Lt. Cmdr. Mark Fox of Strike Fighter Squadron 81 (VFA-81) sits in the cockpit of the F/A-18C Hornet aircraft that he was flying when he became the first coalition pilot to shoot down an Iraqi MiG aircraft during Operation Desert Storm. VFA-81 is based aboard the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-60). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein promised the fight for Kuwait would be “The Mother of All Battles,” and on Jan. 17, 1991, he got more than he’d bargained for when American, British, French, Kuwaiti, and Saudi planes populated the skies at the start of Desert Storm’s air campaign. Lt. Cmdr. Mark Fox and Lt. Nick Mongillo were two of four F/A-18C Hornet pilots from the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga on approach to Al Walid Air Base H-3 in western Iraq. An E-2C Hawkeye radar aircraft spotted two Iraqi MiG-21 aircraft 15 miles ahead traveling at supersonic speed and coming right for them.
“At three miles, I could see them,” Mongillo recalled to The New York Times — or six seconds away at a speed of 1,400 mph. “I pulled the trigger at two and a half miles. The missile impacted him, and he was almost immediately under my right wing. As it hit him I rolled up to see that it was a MIG-21. It was tan, and on fire.”
Although they were each carrying a payload of four 2,000-pound Mk.84 bombs, the F/A-18C Hornets were designed to go from the air-to-ground role to an air-to-air role at the flick of a switch. This gave these American pilots aerial superiority.
“Our relative rate of closure was more than 1,200 knots,” Lt. Cmdr. Fox later recalled in the book Gulf War Air Debrief. “They weren’t maneuvering. I shot a Sidewinder first. It was a smokeless missile and I thought, at first, that I had wasted it because I couldn’t see it tracking toward the MiG. I fired a Sparrow. The Sidewinder hit, though, followed by the Sparrow. The first missile actually did the job, and the Sparrow flew into the fireball. The whole event, from the E-2’s call to missile impact, took less than 40 seconds.”
After Fox and Mongillo each scored the first MiG kills by Navy aviators since 1968, they continued onward and released their ordnance over their intended target. Fox and Mongillo achieved the only Navy fighter plane kills in the Gulf War, and Mongillo earned the pilot’s coveted “ace” status, as he had already shot down four other enemy planes in combat. Mongillo was awarded the Silver Star, and it is believed to be the first time in history when a fighter aircraft won a dogfight while carrying bombs, then delivered its payload to complete the bombing mission.
The MiG-killing F/A-18C Hornets flown that day are scheduled to go on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola on the 30th anniversary of their actions in Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 2021.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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