Hashem All-e-Agha Was Iran’s Top F-14 Pilot
But Tehran has tried to bury his memory
by TOM COOPER
Part one of two. Read part two.
During the first four years of the Iran-Iraq War, one Iranian F-14 pilot earned a fearful reputation — especially in Iraq. Amazingly enough, he remains entirely unknown to the public, even in Iran.
This might seem unsurprising, considering Iran’s fascistic regime and its ongoing efforts to falsify not only the history of its armed forces, but of the entire country. However, the lengths officials have gone to to avoid acknowledging Iran’s top F-14 pilot are quite extraordinary.
Tehran apparently doesn’t want the world to how one of its deadliest aerial warriors ultimately fell in battle.
The man in question was Hashem All-e-Agha — sometimes spelled “Alagha” — an officer and pilot about whom, contrary to standard practice in Iran, there are no magazine articles, no books, no spectacular movies, no T.V. documentaries and no murals decorating the streets of Iranian cities.
All-e-Agha’s early career was typical for an Iranian fighter pilot of the 1970s. Upon completing his basic and elementary training, he converted to the Northrop F-5 with the 43rd Tactical Training Squadron at the Tactical Fighter Base 4 at Vahdati outside Dezful, and then to the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II at the Tactical Fighter Base 1 at Mehrabad in Tehran.
Quickly recognized as a quick thinker, in 1976 he was selected to convert to the Grumman F-14 Tomcat with the second group of Iranian pilots to do so. Following extensive training in the United States, he returned to Iran in 1978 as a fully-qualified instructor pilot.
The centerpiece of Iranian Tomcat operations was Tactical Fighter Base 8 near Esfahan. Originally named “Khatami” after a legendary commander of the air force who died in a kite-flying accident, the purpose of this huge installation could be directly compared with that of America’s Naval Air Station Oceana — or of the former NAS Miramar, also known as “Fightertown USA” in the 1980s.
Khatami was constructed in the mid-1970s with the sole purpose of serving as a home for a wing equipped with 40 F-14s plus all of its personnel and their weapons and workshops.
Reviving the Tomcat
Following the Islamic revolution of 1979, the Iranian Tomcat fleet was largely grounded. Bamboozled by immense costs of operating such complex aircraft, the new regime even attempted to sell its F-14s to Great Britain and Turkey. Negotiations collapsed once the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran and kept its personnel as hostages for 444 days.
Meanwhile, Khatami air base became one of best examples for post-revolutionary chaos in Iran. Most top officers were either arrested or forced to retire and many others banned from entering the facility, while the air base was repeatedly occupied and controlled by all sorts of political activists, religious leaders and unruly non-commissioned officers.
Amid the complete chaos, each of the cliques in question attempted to impose its own rule upon the usual chain of command. By August 1980, the new commander of this strategically important facility, Col. Sadeghpour, had barely enough crews left to maintain and operate a handful of Tomcats.
The situation began to improve when Tehran ordered the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force to improve its overall condition in the light of increased tensions along the border to Iraq. The possibility of a major armed conflict turned Iran’s F-14s into a strategically important asset, and a massive effort was launched to return them to service.
Acknowledged as a quiet and controlled professional, All-e-Agha was appointed the deputy commander of TFB.8, with the task of providing refresher training to as many F-14 crews as possible. Working himself and his personnel very hard, by mid-September 1980 he flew more than 40 sorties, re-training around two dozen pilots, many of whom hadn’t flown for up to 18 months.
In contrast to most of his pilot colleagues, All-e-Agha didn’t neglect his radar intercept officers in the two squadrons based at Khatami. While in the U.S. military the front- and back-seater in a combat aircraft share responsibilities and achievements, in the Iranian air force — and even in units equipped with F-14s, where good cooperation between the crew is of paramount importance — the RIO was considered a second-class citizen, a mere passenger who could help the pilot if asked him to do so, but otherwise was expected to shut up.
In complete ignorance of that tradition, and despite his rank and status, All-e-Agha voluntarily flew as RIO not only while re-training his pilots, but also during some of combat sorties early in the Iran-Iraq War. He encouraged other pilots to do the same, eventually resulting in the IRIAF equalizing the official status of its F-14 pilots and RIOs.
Eventually, even the new regime learned to appreciate his administrative and organizational skills and through November 1980, All-e-Agha — who was not religious — was permitted to coordinate the operations of his interceptors with those of multiple intelligence agencies.
On his initiative, the Direct Air Support Center was established in Ahwaz. The center controlled all aerial operations over the battlefield in Khuzestan. This was supported by several mobile early warning radar stations and two Lockheed R/C-130H Khoofash signals-gathering aircraft capable of tracking the activity of Iraqi air defenses and reading encrypted Iraqi telecommunications in real time.
A combination of these assets and the IRIAF’s F-14s enabled the Iranians to establish a sort of aerial dominance over the battlefield, resulting in a number of successful ground offensives in 1981.
Together with the air force’s young and inexperienced commander, Col. Fakkouri, All-e-Agha personally succeeded in appeasing dozens of dismissed officers and other ranks into luring them back to active service.
He was also instrumental in the re-establishment of the 11th Combat Command Training Squadron in the spring of 1981. Equipped with 11 F-5Bs, this unit became crucial for training dozens of new pilots at a time when a majority of the IRIAF’s fliers who had survived the first six months of the war were in need of rest, recuperation and refresher training.
In August and September 1981, All-e-Agha commanded a major effort by TFB.8 to again establish air superiority over Khuzestan. Under his command, F-14 Tomcats from Khatami scored at least seven confirmed kills against Iraqi fighter-bombers by Sept. 30, 1981 — all of these by AIM-54 Phoenix long-range missiles.
An economic pilot
In air combat, All-e-Agha proved particularly economical in terms of missile expenditure.
Knowing the IRIAF was unlikely to replenish its stocks of air-to-air missiles it obtained from the USA in the 1970s, he became an expert in intimidating Iraqi pilots instead of just shooting at them.
Already awed by the powerful F-14, the Iraqis tended to run on sight and would engage in air combat only if absolutely necessary. All-e-Agha took advantage of this tendency.
Sometime in October 1982, he was flying a combat air patrol together with Ali-Reza Ataayee — the pilot who probably scored the Tomcat’s first Phoenix kill — in support of a convoy of merchant ships and tankers underway between Bandar Mahshahr and the Khark Island.
Despite detecting two incoming Iraqi Su-22s, All-e-Agha ordered Ataayee not to fire any AIM-54s or AIM-7 Sparrows — rather, to cut the range and try to force Iraqis to jettison their bombs and run away before they could cause any harm.
This plan worked. As soon as the Tomcats approached, the Iraqis saw them and made a hard turn to the west. Both Tomcats followed and a high-speed race developed, which the two Sukhois couldn’t win.
Eventually, Ataayee ran out of patience. He locked on to one of the enemies and attempted to fire. However, something went wrong with his fire-control system and the missile failed to launch.
A moment later, the lead Iraqi entered a high-G turn in attempt to maneuver around the two Tomcats. Worried by the failure of his fire-control system, Ataayee called for All-e-Agha to support him. “Relax, buddy,” the latter replied. “I can see him and it’s clear he can’t even control his aircraft.”
Quickly diving after the Sukhoi, All-e-Agha acquired with an AIM-9 Sidewinder, fired, and sent the Iraqi plummeting into the waters of the Persian Gulf.
Back at Khatami, he was congratulated by Col. Abbas Babai’e, who asked why didn’t he fire a Phoenix or a Sparrow from longer range.
“Too expensive,” All-e-Agha responded.
While All-e-Agha’s planning and application of innovative combat tactics and the technical advantages of his aircraft resulted in Iranian Tomcats appearing when and where the Iraqis expected them the least, it also made their crews overconfident. Combined with the necessity of maintaining a standing CAP high in the skies between Ahwaz and Defzul, this exposed them to Iraqi retaliation.
Nov. 15, 1981, the Iraqi Air Force introduced its brand-new Dassault Mirage F.1EQ interceptors to combat in a particularly spectacular fashion.
Carefully guided by the ground control, a pair of Mirages flying at low altitude with their radars off, sneaked up on a pair of IRIAF F-14s flying a CAP between Ahwaz and Dezful. When the Mirages reached a point underneath the Tomcats, their ground control issued the code-word “giraffe” via radio. Both Iraqis then entered a steep climb, activated their radars and each fired a pair of Matra Super 530F-1 medium-range air-to-air missiles.
In this fashion, the Mirages evaded detection by Iranian early warning radars and by Tomcats and hit their opponents from an aspect from which they remained unseen until it was too late.
The loss of two F-14s was a severe shock for the IRIAF. Already battered by heavy losses during the first year of the war with Iraq, the air force’s morale was shattered by the realization that even its vaunted Tomcats were now vulnerable to the Iraqis.
All-e-Agha was determined to re-establish the IRIAF’s aerial dominance at the earliest possible moment. Correspondingly, he developed a plan for a counter-stroke through a combination of high-flying F-14s with low-flying F-5Es.
In time, the Iraqis would devise their own countertactics, meant specifically to corner and kill All-e-Agha.
The author would like to express his gratitude to Babak All-e-Agha, Javad A. and Brig. Gen. Ahmad Sadik for their help in preparing this article.