A U.S. Air Force C-141 Almost Got Itself Shot Down Over Chad
1987 was a stressful year over Central Africa
During France’s intervention in the Chad-Libya war in 1987, the French restricted air traffic over Chad. No aerial traffic was allowed in an area that extended from the 16th parallel to the outskirts of the capital N’Djamena.
Civilian pilots didn’t always respect these air-traffic measures, especially as civil flights that sought to save fuel by cutting through the forbidden zone.
It was dangerous air space. Over the summer of 1987, Libyan Tu-22s and Il-76 cargo planes acting as bombers struck several towns near the 16th parallel, in particular Faya-Largeau. The Il-76s dropped dozens of pallets of bombs on a palm grove near the town, killing several local people.
On Sept. 7, 1987, French troops fired a HAWK missile and shot down a Libyan Tu-22 bomber over N’Djamena. Two days later, an unknown aircraft flew over Chad toward the capital. It was flying at subsonic speed and not responding to radio calls.
A patrol of French Mirage F.1C fighters flew to intercept. The patrol leader identified the plane as an Il-76 identical to those that had bombed Faya-Largeau. The Mirages engaged.
French pilot Pierre-Alain Antoine was nearby aboard a C-135FR tanker during the incident. “Twenty minutes before we arrived over N’Djamena, one of the crew members of the refueling tanker called me to listen to the frequency of the radar in N’Djamena,” Antoine said. “We were hearing, live, the interception of the plane by two Mirage F.1Cs.”
At top — French Mirage F.1C over Chad in 1987. Jean-Pierre Gabriel collection. Above — C-141 serial number 64-0638, which was nearly shot down by the Mirages. Photo via the author
“Full throttle, P.C., dropped fuel tanks, top,” the Mirage leader said.
“Contact radar,” he added.
“Remote recognition sequence,” the air controller said.
“Visual on an Il-76,” the leader radioed.
“You confirmed an Il-76?” the controller asked.
“Affirmative,” the Mirage leader said.
“Order for destruction,” the controller said.
“Okay, missile locked,” the leader replied.
“Stop, leader!” the other Mirage pilot interjected.
“Repeat, number-two?” the leader said.
“I think the plane is a C-141 Starlifter,” the other pilot said.
“Repeat?” the controller asked.
“I think it’s a C-141,” the leader said.
“Okay, visual recognition sequence,” the controller ordered.
“Confirmed visual on a C-141 … USAF … serial number 40638,” the Mirage leader radioed.
The French directed the C-141 to land in N’Djamena. “The aircraft was held throughout the day,” Antoine recalled. “The commander, a captain, said he he … had not read the [air-space notice]!”
The C-141 was in fact on a multi-stop “embassy-run” mission across Africa. Arriving in Dakar, there was no flight plan for the following Kinshasa-Niamey leg and no diplomatic clearance was provided for Niger, but the crew decided anyway to take off anyway and get the clearance in-flight.
The standard route to Niamey crossed the southwest of Chad and then the Niger border. When the C-141 passed the N’Djamena area, the crew saw the French air force fighters jets behind the C-141 and heard the French pilots on the radio demanding identification.
An investigation revealed that the diplomatic clearances provided to the crew were more than two years old.
“I was flying cargo at the time in the USAF and we were supplying the Chad fighters,” said a U.S. Air Force C-141 pilot, who asked to remain anonymous. “A week prior, a USAF cargo aircraft was nearly shot at by a Mirage, but the Mirage held off once it identified the U.S. flag on the tail.
“I flew in the next week and was gravely warned to not repeat the incident. We were to fly our flight path as assigned. It was all very hush-hush at the time and we were hoping to at least get an escort from the Mirage. Exciting times and lots has changed since then.”