A lot of crazy sh*t happened in the Iran-Iraq War. The backbone of the Iranian Air Force at the time was the beloved F-14 Tomcat, a plane the Iranians still fly. Purchased by the Shah of Iran before the rise of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s Air Force consisted of dozens of the two-seat fighter aircraft, which gave them an edge in the air war against neighboring Iraq.
But tech can only take you so far. And it was the skills of Iranian pilots that allowed the IRIAF to claim three kills with one missile.
Iranians are really good behind the stick of the Tomcat. In fact, the highest scoring ace in a Tomcat is an Iranian named Jalil Zandi. According to the U.S. Air Force, Zandi is credited with 11 kills in an F-14 — an amazing achievement for any fighter pilot. But he was in good company during the Iran-Iraq War because his fellow pilots were keeping the skies clear of any offending Iraqi aircraft.
You can’t slap sanctions on style, apparently.
The Iran-Iraq War was in full stalemate by the end of 1981 and the fighting on the ground was so brutal, it might literally have been illegal. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 for a number of reasons, mostly to take advantage of political instability following the fall of the Shah, but also to keep Shia Islamic Revolution from being exported to neighboring countries.
Before the Iraqi ground troops crossed the border, however, Saddam’s air forces attempted to destroy the Iranian Air Force while it was still on the ground. They missed and it cost them big time. From that point on, Iraqi MiG and Sukhoi fighters were flying the highway to the danger zone every time they flew into Iran – Tomcats were on patrol.
Iranian F-14 Tomcats carrying Phoenix missiles.
In the opening days of the war, Tomcats took their toll on the Iraqi Air Force, downing fighters and bombers alike. Their most deadly weapons, Phoenix missiles, carried an explosive payload that was much larger than other anti-aircraft missiles. They were designed to take down Soviet-built Tupolev bomber aircraft, the same kind the Iraqis were trying to fly over Tehran.
By 1981, the war on the ground had devolved into an exchange of chemical weapons against human wave attacks. The war was just as brutal in the air, but the Tomcats gave Iran a decisive edge. A single F-14 in the area was enough for Iraqi pilots to scatter and head for home. What happened on Jan. 7, 1981 was a clear example of why.
Iranian pilot Asadullah Adeli and his Radar Intercept Officer Mohammed Masbough responded to reports of unidentified aircraft headed toward Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf. The Tomcat determined the intruder was actually three Iraqi MiG-23s, presumably headed toward an oil rig near the island. Iranian ground radar couldn’t see all three, but authorized Adeli and Masbough to engage the MiGs anyway.
“They were flying really low,” Adeli recalled. “Even though it was night, they were flying at around 2,000 feet.”
Masbough told him to target the one in the middle, just hoping to damage the other two enough that they might break off. That’s almost what happened. The American-built Phoenix missile’s explosive delivery was so powerful, it downed all three enemy aircraft. The wreckage of all three MiGs was found on Kharg Island the next day.