanded in January 1994.

Dario Leone for The Aviationist

 

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15 Comments

  1. Wow..! I doesn’t look to me such a great feat.. The Captain nearly
    downed himself with the tanks, used up 4 missiles for a single plane
    that was fleeing, surely not fighting back.
    4 shots, even for a low
    kill-ratio record such the AIM-7, looks like at least 2 were fired out
    of the missile envelope, which means, for planes running away, I’m
    assuming, as fast as they could and without evasive maneuvers, not a
    copybook performance for the “fighter” officer.
    In BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers) training the scenario cannot be easier than that.

    • I’m sure your extensive experience in air to air missile firing and intercepting real world enemies backs up your criticism.

      • I don’t want to be sarcastic, but given I don’t have experience in missile firing, conversely I don’t spend nearly my whole professional life training and practicing in doing exactly that, exercising in using weapons correctly and placing them in the right place, so I’m a bit surprised that when the “real world” kicks in, officers that spend millions of (our) dollars to get ready for war start bumping into with their own tanks and fire randomly like a videogamer.
        Or a Captain becomes Captain automatically, because time passes by?

        What I’m saying, we’re humans and prone to error, ok? But given the effort and resources spent into training, this doesn’t look an outstanding pilot performance to me

  2. right so f-15s go up against a lesser airforce with crapy plains and not so expirienced pilots,
    wow what an accomplishment lets see them go up against a better adversary then we talk.If i remember correctly top guns got their asses handed to them by greeks and indians a while back in the exersises they had.Go figure huh?

    • Axileas,
      I do not know what your background is other than being an arm-chair “fighter pilot”, but a little about me before I reply to your comment. Been in the fighter community for 23 years now-F-14, F/A-18 and now F-16. ”
      ….go up against a lesser air force with crappy planes (spelled it correctly for you) and not so experienced pilots”. That is a tenant in all aspects of warfare- you do not want to be an equal with your peers, but overwhelm your enemy in technology, tactics and training. When we went to war with Iraq in ’91 the USA had no say in the quality (aka “crapy plains” that Iraq bought so we fought whatever the IQAF brought to bear. The IQAF had just come out of eight years of war wit Iran and their air force was combat experienced with numerous engagements in OCA/DCAt with US built F-4s, F-14s and F-5s, with their US trained Iranian AF pilots.
      Unless you have access to the restricted debriefs from the exercises conducted with the Indian AF and the Hellenic AF I recommend you share your Wikipedia based sources (sarcastic) that are always factual. It is a fact that in combat, not when your playing games with an allied air force where “rules” are established on what you can/cannot use at the merge and BVR the F-15 has quite a remarkable record in air/air combat against the air forces of Iraq, Iran and Syria. There is a reason the last American to die due to enemy airpower was during Korean War—–overwhelming American Airpower.
      V/r

      • Thank you very much for your insights sir. IMO, the F-15s record doesn’t just impress with BVR but with WVR as well.
        Infact, I think more than half of the F-15’s 100+ confirmed A-A kills were WVR, but of course I can only rely on publicly released info (Wikipedia et al)
        By the way, do you guys think WVR knife fights will still be relevant in the future, with Stealth, AESA, datalinked missiles and all?
        Thank you very much again sir

        • I recall a quote from a colleague…… goes like this “…..having stealth just tells the bad guys to turn the radar off”. History and a frequent tendency to repeat itself, 50+ years ago guns were decried as a bygone form of aerial warfare, the age of the missile had arrived. I see this same circle of logic with the demand that everyone has to have stealth and loosing sight on the basics of air combat. Having a bigger stick than your opponent is always a plus, but in integrated air ops where fluid ROEs might dictate that a visual must be made prior to engaging, WVR is still very relevant we train for it on weekly basis.

      • Yet Axileas point still stands. The US went up against an inferior enemy flying inferior planes.

        Oh by the way, you are forgetting the F18 which was shot down by a Mig 25 during DS. It took the US over two decades to admit their air to air loss. Here is my “wiki” source:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Speicher

        There were at least two other allied aircraft shot down during DS. 1 Tornado and 1 F15.

    • axileas, Glad to see you so quickly and glibly discounting so many air forces on so many levels in one post. BTW, who would you posit as a “better adversary”?

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