USN Downs USAF
We posted the original story a few years ago, and now the rest of the story with a new twist. Sorry, could not resist the flame bait. I don't know the guy, he may be a good egg for all I know, but YGBSM right?
Panetta Nominates Notorious Navy Captain For Admiral
Lt. J.G. Timothy Dorsey Intentionally Shot Down Friendly RF-4C in 1987
The world of military aviation is an environment intolerant of screw-ups. You might think the career of a US Navy junior lieutenant who intentionally shot a live missile at an Air Force F-4 during a training exercise, nearly killing two airmen, would have been over. Instead, the Obama administration has nominated him for promotion to Admiral.
The Washington Times reports that among the list of nominees submitted to the Senate by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is navy Reserve Captain Timothy W. Dorsey who, on September 22, 1987, was taking part in a non-fire flight exercise over the Mediterranean in an F-14. He was reportedly given a command to simulate a missile firing, but instead armed a real Sidewinder missile without telling his radar intercept officer (RIO), and shot down an Air Force plane. Its Pilot and WSO ejected moments before the RF-4C exploded.
The 1988 investigative report was scathing. The Associated Press got a copy through the Freedom of Information Act. It reads, in part, "The destruction of USAF RF-4C was not the result of an accident, but the consequence of a deliberate act. His subsequent reaction demonstrated an absolute disregard of the known facts and circumstances.
“He failed to utilize the decision-making process taught in replacement training and reacted in a purely mechanical manner. The performance of Lieutenant Timothy W. Dorsey raises substantial doubt as to his capacity for good, sound judgment."
Vice Admiral Kendall Moranville, who had headed the 6th Fleet, added, "We necessarily rely on the self-discipline and judgment of pilots to prevent such incidents...Nothing, in my opinion, can mitigate Lieutenant Dorsey’s basic error in judgment."
Retired F-14 pilot Jon Ault tells the Times, "I would never have guessed he’d ever make it to commander, much less admiral...I thought his career was over back when the shoot-down happened. He refused to accept any blame...I mean, the guy did it on purpose."
In the nearly 25 years since the missile incident, Dorsey has built a resume which includes becoming a reserve intelligence officer, then inspector general. He's also earned a law degree from the University of Richmond. But how did his career survive that 1987 incident, and the harsh reviews which followed?
It's probably just coincidence, but at the time of the incident, Dorsey's father, James Dorsey, was commander of the aircraft carrier USS America. A year later, he became assistant deputy chief of naval operations at the Pentagon and later became a three-star vice admiral.
Captain Dorsey currently serves as inspector general for Navy Reserve Detachment 106 in Norfolk, VA. He declined to discuss the 1987 incident with the Times, saying he's about to take a Navy Reserve intelligence post, and a high profile in the press would be inappropriate.
USAF RF-4C Phantom II
Photo by Gunter Gronstein
USN F-14B Tomcat
Photo by Mark Wheless
- One of the ROE’s of the exercise was that no participating aircraft were allowed to carry live missiles.
- The Navy LTJG, when asked later by the accident investigation board, said, yes, indeed, he intended to shoot a live missile. He was not court-martialed but put on non-flying duties and never flew again.
- This very same LTJG’s father was an active Navy Vice Admiral who, when flying combat missions in Vietnam, accidentally shot down his wingman.
- The pilot of Vodka 51 has ever since been known as Squidbait. He’s had numerous back surgeries as a result of the Martin-Baker ejection; the most recent, earlier this year, 2008.
- The accident board determined that Vodka 51 was very lucky to have almost full fuel tanks. Had those fuel tanks been mostly empty, filled with fuel vapors, the explosion would have been much more massive, ripping the RF-4 apart and almost certainly killing the crew.
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gave the details? The USAF orthe USN? Can disuss more in detail if required.
Do you have any information to add to this story? Rowdy wrote the article and got the details on line from multiple sources. I was at Ramstien when this happened and remember the shit storm that followed in close trail, but overall it was kept pretty quiet. About that same time, someone in the 526th shot down their wingman at WSEP with a heater. My personnel favorite was in Alaska when a wingman shot down his flight lead with a heater during a practice intercept on the way to alert with live missiles. The call was a classic -- "Fox 2, oh shit I forgot, lead break left with flares!" As Bluto would say --- "Holy Shitda." There's another story we will have to run.
The wingman in Alaska didn't shoot down his flight lead. Close, though. It was a BFM set-up and the lead aircraft, 0054, survived the attack and flew again in 1991. Good jet, flew it many times after the heater damage was all fixed up. Gomer
I was twenty-two years old, and I was on top of the world, fixing state of the art fighter jets aboard the USS Saratoga. Far from the kid I was three years prior, shoveling cold patch into potholes for the borough. As a troubleshooter for VF-74, I was often tasked with doing quick repairs between flights. On this particular day, I did a repair on aircraft number 101, a beautiful new plane that still had the original factory paint. The F-14 was not a fly-by-wire plane which links the cockpit controls to the hydraulic systems electrically. This plane linked the cockpit controls to the hydraulic systems mechanically. The turtleback section ran along the plane’s spine and was predominantly occupied with the mechanical linkage that connected cockpit controls to the control surface actuators. The repair that I performed was in the turtleback section just aft of the cockpit bulkhead. Any debris or tools left behind during maintenance in this area could have serious and catastrophic effects on the controllability of the airplane. After the repair, I accompanied the plane and its crew to the catapult for a routinely uneventful launch.
With all the planes launched, I retreated to the AE shop for quick rest break before having to receive the birds from the previous sorties. I no sooner sat my ass down when Master Chief shouted over the bitch box “One-O-One is in the water”. The thought of a new plane crashing due to a mechanical failure did not even enter into my mind, let alone the possibility of being shot down. In my mind, there were only two possible reasons for this catastrophe: pilot error or maintenance error. I immediately rechecked to see that all my tools were in their proper place. My stomach was in a knot with the thought that I may be directly responsible for the loss of a plane and its crew. A trail of black smoke against the brilliant blue sky a few points abaft the ship’s starboard beam came into view, as I climbed onto flight deck’s port side by the waist catapults. Although still very concerned for the wellbeing of the crew, I felt somewhat relieved by the image in the sky. I was fairly certain that any mistake that I may have made in my repairs to the plane could not have caused a plane to break up in such fiery fashion. I headed starboard across the deck. There were orange flames of burning fuel on the sea’s surface eight or so miles away with a column of black smoke reaching thousands of feet skyward. A crowd was gathering as I stopped at the scupper to stare in awe at the distant wreckage. Behind me, a helicopter was readying for the rescue. The voice of a shipmate called to me. “Mac,” he said, “Master Chief just called back to say that he was mistaken, it seems that 101 did not crash, but actually shot down another plane, possibly an Italian fighter jet.” Feeling much relieved, I figured I would just let the situation unfold and present the truth without rumored speculation. I proceeded forward to prepare for the next round of recoveries and launches as Air boss ordered “All non-essential personnel off the flight deck, helmets on, goggles down, float coats on, and sleeves rolled down” in preparation for the resumption of flight operations. I found myself atop another plane doing a preflight inspection as the rescue helicopter was returning. “Please God,” I said lowly, “no bodies.” The helicopter landed, the door opened, and the rescued crew of two was helped onto the deck. They walked toward the island as my cheer blended with the cheers of my surrounding shipmates. The smug looks upon the faces of these two men and the obvious removal of national insignia from their olive drab flight suits indicated to me that these were not the faces of an Italian crew.
With the flight deck in full operation, I anxiously awaited the return of 101. The plane trapped, and I could see the tell tale markings of soot from AIM-9 on the starboard side of the aircraft. My skipper, with cupped hands around his mouth, called to me from the starboard catwalk outside of maintenance control, “What’s it look like, Mac?” “It doesn’t look good, Skip,” I hollered back, shaking my head as I made my way toward him. Acquiring a more conversation permitting distance, I continued, “You’re missing a missile.” After an uncharacteristically explosive rant and string of obscenities, Skipper stormed off below deck.
Part of my duties as a troubleshooter was to follow the crews to the office of our squadron’s maintenance control and debrief them about the performance of the plane’s avionics during their flight. My experiences with this particular young pilot were not very positive, and I did not share the same admiration for him as I did for most every officer in my squadron. In fact, I can not even remember his name. He parked the plane and shut her down as two personnel from ship’s security approached. The plane captain lowered the ladder and flipped open the steps to enable the crew to deplane. The men from security moved closely alongside the crew as they exited the plane. I could not help asking the pilot as he was being escorted away, “Sir… how did she fly today?” He just shot back a snidely glare as the two men directed him and his RIO toward the island, no doubt to stand in front of the ship’s captain. That was the last I ever saw of Mister what’s-his-name.
Fast forward a month or so, and a recovered piece of the wrecked United States Air Force RF-4C sat on the deck of the ship. It was an external fuel tank with some rather large openings torn into it. Someone had placed a sticker next to the larger of the holes; it was a sticker of our squadron’s emblem. As I stood looking at the tank along with two other electricians, another shipmate approached us. As this shipmate grew closer, my two comrades turned away swiftly, and uneasily moved on. Looking up, I snapped to attention, saluted and said sharply, “Good evening, Admiral Boorda.” “As you were, young man,” he responded with a smile. The two of us had a rather candid conversation as everyone else around us kept their distance. Taps played over the 1MC as the sun set and we continued on conversing. I do not remember all the details of the conversation that followed, but I do remember somewhat defending the pilot’s actions that brought down the F-4, citing perhaps a breakdown in communication contributed to the incident. The admiral shot back with a rather colorful remark concerning the character of the pilot. The pilot’s father was also an admiral and Mr. Boorda was much more familiar with this man than I was. I laughingly agreed with his opinion of the man saying, “Yea… I’m not a big fan”. He laughed back, “Well, young man, you won’t have to worry about dealing with him anymore, for that SOB will never fly again.”
Brett A. Moore
US Navy (ret)
I remember you telling this story at Mather... thought you'd be excited to know that the shooter just got promoted to O-7. Wild True Facts, Over.
USAF SMSgt (Ret)
Much of what I have to say is not going to sit well with you. But I have to tell you my truth of what happened here because it irritates the shit out of me that Smoke didn't get his star... but I'm way ahead of myself.
Comments on the above:
Splash: Assuming that you were in Meridian when I was... nice dance on Ellen, my friend.
AE2MAC: I really enjoyed your commentary and perspective. ADM Boorda's remark is telling. I liked Jeremy. I flew with him in my back seat and he was remarkably astute, especially for a black shoe. "That SOB will never fly again" is the real story here. It has very little to do with Smoke, or what happened. It was all about military politics and ass-covering. While you didn't have a very glowing opinion of Ltjg Dorsey, there's a reason that the officers in the squadron did. More on that later, but I will say that years later I ran into the Operations Officer of VF-74 at the time, "Cuds" Wyatt. Cuds was one of my instructors when I went through the RAG and I'm proud to say that we were friends, even when he came in as the Ops O at the sister squadron. When I talked to Cuds in 2014 it was just him and me, at the bar in the O'Club at Oceana for a mutual friend's retirement. Cuds said, "to this day is the best J.O. I ever encountered." These are the words of a retired O-6 who commanded a fighter squadron, so as to Smoke being a knuckle-putz... sorry, just not the case.
DWWoods: You're talking about Rowdy Yates, a fine man and a first-rate aviator. Apparently Rowdy wrote this article, but he never saw the information that we, the board, saw.
Who is John Ault (pun intended)? Really? You're a retired F-14 pilot and so you're qualified to comment on this? I vaguely remember his name, and he may be a great guy... but there's no apparent reason why his opinion is relevant.
Now, my story...
Like most of you, I jumped on the "what a dumbass" bandwagon as soon as I heard about this. After all, Smoke was a new guy, in our sister squadron (VF-74), and had made CVW-17 look bad. I was an Airwing LSO, so I had met him a few times when I debriefed his passes... wasn't a big fan because he was always so freakin' serious, but I did appreciate his eagerness to learn and improve. I was really surprised when my XO, Bluto, pulled me over in the ready room and told me that he had been tagged to do the Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board ("FEENAB") and that he had chosen me to be on the board. I had no connection to the event, and really didn't have any desire to be pulled into an admin board. But Bluto was the best man under whom I had ever served (he played a line position on the squadron intramural football team - freakin' Spartan), and I would rather be dead than disappoint him.
Big picture, sitting on that board taught me many things, but probably the biggest one is that I NEVER want to be evaluated this way. We read through psychological evaluations, personal diaries, etc. If I was a proctologist I wouldn't have more intimate knowledge of this man. It was really uncomfortable having this much info on another dude, especially a fellow fighter pilot.
During the board we learned that:
When he was in the RAG he had earned a "down" in a simulator late in his training (ADFAS) because he had questioned the order to fire when he had been given "Red and Free." He was extensively debriefed on this event and counseled on the importance of firing when given the order.
2-3 weeks prior to this event, a CVIC briefing had included a piece that told us that there were unfriendly states who had been training pilots to fly the F-4 on kamikaze missions. Most of us reacted dismissively, "not really worried about our chances with an F-4." Smoke had joined the squadron when CVW-17 was already deployed... so he didn't have any experience that would provide context for the CVIC briefing. Let's face it, their job was to talk about possible threats, most of which never occurred. Smoke took it onboard in a way that most of us wouldn't.
Smoke and Dutch (RIO) briefed a 2v2 DACT mission with F-16s out of Aviano over northern Italy. This was part of the overall exercise. While they were behind the catapult, they were told to switch purple for a mission change. Their orders were a snap vector off the cat to intercept inbound unknown. This is when the mental model of Dutch and Smoke began to diverge. Most of you can fully appreciate the jaded "roger" from Dutch as he played the exercise game. Smoke understood this as a real-world reassignment; mind you, he had not done any of the work-ups so he had no context for this mission change. ALL cockpit conversation after this point involved Dutch speaking as though it were an exercise, and Smoke speaking as though it was real world. The uncomfortable reality for the USN is that we didn't use different language for exercises and real-world events. So "Red and Free" in an exercise was the same as "Red and Free" in the real world. This was one of the board's principal findings... and it was immediately discarded by the senior officers. In my view, that's because this event tarnished their career and they wanted to "hang the guilty bastard."
Smoke and Dutch did, indeed, find Vodka-51 on the tanker. This is the one piece of evidence that really troubled the board. Smoke understood this as consistent with the "rogue pilot" character upon which he had been briefed. Dutch was understandably oblivious to the mental model upon which Smoke was working. They followed Vodka and Smoke could see that the F-4 had a "busy belly" (his term that I abhorred then and do to this day, but I understood what he was saying).
When Smoke received clearance to fire he double-checked with Dutch, "I'm going to shoot him down." Dutch, thinking that Smoke was going to shoot him with his comm switch said, "yeah, shoot him." Dutch was confused when Smoke said, "it didn't come off," about the first missile. The system station-stepped to the left wing and Smoke pulled the trigger again. Dutch saw the missile leaving the rail and said something along the lines of, "What the fuck did you just do?" Any F-14 RIO on this site can testify to the poor ergonomics design of the back seat of the Tomcat. When the sun was overhead, the reflection off the CRT in the back seat was impossible to see if they didn't shade it with their arms, cranium bucket, etc. Dutch had no idea that Smoke had flipped the Master Arm switch because he couldn’t see the absent X over the weapon selected.
There were many other system issues related to this event, and unfortunately they all pointed to the USN. That was intolerable, and everyone up the chain of command covered their ass. They hung Smoke out to dry and it was gutless treachery, period. I'm not saying that Smoke didn't fuck up. He did; but he had a lot of help from all of us. In the end, we recommended that Smoke keep his wings but that he never fly an airplane that deploys ordnance. In retrospect, I think that was more to assuage our own discomfort with the fact that this could have been us.
Whomever posted the "no live missiles" comment has no clue about USN deployed operations. We ALWAYS launch with live missiles. This is the difference between being deployed and being back stateside. When you're on the ship, you always carry live rounds; always. AE2MAC, please validate.
We, the U.S., lost the service of a good man. Again, the only reason I "know" Smoke Dorsey is because I sat on his board. I've never seen or heard from him since, and I don't have a dog in the fight... except for one thing.
Congress pulled the recommendation of promotion for Smoke based on the activism of the pilot of Vodka-51. I fully appreciate the suffering that this man has endured through multiple back surgeries. I'll be blunt; his activism was understandable, but dead wrong. Dead. Wrong. Smoke recovered from this event early in his career and served our country exceptionally well for years and years after this event. If you've read this and said, "I could never have been this stupid," then I would never trust you on my wing. Humans fuck up, and if you assert that you haven't, then you're full of shit. I have and I do, much as I hate to admit it.
I'm just a pilot. I've been flying for 36 years and have north of 17,000 hours. I have over 350 traps aboard 10 CVs, and over 100 of them at night. I have a MS degree in Human Factors and Safety Systems Engineering and I work every week in real-world applications of HF science. I'm just a pilot, but I sat on the board and I saw ALL of the evidence. If you're smugly sitting in judgment of this event then you're uninformed or delusional. It could have been me, and it could have been you.