Jalil Zandi's Air Force legend almost never made it off the ground. He joined the Iranian Air Force when it was still the Imperial Iranian Air Force, under Shah Reza Pahlavi. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Zandi stayed blue – a risky move at a time when Iranian military officers were being executed for doing their duty to one's country.
But fighter pilots need to be bold and take risks. Zandi did spend some time in a prison cell, sentenced to 10 years for... whatever. Does it matter? In September 1980 – less than a year after the revolution in Iran – Saddam Hussein's Iraqi troops invaded Iran whose military was woefully undermanned.
So, Zandi was back in the pilot's seat within six months.
Mustaches are always in regs in the Iranian Air Force of the 1980s.
It was a good thing too. Then-Major Zandi had some serious skills at the controls of his F-14 Tomcat. Forget what you think about the governments of Iran and Iraq in this time period, you have to admire a pilot who fought Iraqis in the skies for eight straight years to keep them from shooting chemical weapons at playgrounds.
All those aviator sunglasses... and Top Gun wouldn't even be released for another five years.
Zandi survived the brutal eight-year-long war, and according to the U.S. Air Force's intelligence assessments, he took down 11 Iraqi aircraft – four MiG-23s, two Su-22s, two MiG-21s, and three Mirage F-1s. His last engagement of the war saw him go up against eight enemy Mirage F1s over Iraq in 1988. He scored two unconfirmed kills but was badly shot up in the dogfight and had to break off. He was able to fly back to his base in Iran and the war ended that very same year.
He received the Order of Fath 2nd Class for his time in the skies over enemy territory. The Fath Medal is one of the highest awards an Iranian military member can receive and is personally presented by the Supreme Leader. Jalil Zandi's 11 kills in the F-14 make him the highest-scoring Tomcat pilot ever. Zandi died in a car accident near Tehran in 2001, having reached the rank of Brigadier General.
Brigadier General Jalil Zandi, IRIAF, ca. 2001.
The F-14 was retired from the U.S. military arsenal in 2006 but is still in use in Iran.