The U.S. Navy’s AIM-54 Phoenix, the exclusive long-range weapon of the F-14 Tomcat fighter, is one of the most powerful air-to-air missiles every to exist.
Thirteen feet long and weighing 1,000 pounds, the rocket-propelled, radar-guided AIM-54 flew at Mach five as high as 80,000 feet while carrying a devastating, 135-pound warhead over a range of more than 100 miles.
Former Navy F-14 pilot Francesco Chierici called the Phoenix “a lethal sledgehammer of a missile.”
But in more than 30 years of U.S. service ending with the type’s retirement from Navy service in the mid-2000s, American Tomcats fired just three AIM-54s in anger. All in 1999 while targeting Iraqi aircraft violating a U.N. no-fly zone.
None of those Phoenixes struck their targets.
The only country successfully to wield the AIM-54 in combat has been Iran, which in the early 1970s acquired 79 F-14s and hundreds of Phoenixes from the United States.
Iranian Tomcats fired many AIM-54s at Iraqi planes during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that began on Sept. 22, 1980. But it’s possible the first Iranian Phoenix kill actually took place before full-scale fighting broke out.
In the fall of 1980, as tensions escalated, Iranian jets flew limited strikes on Iraqi forces just across the border opposite Iran. F-14s flew top cover.
According to aviation historian Tom Cooper, on Sept. 9, 1980, Iranian Tomcat pilot Mohammed-Reza Ataayee and a wingman were protecting a formation of F-4Es bombing Iraqi positions near the border. “My back-seater was 1st Lt. Sultan Pasha-Pour,” Ataayee told Cooper.
Back then, I was a major and the second Tomcat was piloted by Maj. Shahram Rostami … The ground radar announced to us one target that was approaching the border and closing fast, and asked us if it is possible for us to engage it.
At the time the government had given us strict orders to never stray over the border or engage in cross-border combats, in order to give Saddam Hussein no excuse for an invasion. We were to engage only if they violated our airspace. Then we had the right to engage and destroy them.
I told the radar I will head toward TFB.4 [Tactical Fighter Base 4, near Dezful] to land and refuel. After refueling, we took off from Dezful and I was immediately alerted that there was an aircraft roughly 50 or so miles away, in a northern direction.
I saw that this target was coming from direction of Hamedan, meaning from north to south. I asked the radar are you sure it is a foe and not a friend. They said stand by so they could check the status of the target, but after a short delay the radar said, ‘No, this is definitely an enemy.’ For us it was hard to imagine an Iraqi pilot would be as brazen as to enter our airspace. Until then, the Iraqis never had the guts to do so.
I told my [back-seat radar-intercept officer] Pasha-Pour to launch a missile at this target. After a quick pause I repeated my order. He told me to do it. I told him to do it. Finally, he pushed the button.
Because I flew F-5s earlier, I was used to seeing the missile going off the wingtip rails and accelerate really fast. I never fired an AIM-54 before and did not know what a Phoenix launch actually felt like. Once Pasha-Pour pushed the button, I could see nothing. I only heard the sound of something detaching from the belly of my aircraft. I told Pasha-Pour that I think that, unfortunately, the missile malfunctioned and fell to the earth.
Thus I inverted my aircraft to see what was going on below and saw the missile falling away. But then I saw it releasing a smoke trail … only then did I recall that the launch sequence took several seconds.
I rolled out and got back to checking the radar, and saw the countdown until the missile would hit. This was counting down — five, four, three, two, one then zero. And then I saw the target disappear from my radar. The ground radar called to congratulate — that poor guy nearly fainted in excitement!’
The Iranian air force officially credited Ataayee with a kill of an Iraqi Sukhoi Su-20M flown by pilot named Faysal Abdul-Fattah Abdul Rahman, Cooper explained.
But Iraq never actually operated any Su-20Ms. In 1980 it did however operate Su-20s -- not M-models -- that Iraq bought from the Soviet Union in 1973.
According to one Iraqi government study that Cooper cited, the first Iraqi loss in the conflict with Iran was an Su-22 flown by No. 44 squadron commander Maj. Noubar Abdel-Hamid Al Hamadani, shot down on Sept. 14, 1980.
“While the [Iranian] F-14 crew certainly had good reason to claim its first kill on Sept. 9, 1980, currently it remains unknown if Ataayee and Pasha-Pour really scored the first-ever kill by an AIM-54,” Cooper wrote.
“It’s possible that this honor belongs to 1st Lt. Fereydoon-Ali Mazandarani and 1st Lt. Qassem Soltani, who claimed to have shot down a MiG-23 with an AIM-54 on Sept. 17, 1980.”