1991: Lt.Cdr. Michael Speicher Case


1991: Lt.Cdr. Michael Speicher Case

Scott Speicher - Dead or Alive?

In eight hours they'd fly into a war.

Scott Speicher and Tony Albano, three squadronmates and scores of other Navy pilots would roar off the carrier Saratoga in the Red Sea, across Saudi Arabia and toward Baghdad.

Now they stood in the planning room, reviewing the timing of the attack, their flight paths and targets. It was the afternoon of Jan. 16, 1991. The pilots would soon climb into their F/A-18 Hornets and launch the first air assault of the Persian Gulf War.

Originally, Speicher wasn't supposed to go. His commander had tapped him as the airborne spare. He was to fly in and take over if any of the other jets malfunctioned.

Speicher went to his skipper the day before and pleaded. He didn't want to be the spare, to have to turn around and come back to the ship without firing a shot.

Even in a competitive field, where petty jealousies turn some pilots against others, everybody liked ``Spike.'' He was a walking cliche: married to his college sweetheart, Joanne, father of a 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, Sunday school teacher, a great swimmer, and despite the good-guy credentials, he wielded a sheepish grin and personality that always made a party a little more lively.

His commander liked him, too. He knuckled under and agreed to send Speicher on the strike. He never returned. He and his jet vanished that night and left behind a series of puzzling clues, jumbled further by government misstatements and mistakes. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher would later gain a grim distinction: the only American from any war that the government still lists as missing in action.

What happened that January night torments his family, battle-toughened pilots and intelligence agents.

In the planning room, Speicher and Albano learned that they'd take off well after midnight, to return around dawn. They decided they'd better get some sleep and walked back to the stateroom they shared.

Speicher crawled into the top bunk, Albano into the bottom. They lay still for 45 minutes, maybe an hour, hearts pounding, minds racing.

``I can't sleep,'' Albano finally said softly.

``I can't, either.''

Around 1 a.m., they put on their flight suits, boots and gear, walked through the mess deck and up to the flight deck. Speicher, Albano and others from their squadron, the VFA-81 Sunliners, slapped hands.

``See you back on deck in a couple of hours,'' Albano told his buddy.

They were all nervous. Barry ``Skull'' Hull knew he must be more uptight than he thought because his mouth was so dry. ``God, I need a drink of water,'' he kept thinking.

The Saratoga's crew launched 40 jets, one every 30 seconds, into the darkness, and the pilots headed for their rendezvous point, a fuel tanker flying over Saudi Arabia.

One by one, they rotated into position to stick a probe into the tanker and fuel up. Hull pulled his jet away, slipped to the back of the formation and looked down into another pilot's cockpit.

He didn't know who it was and couldn't ask; they flew ``comms out,'' staying off the radios to avoid adding to an airwave overload. But Hull marveled at what he saw below: the glow of the instrument panel and the green formation lights of the F/A-18, an aircraft many thought to be the most versatile military jet yet made.

``Man, that is so cool,'' Hull said to himself. ``Think of the power.''

Hull knew the Hornet could do it all. It was designed for both air-to-air combat and bombing ground targets. The F/A-18s sported a sophisticated electronic identification system and packed two Sparrow and two Sidewinder missiles for taking on enemy jets.

Near the target, the pilot could flip a switch, go into attack mode and drop a bomb. On this night, Speicher and VFA-81 pilots each were loaded with three high-speed anti-radiation missiles, or HARMs.

The mission was to take out Iraqi radar, command and control centers and surface-to-air missile sites. The Hornets would come in seconds after a volley of cruise missiles. The Iraqis would detect the cruise missiles, flip on their radar, man their SAMs and, just then, the Hornets would launch their radar-seeking HARMs and slam Iraqi defenses.

Then a third wave of bombers would come through and hammer the targets. It was an intricate plan, relying on precise flight paths and accurate information from AWACs planes, airborne radar and communications stations that monitored the sky.

The pilots needed every warning that technology had to offer, because on this first night, they flew straight into and through one of the most sophisticated air defenses ever encountered. Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, in charge of the air campaign, had told allied commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf that one of every five of his aircraft might get shot down.

That would mean hundreds of losses.

Within minutes of leaving the tanker, Speicher and the other Hornet pilots got a close look at what worried Horner.

They crossed rugged terrain along the Saudi border, entered Iraq, and anti-aircraft fire streamed up at them.

Bob Stumpf was already anxious. Stumpf, a commander with VFA-83, VFA-81's sister squadron, had gotten behind an A-6 Intruder pilot at the tanker, and the pilot must've had the jitters. The guy took a long time to get fuel, and Stumpf had to head for the target without a full tank.

Now, as he zoomed at 690 miles per hour, his radar warning devices filled his cockpit with warbles and whistles and deedle-deedles.

He looked to the horizon and saw something glowing. It pulsated. It seemed alive. In the clear night sky, he couldn't tell how far away it was. It could have been five miles, or 50.

Stumpf had flown in the 1986 raid on Libya, but that was routine compared with what he saw and heard on the first night of Desert Storm.

Orange balls, anti-aircraft fire, came up at him. He thought he was going to die.

Each pilot was assigned an altitude in the 25,000-to-30,000-foot range to make sure they wouldn't collide, but Stumpf started flying up and down quickly to become a tougher target.

Hull saw the pulsing glow, too. At first, he thought it must be an optical illusion. Then he thought that the Middle East must have something like the northern lights.

Soon, he was in it. It was in front of him, behind him, to both sides. The glowing vat turned out to be Baghdad.

Hull's warning gear also chirped like crazy. He remembered what the Vietnam pilots sometimes did, reached over and turned it off.

``Screw it,'' he said, and started using his own eyes to look for missiles.

Just then, the controller plane called out:

``I've got a pop-up, SA-6.''

The SA-6 was one of Iraq's most feared surface-to-air missiles. Pop-up meant that the satellites hadn't shown it. The 18-foot rockets, mounted on tanks, could reach a jet at 30,000 feet and explode when they detected the heat of its engines.

Hull waited for someone to ask for the missile's location. No one did.

``Damn it,'' he said. ``Give me the coordinates!''

The controller rattled them off. Hull jotted the location on his kneeboard and compared it with where he was.

``Oh God no! I'm dead over the top of an SA-6.''

He pushed on, and never saw the missile.

The pilots looked outside their cockpits for immediate threats and glanced down at their radars, sweeping for enemy fighters.

The AWACs controllers described the air picture, as the pilots pushed toward Baghdad. Normally, a Navy E-2C Hawkeye watched over Hornet pilots, but on this night, the Air Force AWACs ran the show.

A little over two hours into the mission, the pilots heard their strike leader and Speicher's skipper, Michael ``Spock'' Anderson, break into the radio frequency.

``I've got a fast-mover, on my nose, he's hot,'' Anderson called out. ``Confirm bandit?''

Anderson needed the controller to call the fast-mover a bandit, an enemy, instead of a bogey, an unknown. The rules of engagement that night were strict. With hundreds of jets in the sky, the possibility of ``blue on blue,'' of a friendly fire kill, was extremely high.

The Hornet pilots had to confirm an enemy fighter at least two ways before firing a missile: They could see it with their eyes (nearly impossible at night), they could ID it electronically or the controller could declare it hostile.

The hair on the back of Hull's neck shot up. He had been so concerned with shooting his HARMs that he had his Hornet in bombing mode, instead of sweeping for enemy fighters.

``Oh my God! What was I thinking?!'' Hull flipped the switch and started scanning for air threats.

The call also jolted other pilots. Albano flew a few miles behind Anderson. Albano knew what ``hot'' meant: The Iraqi fighter's nose pointed almost directly at the nose of Anderson's Hornet.

A couple of pilots thought they heard Anderson identify the enemy as a MiG-25, a Soviet-made jet that could fly at nearly three times the speed of sound.

The controller answered Anderson:

``NEGATIVE . . . negative bandit, confirm BOGEY.''

Anderson and the Iraqi pilot roared through the dark sky at each other.

Anderson didn't want to shoot down one of his own. No stain clung to an aviator more than a blue-on-blue kill. Fellow pilots would talk behind the pilot's back, ask what was wrong with him, get antsy about flying with him. Horner's staff feared half a dozen or more friendly fire kills in the first two weeks.

Anderson wanted someone else to see what he surely saw. They'd been told dozens of times: Better to let a bad guy go than shoot down a good guy.

``Confirm BANDIT?'' Anderson said again, not yelling but punching the words more strongly.

``Negative bandit,'' the controller said. ``Declare bogey.''

Now sweeping, Hull spotted the enemy jet on his radar, but it wasn't coming toward him.

Albano and the others desperately looked for it but couldn't find it.

Anderson asked a third time, even more firmly.


``Negative . . . bogey. Negative . . . bogey.''

The Iraqi fighter and Anderson's Hornet zoomed past each other, at a combined speed near 2,000 mph. Neither fired a missile.

The pilots figured the jet ``bugged out,'' just kept flying away from the Hornets, knowing they didn't have the power to catch him. Some A-6 pilots a few minutes later saw the massive exhaust, nearly 300 feet long, of a MiG right over their heads.

Dave Renaud, from VFA-83, heard Anderson say the MiG had turned ``cold,'' flown out of firing range.

A few minutes later, he saw a big explosion off to his right. It seemed close, maybe five or 10 miles away, and at his altitude.

Its bright flash mesmerized him. He watched it sparkle and glow all the way to the desert floor.

Must be an Iraqi jet getting knocked out by an F-15, he thought. That made sense. Air Force F-15s had launched ahead of the other jets and were to sweep the skies of Iraqi fighters.

The radio frequency was still buzzing, so Renaud didn't report the explosion. Nor did he mark his latitude and longitude. Just in case, though, he did talk into a tape recorder running in his cockpit.

``I see a big explosion off to my right,'' he said.

Stumpf saw it, too. The blast lit up his Hornet like a strobe.

Pay attention, Stumpf told himself, and don't do anything stupid.

They pushed toward the targets, fired their HARMs, then turned south toward the tankers.

Stumpf wanted to haul out of there, but instead had to chug back to conserve fuel. It seemed to take forever to near the Saudi border.

Hull lit his afterburners to blaze back, then remembered that would make him an easy mark for a heat-seeking missile. He backed off.

They all converged at the fuel tankers. They had to pass through a gateway, a specific location and altitude that would let others know they were not enemy aircraft trying to slip through.

About 20 miles from the Saudi border, pilots started checking in with the AWACs. Speicher should have reported in before Albano but didn't. Anderson asked Albano to try to reach Speicher.

Albano tried a tactical frequency only used by VFA-81.

``Spike . . . Bano . . . you up?''


``Spike . . . Bano.''

He switched to another frequency.

``Spike . . . Bano . . . you up?''


Albano radioed Hull and asked him to try.

``Spike . . . ? Skull, have you got me? Spike, come in. Spike . . . How copy?''

No response.

Hull radioed Albano and said he couldn't raise Speicher. Albano relayed the message to their skipper.

``Bano's back up.''

``Any word?'' Anderson asked.

``No sir.''

Not a good sign, but Albano thought Speicher probably had a mechanical failure, turned around and went back to the ship. Or maybe he flew to one of the diversion airfields for an emergency landing.

The possibilities raced through Albano's mind.

Speicher could have ejected and been rescued by special operations teams, or worst case, ejected and started evading capture.

Albano and the others flew in silence back to the Saratoga.

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