When retired Air Force pilot Mike Ross learned this month that the Navy aviator who shot him down is on a nomination list for the rank of admiral, he had a visceral reaction.
“I almost got sick,” said Col. Ross, 56. “He ruined by life.”
All the horror and pain came rushing back when he read The Washington Times story about Navy Capt. Timothy W. Dorsey’s pending promotion to flag rank. The Pentagon sent his nomination to the Senate Armed Services Committee this month.
This tale of two officers began nearly 25 years ago. Col. Ross, an Air Force captain at the time, was flying his RF-4C reconnaissance jet over the Mediterranean Sea in a NATO non-fire exercise.
He refueled with an Air National Guard aerial tanker and saw Lt. (j.g.) Dorsey’s F-14 Tomcat monitoring him.
“Nothing like cheating,” Capt. Ross recalled thinking after getting back to his squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy. “This is supposed to be an exercise. You’re supposed to come find me - not sit on my tanker and then chase me for 15 minutes and then shoot me down.”
As Capt. Ross approached the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, Lt. Dorsey literally obeyed a radio command to fire, even though the exercise was planned to be purely simulated. He launched a Sidewinder missile, blowing the RF-4C out of the sky.
A Navy investigation found that Lt. Dorsey knew the RF-4C was friendly, saying his decision to fire was “deliberate” and “illogical.” The Navy banned him from flying, a punishment that at the time would seem to have ended the career of the Navy admiral’s son.
Capt. Ross and his back-seat weapons officer ejected just before the fireball would have killed them.
First the canopy flew off, subjecting Capt. Ross to a strong gravitational force that pushed up his body and exposed his head to a 500-knot wind. The rocket-powered ejection seat slammed beneath him, thrusting him from the cockpit.
The subsequent whiplash took a slow, excruciating toll.
Over the years, his spine degenerated, requiring painkillers and multiple surgeries. The ejection also dislocated his shoulders, broke his left hand and his left knee, and damaged an ankle.
Capt. Ross, who had no history of back problems until the shoot-down, continued his Air Force flying career.
But his degenerating spine worsened. He had his first major back surgery in 1992. Six more would follow as surgeons installed screws, plates and rods to keep a cracked and fragile spine functional.
“I’m not trying to say I flew when I was unable. I never did that,” Col. Ross said. “But it got to the point where I started getting myself in positions where I was doing more desk work than flying.”
He decided on a medical discharge in 1997 and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
“My body was breaking down,” he said. “I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Since then, he has watched as several of his contemporaries, such as Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, attained senior rank.
‘A deliberate act’
Col. Ross said his mentors, performance evaluations and duty assignments would have put him on track to brigadier general or higher. “I had a damned good shot,” he said.
“It’s very interesting that folks like [Lt. Dorsey] get admiral and folks like me who are on a similar track have something like that happen,” Col. Ross said.
He assumed the incident would have ended Lt. Dorsey’s naval career.
After all, the Navy investigative report said: “The September 22, 1987, destruction of USAF RF-4C was not the result of an accident, but the consequence of a deliberate act. 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.”
Lt. Dorsey was not punished beyond the ban on flying, nor was he forced to resign.
Instead, he held support jobs and then switched to the Navy Reserve as an intelligence officer while he pursued a law degree. He now works for the Navy inspector general and is due to lead an intelligence unit in Norfolk, Va.
“It was an unfortunate incident that occurred when I was a rookie naval aviator,” he told the Virginian Pilot on Tuesday. “I regret that it occurred, but I have worked very hard over the years since that time.”
Last week, the nominee for admiral declined to be interviewed by The Washington Times.
“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.”
Col. Ross, a Milton, Ga., resident, estimates he has spent well over $100,000 on medical bills, paid by depleting his savings. He lives on Air Force retirement benefits and Social Security disability checks.
In one of his dozens of surgeries, doctors three years ago performed an anterior lumbar interbody fusion. Surgeons “removed my guts” during the eight-hour operation to reach his spine, then put them back, he said.
In 2010, a flight surgeon who had begun treating him in 1991 wrote on his behalf to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which was reviewing his disability status.
“I would like to assure you that indeed his current medical problems and level of disability are unquestionably and completely attributable to his combat-related shoot down and the subsequent injuries he received in the following high-speed ejection,” wrote Lt. Col. Scott Phillips. “He can no longer walk more than a few yards without assistance.”
After being fished from the Mediterranean, Capt. Ross ended up on the Saratoga minutes after Lt. Dorsey landed his F-14.
“I’ve never heard from him,” Col. Ross said. “He didn’t come over and apologize on the boat or anything.”