In the wee hours of the 17th of January, 1991, the aerial campaign to gain air superiority over Iraq and Kuwait kicked off with large flights of bomber, attack and fighter aircraft pummeling air bases and knocking any enemy fighters that strayed into their path out of the early morning skies. Iraqi generals wished to preserve their aerial capabilities and saw their only chance to do so through flying as many fighters as possible to a relatively safe-haven in Iran. To counter this, Coalition generals and admirals decided to establish a 24-hour screen between the Iranian and Iraqi border, preventing the escape of Iraqi MiGs. Among the different aircraft and crew staffing the screen were F-15 Eagles of the then-32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron (“Wolfounds”) out of Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands. The last time the Wolfhounds had seen combat action was more than forty years previously, around the European theater in World War Two. That, however, was about to change.
On the 28th of January, a little over 11 days after the initial campaign began, a group of four Wolfhound Eagles, callsigns Bite 1/2/3/4, had taken off from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on a BARCAP* mission to keep an eye out for any Iraqi jets attempting to cross over into Iran, and shoot them down if the need arose. Without much success in spotting bogeys or fleeing hostiles, the four-ship flight made contact with a tanker cell and formed up for a refueling. Towards the end of the refueling, an AWACS** reported four bandits on their powerful radars, vectored towards Iran. Breaking away from the tankers after completing their gas intake, Bite 3 flown by Captain “Bagwan” Baughan, the flight lead, acknowledged the controller aboard the AWACS and soon, Bites 1-4 had their Eagles screaming southward through the sky towards their unwitting Iraqi prey.
Approaching their quarry, Bite flight enacted a textbook interception upon the bandits and soon Bite 4, flown by Captain Donald “Muddy” Watrous, locked onto a MiG while Bagwan’s radar went inoperative. Cleared to give chase and engage, Muddy came down on his MiG from over five miles above to the rear. Deciding to jettison his external fuel tanks to build speed, Muddy went through the procedures to do so but only realized too late that his Eagle was past the speed limit for a proper jettison. Therefore, as the left tank came off, it nicked the left wingtip, damaging it slightly. Nevertheless, Muddy, now accelerating smoothly past the speed of sound, was committed to the pursuit.
At Rmax (maximum weapons range) for his AIM-7M Sparrows, Muddy loosed four separate shots at the MiG, who by now had probably wised up to the presence of the American Eagles in the area. Muddy, now within Rmax for his AIM-9M Sidewinders, was ready to mail another missile toward the MiG, but a huge fireball blossomed in the sky. The Iraqi jet took one of the Sparrows to the right side of its fuselage, effectively blowing it out of the sky. By now, most of Bite 4 was at bingo fuel*** and had to turn home. In addition, Muddy and the remaining jets were getting dangerously closer to Iranian airspace, which they were not cleared to enter at all, so they broke off the chase and pushed back towards a tanker cell. After Muddy and Bagwan filled up their tanks, they returned to Incirlik, followed soon after by Bites 1 and 2. Several days later, Muddy’s kill was confirmed and the jet he shot down was identified as a MiG-23 Flogger, a variable-geometry Soviet fighter export.
What better way to celebrate the birthday of the mighty F-15 than with a story of success?
* BARrier Combat Air Patrol
** Airborne Warning and Control System
*** Minimum fuel level at which an aircraft can return to base safely.