Captain Michael “Dozer” Shower (USAF)
493rd EFS “Grim Reapers,” F-15C
Operation ALLIED FORCE
24 March 1999
Call-sign: EDGE 61Mike Shower graduated the United States Air Force Academy in 1990, and attended UPT at Vance AFB, Oklahoma. In 1993 he completed F-15C training, and was assigned to the 43rd Fighter Squadron, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. Following this tour he was selected to attend the F-15C Fighter Weapons Instructor Course at Nellis. Upon graduation, "Dozer” was assigned to the 493rd Fighter Squadron, RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom, in the summer of 1997.
Besides the multiple deployments to Incirlik to support Operation NORTHERN WATCH, I had also been on the ADVON (Advance Team) to Cervia AB, Italy, for one false alarm. On that trip in October 1998 I went with an out-going weapons officer, Maj Stu “Razor” Johnson. The entire squadron deployed; we had no idea if a war would kick off. In fact, the Serbians backed down, partially due to winter conditions in theater. The deployment only lasted a little over a month, and when they backed down everyone redeployed to their home bases. On February 19, 1999, I had just completed a BFM hop with another IP, Capt Ken “Heater” Griffin, when the Operations Officer (Ops O) met me at the door and told me to get my bags packed; we're going back to Cervia. Four hours later I was on an airplane for Italy, ADVON for the 2nd round.
A couple of days later the first 12 jets arrived from Lakenheath (we still had six jets deployed to Incirlik performing Operation NORTHERN WATCH; they would show up to Cervia a week before the war), and I assumed my flight commander duties; I was still helping our brand new weapons officer get up to speed, so I was fairly busy. The experience level in the squadron was very low, and there weren't many IPs; in fact, we had several brand new wingman, and even worse, several of our most experienced instructor pilots, including “Razor,” “Heater," “Tonto,” and a few others, had just PCS'd (Permanent Change of Station), leaving a big hole in our experience level. In one unusual aspect we were lucky; since we had just deployed to Cervia for the same drill, there weren’t many unknowns to deal with. As the weeks wore on I shuttled back and forth between Cervia, the CAOC at Vincenza, and the planning cell at Aviano doing the mission planning for F-15Cs. It was obvious that things were getting more serious, and the prospect of actually going to war was looming near. As we stood-down from training sorties a few days prior to the start of hostilities everyone knew that the time was close. Still, it was difficult to come back to the squadron and have to pretend that nothing was going on, or at least that I didn't have any “gouge."
One of the more interesting things from my perspective as the weapons officer was how much more attention the squadron was paying to academics during the last couple of days. Instead of the usual “oh well” attitude, guys were on the edge of their seats to learn more about SAM breaks, the survival radios, you name it; everyone knew their lives depended on this information, so it was a great time to be a weapons officer. Another very important factor was the great leadership we had in “BillyMac,” our Squadron Commander, who was also a Weapons School Graduate; he too had been there for the first deployment. He was a superb pilot, and incredibly calm throughout the entire deployment, and I was able to share details, ideas, and thoughts with him as we made plans, prepared, and flew missions—that was a great benefit, and made things much easier.
The day of 24 March was very surreal. Most of us tried to sleep until about noon, most couldn’t. Since it was March, and still pretty cold and not yet tourist season, our little resort town of Cesanatico on the beach was empty. The guys were bummed, since it’s a nude beach in the season! The pilots were in a four star hotel with a four star restaurant with outstanding per diem; all I can say is, if you’ve got to go to war, this was the way to do it! Everyone was restless, so about 20 of us head down and play beach football. In hindsight, this was pretty stupid, as any one of us could have broken something and been oil the schedule, but it was a blast, and was all about relieving the stress that we were all feeling. We played for a good hour and a half, got cleaned up and in uniform, got in our cars, and went to war. Strange how that stays so vivid in my memory.
The flight line was completely still and quiet when we stepped to the jets—it was a somber moment. I’ll always remember handing my nametag to Sgt Donald Green, aircraft 159’s crew chief; I really don’t remember much of what was said-it was pretty emotional—but I think it included, “bring my jet back and you with it!” I taxied and took off first, since I was leading the first four-ship out; our package had a greater distance to travel before our push time. We took off at sunset, one at a time (it was a tiny runway), and I’ll never forget it, because there must have been 100 personnel lined up along the infield down the runway standing at attention when we took off—it sent chills down your spine. The line-up was myself as EDGE 61 and “Man-O” Steele as my number two. The second element consisted of “BillyMac" as number three, with “Dirk" Driggers on his wing. We used most of the squadron during the first 24 hours, including our newest wingmen. “Dirk" was one of these, with only a few hours of night flying in the Eagle, not long out of RTU, and here he was in the first four-ship, at night, and at war over hostile territory—it was great! While they were nervous, they did a fantastic job hangin' in there. In fact, I was most impressed throughout the entire conflict by how well our young pilots performed. They followed their training to a “T,” and in many ways performed better than 'us" more experienced pilots did.
"Cricket" Renner was leading the 2nd four-ship to takeoff. My four-ship was tasked to protect a "U.S.-Only" package consisting often F-117s, two B-2s on their combat debut, four F-l6CJs, and two EA-6Bs over northern Serbia. “Cricket" had a coalition package of aluminum (non-stealthy) aircraft pushing first into the Kosovo province and southern Serbia. In his flight were “K-Bob” Sweeney as number two and “Rico" Rodriguez as number three, with "Wild Bill" Denham on his wing. Both "K-Bob" and “Wild Bill" were also very inexperienced in the Eagle.
The northern push w as considered the “low-observable stealth” package, and since it was U.S.-Only, the NATO AWACS was not well informed of its presence, purpose, or composition. This was not great planning or coordination on the coalition leadership's part. Out of many painful lessons learned, a few were that you might not want to plan that the war will only last a few days, and it might be wise to bring in everything you need to fight—like a U.S. AWACS to control your U.S.-only packages! In fact, when I checked in with the AWACS. they said in effect “Who are you?,” so we were off to a rough start, and this had a significant impact on our mission. The package marshaled over Hungary, and then was to push south through Serbia towards Belgrade. The B-2s were moving from south to north throughout the country, so they were really under everyone’s protection during the mission. The F-117s were doing their “spider routes,” going all over to their various targets in north Serbia. Our plan was to sweep the area as two two-ships separated by about 25 miles, then set up two CAPs just north of Belgrade facing south. This would keep us out of the SAM rings, but give us good coverage of their known MiG bases. I was holding down the western CAP with two, while three and four held the east CAP. With all this going on, and NATO AWACS not being in the loop, it made for a real mess.
Since we didn't have night vision goggles (NVGs) yet, our formation within the elements was about a five mile trail for the wingmen. They maintained this using the radar, air-to-air TACAN, and the IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) interrogator, as well as having built in altitude deconfliction between aircraft. Since we were a little short of AIM-120s, some of the aircraft had six AIM-120s, and some had four -120s and two AIM-7MHs. All had two AIM-9Ms, three bags of gas, and full chaff and flare. My aircraft had the two AIM-7 configuration, along with the AMRAAMs.The heavier AIM-7s were on the front stations, with the AMRAAMs behind them and on the inboard wing stations.
We pushed first, about two minutes in front of the CJs as planned. This gave us room to pump cold once, and not run over the CJs. It was a crystal clear night; we could see all the way to the southern end of Serbia. The lights of Belgrade were right there to the south. Since we knew the timeline, as the Time On Target (TOT) for the initial wave of cruise missiles came close, I had the whole flight look south at Belgrade. We could see the orange glow of the explosions as they hit various targets. Then it was our trun, and we pushed south.
We were in the mid- to high 30s, and the CJs were in the 20s. The F-117s were below them, and the B-2s came through WAY above everyone. This gave us some concern, having JDAMs (GPS-guided bombs) coming down through us, but it was “big sky theory” in such a tight airspace. We were really stuck; we didn't know where they would be, we had no way to see or avoid them, and we had to stay close to the MiG bases. I had briefed the F-117 weapons officer that if we engaged low targets we would shoot and dive through their block. He said he was fine with this, after all, it's a Big Sky Theory-you'll hear more about this later!
We had just gotten to the southern end of the CAP point and were getting ready to set up our counter-rotating CAPs when I hear the call “Splash one MiG in the south" relayed via AWACS. This was the luckiest guy in the world. “Rico," who now had his third MiG kill (two in DESERT STORM); he had just killed a MiG-29 that drove right at him—single AIM-120 to a fireball about 10 miles from Kosovo's capitol, Pristina. So we were pretty tired up now, as we knew they were flying. We had questioned whether they would fly or not, and now we knew the MiGs were up. We were running 10 mile legs in the CAP, and we had been in country for roughly 6.9 minutes. I turned south again for the first time and, just like that, at 35 nm, there's a blip on the radar. I lock him up, and he’s doing 150 knots at 1,500 feet, climbing out from their airfield in Belgrade, Batajinica. I call everyone, “Heads up, contact out of Batijinica." There’s no ID or AWACS calls yet, and I break lock and go back to search. A short time later the radar shows him northbound, so I lock him again at 25 miles, our briefed lock range. Now he's at 10,000 feet going 400 knots.
Unknown to me until after the sortie, most of my radio calls on my main radio were unreadable. The radio was jamming itself, but I didn't know it; there was no feedback in the headset, and all we heard when playing the tapes together after the sortie was silence on everyone else's tapes, while I was jabbering away on the radio on my tape. So almost all of my contact calls, IDs, shots, etc. were not heard by anyone but me. This will turn out to be a huge factor in the chaos that ensues.
By 17 miles I have an ID that this is a bad guy, and I call it out. I talk first and shoot second, just what you're not supposed to do. So I call, "Hostile, Hostile, FOX 3" and take my first AIM-120 shot at 14 miles. I made sure the AIM-120 was active, and then thumbed to and shot an AIM-7. No kidding. I've always wanted to shoot an AIM-7, and that big ol' Sparrow comes off, WHOOSH! I'm looking down into the lights of Belgrade so I can’t see anything, but I was able to follow the missile motor for awhile. I’m ramping down from 37,000 feet the whole time. At about six miles, and just after the AMRAAM times out, the target turns right, directly into the beam. This could have been triggered by several things. He could have gotten indications of my radar lock. The AMRAAM could have exploded near him but not damaged him, who knows, but he does maneuver into the beam. So now he’s maneuvering when the AIM-7 gets there, and it apparently misses also.
Now I’m at 5.5 nm, look-down, when I shoot another AIM 120 and call, “FOX 3 again." I’m at about 20,000 feet, and he’s at about 10,000 feet and I’m diving. This missile comes off and goes about straight down, and I'm diving and turning left, looking down and trying to follow it. The MiG then comes out of the beam in a climbing left turn towards me, kind of breaking up and into me. Maybe he got spiked, got a call from his GCI, or just looked up into a dark sky and saw the missile, but we end up about eight or nine thousand feet apart, and he’s almost directly under me, head to head aspect. I pick up a spike (I have no idea where it came from—I never looked), and at the same time I’m glued to the missile motor when it turns into a fireball. Of course, I’m supposed to be in AUTOGUNS and clearing for other bad guys. Instead, I’m in a steep left turn staring at the fireball, thinking, cool! I don’t see an ejection, but there was a lot of stuff coming off the aircraft, and I watched it impact the ground. We found out later that the pilot actually survived, which I was really glad about. My goal was to shoot down the aircraft, to eliminate a threat to our aircraft; you really don't think about killing the other guy. In hindsight I was glad to have only shot down the aircraft—he had a wife and kids too.
The Yugoslavian press claimed that the only MiG pilot to be killed was shot down by their own air defense SAMs. There are a lot of conflicting reports, though. The pilot flying my MiG wrote a long article about his short flight, and it even had his picture. It’s been “edited" by a very sarcastic U.S. fighter pilot, and it’s hilarious. He claims to have had three missiles shot at him; how he figured that out I’ll never know—maybe he guessed, but he was spot-on.
Remember what I said about the F-117s and the big sky theory? This is exactly where this proved false—as always, Murphy’s is alive and well. Because we had spun once in the CAP prior to the commit, one of the F-117s was now in front of us, directly between us and the MiG during the engagement. He’s flying along, looking through his NVGs when, WHOOSH-WHOOSH, two missiles go right over the top of his canopy. He looks back and forward and realizes he is sandwiched, smack in the middle of an air-to-air engagement. I'm 20 degrees nose-low. and about a thousand feet away from the F-117, pointed right in front of him, when I fire my third missile. I find out by talking to him on the phone later that he sees all this as the missile motor illuminates my F-15, and the missile, followed closely by me, flying right across his nose. I almost hit him. He turns and follows the missile's path, and sees the MiG turning left towards him. also! Then the MiG explodes, and he watches it crash, too. Another F-117, about 35 miles away, sees the explosion. With his NVGs he clearly saw the MiG. the Eagle, and the F-117 all together. So much for the "Big Sky Theory," and of course, I have NO IDEA this just happened!
While all this is going on, my wingman and other flight members are only getting bits and pieces of my radio calls. My wingman knew something was going on, but not the whole picture. Because of this, when he sees the fireball "Man-O's” first thought is, "Dozer just got shot down!” I then transmit on the other radio "Let's come off north,” and he thinks, "Thank God it’s not Dozer!" He did have an ID by then, and was ready to shoot, but held off on his shot trying to figure out what was going on—outstanding patience for a young fighter pilot at night, on his first combat sortie! The other element didn’t realize what had happened until later (radio again). So that’s the end of the first engagement.
We had just reset in the CAP when we turn south and see an exact repeat of the first radar contact, except at 20 miles this guy turns into the beam. I can’t get an ID on him and AWACS is no help; not once did they call an ID on a real airborne contact that night in the north. I can’t blame them entirely, because first, NATO AWACS did not train as focused on tactical engagements as U.S. AWACS controllers did, and second, they were not given our U.S. Only Air Tasking Order (ATO), so they didn’t know who was where, at what altitude, times, etc. In addition, since they couldn't hear my ID and shot calls, either, there was no way for them to hold onto a contact and pass the ID back to us if we lost track or had to turn cold (again, a factor later on). At this point I end up right over the top of the contact-I'm at 30,000 feet, and he's at 10,000. I call my element out north, since I don't have an ID and no NVGs so we're not comfortable running on him. In my heart-of-hearts AND based on information I had in front of me, I KNEW this was a hostile, I knew where everyone else was (Eagles and CJs, and I knew he wasn't a F-117 or B-2), but without the technical and “legal" ID I couldn't shoot. After the shoot-down of the Black Hawks, the F-15 community was so conservative and worried about doing something wrong that we missed an opportunity to do something right. While being conservative is a good thing, we completely removed the ability of a pilot to use common sense and situational awareness. I had no doubt who this guy was, I had tracked him off his airfield. So while I did the right thing, what if the MiG had gotten a lucky contact and shot one of us? I fully believe I would have been questioned for not shooting. In retrospect, and I teach this all the time now, under the same circumstances—SHOOT! If there's ANY doubt you don't hit the pickle button, but if there isn’t, don't be a lawyer—do what's right!
Meanwhile, "Billy Mac" and his element are running on this guy, who is now northeast of Belgrade, turning back to the north. "BillyMac” runs on him for 30 miles with a lock, and he can't get an ID. One of the problems is while I was directly over the top of the MiG. “BillyMac” gets a “Friendly” indication from our merged plot. I didn’t think to call out that I was directly over the MiG, and he doesn't know to break lock and reacquire to clean up the picture — in those days we didn't have data link yet, so we didn’t have great S.A. on where other people were. They go in to 10 to 15 miles and abort out for lack of ID. Meanwhile “Dog” Kennel, an F-16CJ pilot (CLUB 73), has a solid radar lock on the MiG but no ID. He asks me seven times to confirm “Hostile” on the target, but once again, because of my radio he can’t hear me (I respond five times to his calls!). In the heat of the battle he forgets to then get an electronic ID, so he holds his shot and comes off north with “BillyMac’s” flight.
With no one able to get an ID we now have EIGHT fighters all running north away from ONE MiG-29 because we couldn’t ID him, nor use situational awareness to shoot him. While we are bravely running away to the north, my two-ship is in a position to start a turn back to the south to look at Belgrade again. Right then AWACS calls out “MiG-29 CAPs airborne near Belgrade,” so I’m thinking where did all these MiGs come from? We found out just before takeoff they had moved six MiGs well to the south (the ones “Rico” engaged), but what AWACS was calling was ground traffic. We flew south all the way to Belgrade looking for these MiGs that weren’t there (they became somewhat infamous for this—and worse were those in charge at the CAOC that several times attempted to commit us through SAM rings throughout the conflict to attack MiGs that weren’t there because they were ground tracks). Operation ALLIED FORCE took a big step (backwards!) towards centralized control AND execution.
A few minutes later the lone MiG-29 had turned south, so the other six U.S. fighters turn and start chasing this guy south. “Dog” calls me and recommends that I turn north. As soon as I do, I get an immediate radar contact with hostile ID at 16 miles, beak-to-beak. “Man-O” is with me and locked also. At exactly the same time that I call the bullseye position of the hostile contact at 10,000 feet, AWACS comes back with “Friendly there, 27,000 feet.” So I start a steep dive from 37,000 feet trying to get below 27, all the while screaming for the position of the other Eagle element and CLUB flight, the CJs. Of course they can't hear me because of the radio issue, so I get no answers from anyone!
By the time I'm diving through 19,000 feet the MiG is now five miles off my nose, and I know I'm looking at a guy WELL below 270. I call "Hostile, FOX-3” and shoot one AIM-120. I make a cardinal mistake here, and it's something I always hammer guys on doing —take two shots! They are called “miss”iles, not “hit"tiles. So I hold the second shot, since I only have one 120 left and an old AIM-7. I should have cranked, which would have given me room to complete the intercept and be in a position to shoot again (another mistake), but I don't, so I'm in a right turn looking straight down when near time-out I see a small “pop." This could have been a proximity detonation of the missile, or it could have been the missile hitting the ground. Either way, it didn't down the MiG and there's no fireball, so my “one” shot didn't do the job. Now I'm too close to keep him on the radar, so he gimbals off my radar low; I’m looking all the way down, and he’s got to be right under me, and I'm thinking this isn’t a very good situation. So I've got to spin to get spacing, and hope he ends up in front of me again. I call for a 360 turn, or “spin,” and around I go. I say “I” go because of the radio again, as two doesn’t hear the call.
"Man-O” has been locked to this guy the whole time, but he doesn't hear my hostile call, my shot, nor the spin call; he also doesn’t have his own ID, so he’s not sure who this contact is. While I'm in my 360 turn I see the air-to-air TACAN range getting bigger, so I ask him for his heading in the other radio, and he says “south.” I direct him to come north and spin to get back in formation, and being a good wingman, he drops the contact and turns north. Had I known he was tracking the same contact, and was in a position to kill this guy, I would have shouted, “Shoot him. he’s hostile!” In fact, when we listened to his tape later there was broken but audible radio calls from "Man-O” about being locked to something—had I been able to process that and figure out what was happening, we might have been able to get this MiG.
Once I roll out southbound and “Man-O” is back behind me, we get more locks on a contact that we “KNOW” is the same guy; he's heading south towards Belgrade, same place we left him, same airspeed and altitude, but I can’t get an ID, and AWACS keeps saying “friendly there,” so I can't shoot. No kidding, this is the only radar contact in the area; everyone else we can see with radar and IFF is behind us (ie, it was only stealth aircraft in front of us and the MiG). He starts to slow and descend, so I secretly hope he has battle damage and is going to crash, but he was probably on approach to his field. We are coming up on the SAM threat rings around Belgrade, and I don’t want to go from hero to zero by getting us shot down, so I drop the contact and call us out north. We missed killing this guy not once, but twice, for a variety of reasons. My radio problems, ID issues, not shooting two missiles, AWACS not hearing the hostile calls, and the reasons mentioned before all compounded in the “fog of war" to cost us this opportunity. And many of the issues were solvable at the time, had I just been able to process the information and act upon it.
However, at this point we just return to our CAP; the B-2s are nearly overhead based on timing, and it’s time to egress and Return To Base (RTB). All said and done, it was still a pretty cool start for Eagle drivers on the first night of a war!
The Yugoslavian press later reported that the first MiG-29 to launch from Batajnica Air Base was Maj Nebojsa Nikolic in MiG-29 18111, followed shortly by Maj Ljuhisa Kulacin. Nikolic was reported to have been shot down almost immediately, while Kulacin claimed to have evaded three missiles fired at him. Since Batajnica AB was under attack by NATO forces, he chose to land at Belgrade International Airport. Both pilots reported that the radars and SPO-15 radar detectors were inoperative on their aircraft. These reports match amazingly close to the NATO claims.
Capt (now-Lt Col) Shower went back to the F-15C Fighter Weapons School, this time as an instructor. Following this tour, he was selected in the initial cadre of F-22 Raptor pilots for the initial operational test and evaluation, and currently is stationed at Elmendorf AFB Alaska, commanding an operational F-22 Raptor squadron.Major Nebojsa Nikolic
launched from Batajnica at 20:37, in the MiG-29 number 18111
A nearby missile explosion caused no harm of the plane.
Soon a 2nd missile passed close by.
He initiated evasive action, but the 3rd missile hit the plane.
At 20:47 he ejected, and parachuted down to Knicanin.Major Ljubisa Kulacin
launched from Batajnica at 20:40, in the MiG-29 number 18105
Heading north of 3km from Batajnica, he was alerted to radar lock.
He beamed in, broken the radar lock and continued north, by evading a missile.
After 20min of flight, he landed back at Tesla international.