The day started out with a close-air support mission and ended with the first Navy air-to-air "kill" since 1991.
Three months after an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the carrier George H.W. Bush shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter near Raqqa, Syria, on June 18, the four Navy pilots who participated in the mission offered a blow-by-blow account during a special panel at the Tailhook 2017 Symposium, held Sept. 7-10.
In a recording first uncovered by The Drive on Thursday, the pilots describe an operating environment that had become more unpredictable and dynamic.
The George W. Bush, which had been launching daily airstrikes from the Persian Gulf, had moved into the Mediterranean in early June, just days before the mission.
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"Everyone's kind of heading to the same place that day, to Raqqa," said Lt. Cmdr. Michael "MOB" Tremel, a pilot with Strike Fighter Squadron 87, the "Golden Warriors," who would ultimately execute the shoot-down that day.
"At that point in time, the [area of responsibility] was pretty hot in that general vicinity and a lot of guys were dropping bombs," he said.
Walking to the jets, the mission of the day was close-air support, and that's what the pilots on board the Bush were prepared for.
But there was time en route for a cup of coffee -- both Tremel and his wingman, VFA-87 training officer Lt. Cmdr. Jeff "Jo Jo" Krueger, enjoyed some java at 22,000 feet inbound to Raqqa, Tremel said.
"Again, we briefed to CAS and that was going to be our mission that day, so we felt like it would be in our wheelhouse, what we were doing," he said. "But we also trained to all the air-to-air contingencies we might have and we talked about that."
Eventually, the aircraft arrive in the region and coordinated with two other Hornet pilots, all in a "stack" above the area of operation. All four were communicating about events playing out on the ground far below.
"We're hearing that the situation's getting more heated on the ground with some of the friendly forces getting closer to some of the Syrian forces so, based on that, we get Jo Jo and MOB on the radio," said Lt. Cmdr. William "Vieter" Vuillet, a pilot with another squadron attached to the Bush, VFA-37 "Raging Bulls."
As the pilots prepared to execute their CAS mission, someone spotted a Russian Flanker aircraft circling overhead, an occurrence the pilots said was not unusual in the region.
Throughout the deployment, the pilots said, their interactions with Russian fighters were professional.
But as a cautionary measure, Tremel, who previously had some minor technical issues with his aircraft, volunteered to follow the aircraft and monitor its actions.
Picking Up the Syrian Aircraft
"I'll extend out in air-to-air master mode while these guys are in air-to-ground master mode to monitor the situation on the ground," Tremel said. "That's when I'll pick up an unknown aircraft approaching from the south."
Observers, including Air Force assets in the region, were sending conflicting information about the identity of the aircraft, but eventually a consensus emerged that it was a Syrian plane.
Tremel decided the best thing he could do is get a visual ID on the aircraft and its activities, so he decided to descend and get a better look.
Meanwhile, Krueger worked to streamline radio communications, shedding secondary tasks and focusing on keeping information flowing as the situation unfolded.
As Tremel neared the Syrian aircraft, he emphasized that he was ready to return to his primary job as soon as he could be sure it posed no danger to friendly forces.
"Our whole mission out there was to defeat ISIS, annihilate ISIS," he said. "So as quickly as we can get back to that mission, that was our goal that day ... At any point in time, if this had de-escalated, that would have been great. We would have gotten mission success and [gone] back to continue to drop bombs on ISIS."
But that was not to happen. The Hornets began putting out radio warning calls to persuade the SU-22 Fitter to turn around, but it kept approaching friendly ground forces.
Krueger then advised that the U.S. aircraft should execute "head-butts," close overhead passes on the Syrian aircraft with warning flares, Tremel said.
They ultimately did three such passes, with no effect on the Syrian plane.
Su-22 Releases Ordnance
"After that third one, he [proceeded] to execute a dive and release ordnance in proximity of friendly forces," Tremel said.
As the Syrian aircraft climbed after dropping ordnance, Tremel would respond, firing an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. For reasons he didn't explain, the sidewinder missed the Fitter.
"I lose the smoke trail and I have no idea what happened to the missile at that point in time," he said.
Losing little time, Tremel let another missile fly -- an AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM. This time, it had the desired effect.
"The aircraft will pitch right and down and pilot will jump out and left in his ejection seat," he said.
Wanting to stay clear of the debris field, Tremel executed a quick turn to the left, he said, allowing the ejection seat to pass to the right of his canopy.
The pilots described the events in understated terms, but acknowledged adrenaline was high as they returned to operations.
Vieter, who descended to get a visual following the air-to-air engagement, said he and the pilot flying with him, Lt. Stephen "Scotty P" Gasecki, could not resist getting on a secure communication channel to tell the tanker crew what happened when they went to refuel.
Vieter and Gasecki opted to continue with their mission, while Tremel and Krueger soon decided to return to the ship.
'No Small Feat'
Krueger said it was "no small feat" for Tremel to take the initiative to arm his aircraft and fire ordnance at an armed aircraft for the first time in two-and-a-half decades.
"Looking at the wreckage down below us, It was a different feeling," Krueger said. "... We had to make some decisions pretty quickly, and I thought that the training and commander's guidance that we got at that point was a big deal."
Upon return to the ship, the fanfare was underwhelming; the sentiment was merely that "the show goes on," Tremel said.
He shook a few hands on the flight deck, then was ushered away, the ordnance remaining on his aircraft quickly reloaded onto other fighters that would launch within the hour.
He even completed his scheduled safety officer duties once back aboard the ship, he said.
As he addressed the Navy's annual convention of fighter pilots, though, the atmosphere was different.
"It's extremely surreal to be sitting here in this environment," Tremel said. "I couldn't have done it without the guy sitting next to me, Jo Jo, and the other guys that were airborne. It was an absolute team effort, to include all the coordination that went on with the Air Force the entire time we were in the AOR."
A marker with Tremel's name and aircraft will soon be added to the wall of Navy air-to-air kills at the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, better known as TOPGUN.