Snapshots of War: The First Sortie


On 9 July, 1987, Major Mark Dwyer was an F-15 pilot assigned to the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Soesterberg Airbase, a USAFE base in the Netherlands. Dwyer, a native of Albany, NY and graduate of Penn State University, was also the operations officer for the 32nd. In addition to their jobs in the cockpit, most fighter pilots also hold less glamorous, but essential ground duties. Dwyer’s experiences on the first day were similar to those of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen across Europe. Major Dwyer became one of the first US pilots to score an air-to-air kill over Central Europe. It would be the first of many kills for Dwyer in the war. This is his account of his first sortie of the war.


I was leading the first flight out of Soesterberg. We were scrambled at 0530 local time. An E-3A Sentry AWACS had reported heavy jamming, and the report was corroborated by other AWACS aircraft, as well as ground-based radars in Germany. Eventually, the jamming was burned through and a number of inbound raids were detected over East Germany heading in our direction. When we launched, the raid count was thirty and eventually rose to forty-five. More flights were coming out of Soesterberg, as well as from other bases in Holland, and Germany. It was a hectic time. The AWACS controller gave my flight a vector, cleared us weapons free and off we went. As time went on it became apparent the raids were going for our radars and SAM belt. Instinctively I knew this was the kickoff.

Other raids were picked up too. The skies over Central Europe were becoming crowded with fighters. Russian MiG-23 and Su-17s mostly coming in dumb at medium altitudes with their radars blasting away. Flying cover, above and a little out ahead of the group were MiG-29 Fulcrums. The whole situation was nothing short of a frenzy. My RWR was alit with symbols and warnings beeped and chirped through my headset. To our east missile contrails began filling the sky, followed by “Fox One” calls. Dutch and Belgian F-16s had gotten the first shots in. We weren’t too far behind, though.

The second flight out of Soesterberg was also from my squadron, led by Major Jack Walters. He was trying to catch up to us, but the speeds and distances wouldn’t allow it. By that point we had burners going and were just coming into AIM-7 range. Our targets were a flight of eight Fulcrums. I locked up a target and fired two missiles. My wingman followed suit and a few seconds later, the other element did too.  The MiGs were still too far away for visual IDs. The MiGs took a little time to figure out what was happening and to evade. I’m not quite sure what the issue was but by the time the flight started to break up, our Sparrows were on top of them. Most of our first shots hit home. Explosions far off in front of us and contacts falling off of my radar screen confirmed it.

Behind the Fulcrums was a second larger formation made up of MiG-23s. I was setting up for a second volley when my RWR started going crazy. The Floggers had launched AA-7 missiles at us. My flight broke and evaded. I took my wingman up high and to the north as the second element broke right and descended. The first time someone shoots at you in anger is a bizarre experience. You go from fear when the guy is shooting at you, to relief when he misses, and then it’s just fangs out anger. A lot had happened in the short time we were twisting and turning. MiGs merged with friendly fighters and a large furball was developing. I called “Fights on!” and dove in with my wingman. Captain Cody Welles, my other element leader and his wingman followed suit.

The furball can best be described as a tornado of chaos coming at me at a fast clip. No other way to really describe it. I caught sight of a MiG-23 going into a vertical climb about four miles in front of me. I raised my nose, selected Sparrows and when I had a good tone shot two off. As the Flogger came up over the top, I kept my nose pointed right at him. He dropped a string of flares and even some chaff but it didn’t do him much good. The first missile went high and missed but the second one homed in and blew his tail section off in a large explosion. I rolled out, came around and started scanning for a new target.

Right at that moment, a MiG-23 flashed across my nose in a dive. Following close behind was an F-16 and right on the Viper’s ass was another MiG-23 moving in for a shot. I turned hard into the Flogger and brought him into my HUD. I was too close for a Sidewinder shot so I called up my 20mm cannon and sprayed. The MiG took rounds in its left wing and up near the cockpit. It kind of shook for a second before flipping over onto its back and falling out of the sky.  I hadn’t seen my wingman or anybody else from my flight. The radios were full of chatter. I heard numerous Fox-1 and -2 calls, intermixed with kill confirmations and a couple of Maydays.

And then almost as fast as it started, it was over. The surviving MiGs bugged out, egressing back east at the speed of heat. More F-15s from Soesterberg, as well as RAF Phantoms from Germany had arrived on the scene and were screaming east in pursuit. That was good because I burned a whole lot of gas and was even past Bingo. I’d need a tanker soon and probably wasn’t the only one. First thing was first, however. I called over the radio, “Outlaw flight from lead. Check in.”

I was never so gratified to hear three distinct voices come back almost immediately. “Two.” “Three.” “Four.” We rendezvoused and started our way back north to the nearest tanker track and waiting KC-135s. Overall, Outlaw flight did magnificent. I killed three MiGs. My wingman claimed a Fulcrum and it was confirmed later. Cody and his wingman each claimed two. Cody’s pair held up but his wingman, a new lieutenant with under 50 hours at the time, had one of his kills dismissed. It happens. Seven kills for zero losses.

The raid failed. The Russians sent about forty jets over the border and were getting 10 back. The AWACS threw twenty NATO fighters at this particular raid and were getting them all back. A couple of F-16s were trailing smoke, but they made it home. Other raids on the first day met similar results. It would become more difficult as time went on, but we’d received our baptism of fire and knew for a fact the Russians could be defeated in the air.

That was the first sortie.


Author’s Note: I will post the conclusion for Into the Meatgrinder sometime in August. I haven’t forgotten about it. Just wanted to move forward with this new Snapshot post first.

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