By Tom Cooper
On Aug. 19, 1981, U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters shot down two Libyan air force Su-22 fighter-bombers over the Gulf of Sidra. The American pilots’ version of the clash is well-known in the West. The Libyan view of the battle, however, remains obscure. In their version, a Libyan Su-22 shot down a U.S. F-14
We can fix that.
In 1973, Libya declared all the waters of the Gulf of Sidra as its territory. Preoccupied with other affairs, successive U.S. governments did nothing to challenge this claim until Pres. Ronald Reagan ordered the U.S. Navy to conduct a freedom-of-navigation exercise in the area in the spring of 1981.
Although the Navy publicly announced the operation months in advance, when it began Libyan dictator Muammar Abu Minyar Al Qaddaffi was on a visit abroad. Before departing, he had told his military commanders to keep American aircraft away from what Libya considered its air space.
A spokesperson for the Libyan government pointing at the area where the clash between two F-14s and a pair of Su-22s on Aug. 19, 1981. Albert Grandolini Collection
Contrary to what might be expected, by August 1980 the Libyan air force was under the command of a U.S.-trained officer. Col. Salleh Abdullah Salleh piloted Boeing CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters that Libya acquired from Italy.
Similarly, most of his top officers were U.S.- and French-trained. They either used to fly Northrop F-5s that the Libyan air force acquired from the United States in 1966 or Mirage 5s it purchased from France in 1969.
Although Libya placed huge orders for MiG-23s, MiG-25s and Su-22s in the 1970s, a majority of pilots for these types trained in Yugoslavia or under Czech and Italian instructors in Libya — not in the USSR. The Libyans were deeply dissatisfied with the quality of training the Soviets provided and, in 1977, discontinued the practice of sending their pilots to the USSR.
Worse, the Libyans were so unhappy with the quality of technical instruction and manuals provided by Moscow that, in the same year and following a spate of around a dozen of fatal accidents involving brand-new MiG-23s, they recruited two U.S. pilots to test-fly the type and write a new pilot manual for it.
Furthermore, not all of the Libyan air force’s aircraft that the U.S. Navy encountered were Libyan-flown. In 1978, Syria deployed 40 of its pilots and about 200 ground personnel to the Benina air base outside of Benghazi. The Syrians staffed two units equipped with MiG-23MS interceptors.
The bottom of a Libyan Su-22 carrying two R-13M air-to-air missiles. U.S. Navy photo.
Because Libyans ran their aerial operations mostly in English, French or Russian and the Syrian ran theirs in Arabic, there was considerable confusion on the radio waves. Correspondingly, the Libyan air force was forced to assign specific slots in daily operations corresponding with a particular language.
As fighters from the aircraft carriers USS Forrestal and USS Nimitz began operating over the Gulf of Sidra on Aug. 18, 1981, the Libyan air force did whatever it could to keep the American aviators outside of its territory. During the day, the Libyan air arm scrambled no fewer than 35 pairs of fighters — MiG-23MSs, MiG-25Ps and French-made Dassault Mirage F.1s.
To reinforce the interceptors, Sukhoi Su-22 and Su-22M fighter-bombers armed with R-3S and R-13M air-to-air missiles — NATO code name AA-22 Atoll — scrambled, too, as did a pair of MiG-25RB reconnaissance fighters that attempted, without success, to locate the American carriers.
All of these were intercepted by U.S. fighters and it appears that a majority of the resulting encounters between the U.S. and Libyan planes ended rather peacefully, with the Libyans ultimately turning back toward base. In fact, several of the Libyan formations scrambled with clear orders to shoot down the intruders. They just never came into a position to open fire. The Americans jammed their radios and out-maneuvered them in the air.
Zintani, at left, and Jafaari as presented to the Libyan press a day after their shoot-down by a pair of F-14s. Albert Grandolini Collection
The U.S. Navy maintained the pressure. At dawn on Aug. 19, Libyan radars detected eight fighters approaching the Gulf of Sidra. Two of them then entered the air space claimed by Tripoli. With its interceptor squadrons already running out of steam, the Libyan air force was left with no choice but to scramble two Su-22Ms from the nearest air base, Ghurdabiyah.
This brand-new installation was constructed outside the city of Syrte, Qaddaffi’s birthplace. In August 1981, Ghurdabiya was under the command of another U.S.-trained officer, Col. Dumuha Ramadhan Zaid. The two Sukhois were from No. 1022 Squadron commanded by Maj. Abdelsalam Djalloud and were flown by two relatively young pilots — Capt. Belkacem Emsik Az Zintani and 1st Lt. Mokhtar El Arabi Al Jafari.
While flying north, the Sukhois climbed to an altitude of 22,936 feet, where their pilots received the order to shoot down the intruders. Time and again, ground control informed them that the nearest pair of F-14s was attempting to evade by turning away from incoming Sukhois. Every time, the controller vectored the Su-22s to a new intercept course.
The Libyans thus continued approaching until Zintani sighted the Tomcats and recalled them making a 180-degree turn from his left to his right. Knowing his Su-22 couldn’t turn with the F-14s, he intended to fly what he described as a “surprise maneuver” that should have brought him into a position directly behind one of Tomcats.
This piece of unidentified wreckage, collected by local fishermen several months after the clash of August 1981, was the first factor prompting the Libyans to confirm Zintani’s claim to have shot down an F-14. Photo via Ali Tani
Moment later, he fired one R-13M missile that, he claimed, destroyed the lead F-14.
Immediately afterward, according to the Libyans’ reconstruction of the clash, the two Su-22s were ambushed by six other Tomcats — and Zintani and Jafaari ended up floating under their parachutes around 35 miles off the coast of Syrte. Both were recovered by Libyan air force helicopters and brought to Tripoli.
The Libyan version of events claims that a few months later, Libyan fishers recovered a piece of some U.S. Navy aircraft from the waters of Gulf of Sidra. The Libyan air force identified these as belonging to the F-14 Zintani said he shot down.
When, in 1986, the U.S. Navy announced the death in an accident of Cmdr. Henry Kleeman — the flight leader of the pair of Tomcats that downed the two Libyan Su-22s in August 1981 — the Libyans rushed to the conclusion that this was in fact a plot to cover up Kleeman’s death in combat in ’81. Correspondingly, Zintani was officially credited with the first kill ever scored by the Libyan air force.
All available Libyan sources stress one fact time and again. All Libyan pilots scrambled to intercept the U.S. Navy’s fighters operating along and over the Gulf of Sidra on Aug. 18 and 19, 1981 received clear and specific orders to open fire at any of the intruders. Correspondingly, it is beyond any doubt that Zintani made no mistake nor fired by accident when launching his R-13M. He opened fire because he had the order to open fire and because he had a good tone — i.e., the missile was tracking its target.
Most of the Libyan air force was firmly convinced he scored a kill, too.
This article is based on multiple first-hand accounts from Libya and Syria and originally published in the books Libyan Air Wars.