When Lt. j.g. Timothy W. Dorsey intentionally fired his fighter jet’s missile at an Air Force reconnaissance plane, nearly killing its two aviators and destroying the aircraft during a training exercise, it was hard to imagine then how his Navy career would wind up 25 years later.
The official investigation into the 1987 shoot-down said the F-14 pilot’s decision “raises substantial doubt as to his capacity for good, sound judgment.” The Navy banned him from flying its aircraft.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta this month announced to the Senate several nominations for promotion to admiral.
On the list is Navy Reserve Capt. Timothy W. Dorsey, the same man who, while assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, committed what the report said was an “illogical act.”
Capt. Dorsey today is the inspector general for Navy Reserve Detachment 106 in Norfolk, Va.
His promotion to admiral has some in the aviation community shaking their heads, especially because minor discretions by flight officers over the past decades have resulted in reprimands and the ends of careers.
Lawyer Charles Gittins, a former Marine Corps aviator, has represented several naval officers whose careers were ended for what he considered minor misconduct.
“It is shocking that the Navy would promote an officer with this background to flag rank, particularly in an environment where the Navy relieves commanding officers of their commands at the drop of a hat for trivial or insubstantial reasons,” Mr. Gittins told The Washington Times.
Capt. Dorsey’s father, James Dorsey, was at the time of the incident commander of the carrier USS America and an aviator. A year later, he became assistant deputy chief of naval operations at the Pentagon and later attained three-star vice admiral rank.
In his civilian job, Capt. Dorsey is general counsel at USA Discounters in Virginia Beach.
He said Thursday that he did not want to discuss the shoot-down or his career because he is about to take a Navy Reserve intelligence post.
“I’m going to have to decline to talk right now, based on the kind of job I’m going to be taking,” he said. “I’m not really big on talking to press for anything.
“It means heading up some intel factions. So it’s really not something I would typically do. I [would] rather not see my name in the paper at all right now because of the job I’m getting ready to take. A lack of press is good on what I’m getting ready to do.”
Capt. Dorsey kept his Navy career on track by reinventing himself, first as a Reserve intelligence officer and then as an inspector general in charge of investigating wrongdoing. In 1995, he earned a law degree from the University of Richmond.
A 2010 alumni magazine profile says Capt. Dorsey “has endured countless physical and mental tests in his 47 years - first, as a fighter pilot flying F-14 Tomcats, and later during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as an intelligence officer interrogating prisoners.”
“I’ve been through naval aviation training, survival training and a dual-degree program in college,” he told the magazine, “and nothing came close to the rigors of first-year law.”
The flattering profile does not mention what Capt. Dorsey did in 1987 as a rookie Tomcat pilot, with 245 flying hours, in one of the naval air community’s most embarrassing incidents.
Then-Lt. Dorsey was taking part in a non-fire flight exercise over the Mediterranean Sea.
He was given a command to simulate a missile firing but took it literally, armed his Sidewinder missile without telling his back-seat radar intercept officer, and shot down the Air Force plane. Its two aviators ejected moments before the plane exploded.
The Navy’s 1988 investigative report on Lt. Dorsey was blunt and damning, according to the Associated Press, which obtained a copy via the Freedom of Information Act in 1988. It said Lt. Dorsey knew the plane was “friendly” and knew he was on a routine exercise.
“The September 22, 1987, destruction of USAF RF-4C was not the result of an accident, but the consequence of a deliberate act,” the investigator wrote. “His subsequent reaction [to the radio command] demonstrated an absolute disregard of the known facts and circumstances.
“He failed to utilize the decision-making process taught in replacement training and reacted in a purely mechanical manner. The performance of Lieutenant Timothy W. Dorsey on September 22, 1987, raises substantial doubt as to his capacity for good, sound judgment.”
Vice Adm. Kendall E. Moranville, who had headed the 6th Fleet, said: “We necessarily rely on the self-discipline and judgment of pilots to prevent such incidents; we have no other choice. Nothing, in my opinion, can mitigate Lieutenant Dorsey’s basic error in judgment.”
Jon Ault, a retired F-14 pilot, said Capt. Dorsey never took responsibility.
“I would never have guessed he’d ever make it to commander, much less admiral,” he said. “In fact, I thought his career was over back when the shoot-down happened. He refused to accept any blame for the shoot-down and swore he was just following [rules of engagement] even though he knew it was a friendly. I mean, the guy did it on purpose.”