On 4 January 1989, yet another exercise was under way to demonstrate 'freedom of navigation' in international waters off Libya, this time by USS John F. Kennedy's battle group. The skipper of VF-32, Commander Joseph B. Connely, using callsign 'Gypsy 207', was leading a section (2 plane formation) of F-14
As paralleling the Libyan coast; they had just 'topped off' with fuel from their KA-6D tanker. Each F-14A
was armed with four Sparrow, and four Sidewinder missiles. Connely's backseater was Commander Leo F. Enright, the CAG operations officer. The accompanying Tomcat was 'Gypsy 202', crewed by Lieutenant Hermon C. Cook III and Lieutenant Commander Steven P. Collins. The Tomcat crews were flying CAP when E-2C Hawkeye, callsign 'Closeout' alerted them that two Lybian MiG-23 'Floggers' had taken off from the Al Bumbah military airfield near Tripoli.
The Tomcat crews almost immediately picked up the MiGs, 72 miles (116km) away, coming straight at them. They locked up the Libyans, giving warning that they were being monitored by Tomcats. This was sometimes enough to prompt Libyan fighters to turn tail, but this time the MiGs kept coming.
The Tomcats started the engagement at 20000ft (6095m), while the MiGs were descending from 10000 ft (3050m) to 8000 ft (2440m). The Tomcats made a left turn, which could be interpreted as avoidance manoeuvre or as a means of getting onto the tails of the Libyans, descending rapidly to get below the MiGs, as the two formations closed at around 1000 mph (1610 km/h). They did this to try to force the MiG-23 into a lookdown engagement, in which they would be looking up at the MiGs (with no clutter) while the MiG-23's radar would be at a grave disadvantage looking down at the F-14s. The MiGs responded by turning towards the Tomcats, thereby preventing themselves by being 'outflanked' - theoretically able to be taken as a defensive move, but equally indicative of hostile intent. The F-14s then descended to the scattered cloud-deck at 3000 ft (915m) and made another left turn (officialy interpreted as another avoidance manoeuvre), to which the Libyans responded by turning in once more. When the MiGs were 35 miles (56km) at 7000 ft (2135m), they reacted the same way to a third, then a fourth turn by the F-14s, and flew straight at the F-14s for the fourth time.
Some had averred that the Libyan pilots had still made no overtly hostile move, and were still reacting in a way which would simply prevent the F-14s from getting on their tails, though in the circumstances, their reactions were certainly reckless, and probably aggressive. From Kennedy came the transmission: "Closeout, warning yellow, weapons hold. I repeat warning yellow weapons hold. Alpha Bravo out." The E-2C Hawkeye repeated the call: "Roger gypsies, pass up, Alpha BRavo directs warning yellow weapons hold."
The Tomcat crews were being ordered not to remain bound by the usual, strict, peacetime condition ('warning white, weapons tight') and taken halfway toward complete freedom for all-out war ('warning red, weapons free'). 'Weapons hold' does not mean simply, that 'you may employ your weapons if threathened'. It means 'you must'.
This was the authority to Connelly to be ready to shoot. Libya was later to confuse things by asserting that the MiG-23s were unarmed reconaissance aircraft which had been ambushed by 14 American warplanes. Fortunately, video footage recorded in the Tomcat's TCS clearly showed that the MiGs were armed with air-to-air missiles, although the imagery was not sufficiently clear to distinguish whether the missiles were close-range AA-2 'Atolls' or AA-8 'Aphids', or whether they were longer-range AA-7 'Apexes'. This was an important difference, since it had a direct impact on whether the Libyans were presenting a real threat, although, in the real world, the F-14 crews had to assume the worst case, and under the (classified) rules of engagement, the enemy was demonstrably hostile. "A MiG-23 is a MiG-23 is a MiG-23. You just have to worst case that one. If you assume the enemy doesn't have his best weapon, you'll have a short career," observed one Tomcat RIO. In the pile of criticism laid on the Navy for the kills which followed, Congressman Les Aspin claimed that the Libyan's manoeuvring was too slight to be considered hostile. This was nonsense. Under the rules of engagement laid down the F-14s crews had to assume the worst: that these were MiG-23MLs armed with 'Apex', which they knew had a forward hemisphere of about 12 miles (19km). If the Libyans continued to close head-on, this was the range at which they would be 'taken out'. The MiGs reacted to a fifth turn by the Tomcats with a turn of their own, again preventing themselves from being outflanked.
"Ok, bogeys have jinked back into me for the fifth time. They're on my nose now. Inside 20 miles, master arm on, master arm on" reported the lead Tomcat's RIO at 12:00:53, directing the wingman to turn on his master armament switches. After an unanswered call by Connelly to the ship (he still hoped for last minute intelligence which he had been briefed to expect), a Sparrow was fired 12.9 miles (20.7km) by Enright, the RIO of the lead Tomcat, whose pilot muttered "Aw, Jesus!" Enright fired another Sparrow, calling "13 miles...Fox One...Fox One!" Both of Enright's Sparrows failed to guide. The two Tomcats then made F-pole 30 degree turns, spliting left and right before turning back into bracket the MiG's. The MiGs were still just outside visual range, but seconds later they turned left into the second Tomcat, and Cook called, "Tally 2! tally 2! Turning into me."
Connelly noticed his wingman fire a third Sparrow at a range of 7 miles (11km), remarking to Enright, "Ok, he's got a missile off!" and watching the missile guide into the right intake duct of the second MiG, which was engulfed in a huge fireball before entering a tightening right-hand turn. His RIO assumed he meant that the Libyans had fired a missile back, and frantically began firing off chaff cartridges. Connelly pulled into a hard right turn, yo-yoing high as the crippled MiG passed below, flying from left to right. The Libyan pilot ejected just as it passed by the second F-14, and he was seen in his chute.
Connelly came out of his turn behind the lead MiG, supported by his wingman, who had flown the similar manoeuvre. He followed it in a 4.5g descending right turn, attempting to get a Sidewinder tone and failing. He selected an alternative Sidewinder station. Still no tone. He selected a Sparrow, but was too close. "Select Fox 2!...select fox 2!!" shouted Enright, in frustration. Connelly shifted back to Sidewinder, and then noticed that the volume control was turned off; selecting a normal volume, he heard a tone and took the shot. The AIM-9 arced into the remaining MiG just behind the cockpit, its pilot ejecting after it hit. The time was 12:02:36. "Good kill! Good kill!," reported Connelly as he dived to low level, accelerating away from the area at 700 ft (215m) and 650kt (745 mph; 1200 km/h), low on fuel.
The Navy and Pentagon rightly insisted that 'Gypsy 207' and 'Gypsy 202' had a 'righteous shot'. Under the rules of engagement (to say nothing of simple common sense), Connelly and his fellow fliers would have been derelict not to shoot. Both MiG-23 pilots ejected safely and had good parachutes, but the Libyan air force was reportedly unable to mount a succeful SAR (Search And Rescue) mission to save them. It had been another mismatch - although the MiG-23, at least, was a more serious air-to-air threath than the Su-22 had been back in 1981.