Shot Down

The Navy has a tradition of not forgiving mistakes. So how is it that a pilot who knowingly fired on a friendly plane—costing the government millions and nearly killing two men—was able to rise through the ranks to the Navy’s highest level? By Shane Harris

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Shot DownChapter 1

On the day he nearly killed two US airmen, Navy lieutenant junior grade Timothy W. Dorsey, age 25, had coffee and cigarettes for breakfast.

He rolled out of his rack around 10 in the morning. Washed. Put on his flight suit. Went down to the briefing room to review the day’s hop. He climbed into the front seat of an F-14 Tomcat, with four air-to-air missiles under his wings, and was catapulted off the deck of the USS Saratoga into lousy, low-lying clouds.

Dorsey was flying a combat exercise over the Mediterranean, intercepting Air Force jets playing the role of enemy invaders trying to get close to the carrier. He had flown in exercises before. He’d even helped plan them.

He would later remember every detail of that day, September 22, 1987. The rules of engagement. The coordinates he was vectored to by the flight controller after he got airborne. How many minutes it took to get to his target and how much fuel he needed to get there. And he would remember precisely the time and place he first saw the F-4 Phantom, with its unmistakable downward-slanting rear stabilizers.

Dorsey remembered all this, with near flawless recall. And yet, five weeks later, chain-smoking in a small room off the bridge of the Saratoga, a tape recorder rolling on a table in front of him, Dorsey was completely, maddeningly at a loss to explain what happened next. The three officers who were assigned to investigate the “mishap,” who would help determine whether Dorsey might go to prison for dereliction of duty and destruction of a $4.2-million airplane, leaned in to hear him explain why, when all evidence and reason told him he was tailing an American aircraft, Dorsey locked onto the F-4 and fired a Sidewinder missile into its tail, sending the plane, and the two men inside, careering in a fireball toward the water, 10,000 feet below.

He just couldn’t say. He wasn’t certain why. And if he was being honest, Dorsey couldn’t say for sure that if he had it to do over, he wouldn’t shoot the guy down again.

Dorsey’s story was the damndest one of its kind that his interrogators had ever heard. There had been friendly-fire mishaps in the Navy before. But those had been accidents. A guy knowingly firing on a friendly aircraft? Never happened. On purpose? Who would do that?

Air Force captain Dave Perme, himself an F-4 pilot, listened to Dorsey’s tortured recitation of the day’s events. How he’d heard an order to fire from the air controller on the Saratoga: “Red and free on your contact.” How he knew he was flying an exercise, but, well, “red and free” meant fire. So he fired. That’s what he’d been trained to do. Dorsey said a tactical-actions officer would never use those words unless it was a real-life, “no shit” situation, “an all-out, free-for-all, shoot-’em-up type of thing.” And he figured that the guys on the carrier must have known more about the F-4 than Dorsey. Even if he was sitting on the guy’s tail.

The moment Dorsey shoots down the F-4. For the full cockpit video, click here.

Perme had watched a video of the shootdown from the camera in Dorsey’s cockpit. He’d thought maybe the F-4 would show up far off in the distance, an indistinguishable speck. That maybe Dorsey had momentarily confused the American jet for an enemy invader. But when Perme watched the tape, the F-4 was so close to Dorsey’s plane that its engine practically took up the whole screen. There was no mistaking it. Particularly because by then Dorsey had been trailing the F-4 for several minutes, after watching it decouple from a refueling tanker. An American refueling tanker.

Perme thought Dorsey looked nervous, puffing on all those cigarettes. And why wouldn’t he be? But Dorsey also seemed cocksure. And Perme thought his explanations were bullshit. No way Dorsey thought the Saratoga was actually ordering him to fire a missile and not just making a simulated call. This was a war game. Not a war. If Dorsey was confused, he should have questioned the order. He should have known better.

“I concluded that the guy wasn’t maliciously trying to kill somebody,” Perme would recall several years later. “He wasn’t a psychopath. Anybody can make a mistake. But the biggest problem was he wouldn’t fess up. He wouldn’t admit that he’d made a mistake.”

So, what to call what Dorsey did? Attempted murder? Certainly not. The weirdest, most inexplicable mishap in the history of naval aviation? Maybe. A colossal, career-ending mistake? On that, there was no question. Negligently losing an aircraft—shooting it down!—was the aviator’s equivalent of running a ship aground. And no one’s career survived that. Throwing Dorsey out on his ass would be in keeping with the Navy’s long—some would say proud—tradition. He was a washout as an aviator, and aviators, more than any other speciality, were the elite tribe from which the admiralty was drawn. A broken aviator was no good to the service.

Only one thing is more surprising than the fact that Dorsey purposely fired a Sidewinder missile into the tail of a friendly aircraft. And it’s this: That act didn’t end his career. Hardly.

Dorsey never flew a plane for the Navy again. But he began a new line of work, as an intelligence officer. He joined the Navy Reserve and rose through the ranks. And after a succession of increasingly prestigious Navy jobs, the personnel file of one Captain Timothy Dorsey, age 50, came before a promotion-selection board, composed of seven admirals. In a dimly lit room, they scrutinized his record. They saw a blistering report of the shootdown, signed by a Navy captain, practically calling Dorsey a damn robotic idiot. They saw the evidence of what Dorsey had done to that plane and the men inside it. And like the inquisitors 25 years before them, they were at a loss to explain it. But they also decided that he’d done it a long time ago and had overcome it. Not only that—they judged that a young, irrational aviator had grown into one of the finest officers in the Navy.

What the panel did next put the career stamp of approval on Dorsey’s record and raised the possibility of a rare, historic shift in the hidebound, perfection-seeking culture of the 237-year-old Navy.

They decided that Dorsey was one of them—that he belonged in the highest and most esteemed rank of the service, an echelon few ever reach. They recommended that Dorsey be promoted to admiral.

Shot DownChapter 2

This would have been unthinkable in 1987, when Dorsey shot down the F-4.

The Navy, like all the military services, endeavored to promote officers whose records were as close to perfect as possible. This tradition had become ingrained in the promotion system at the dawn of the Cold War.

Forget about losing an airplane or running a ship aground. Careers were ruined for non-life-threatening accidents and for failing to bend to the bureaucracy. One young ship driver who hit a buoy in the Chesapeake Bay saw his career sidelined for a decade. In the Air Force, a colonel with all the makings of a great general—a man who, as an F-4 pilot in Vietnam, had used his own plane to ram a North Vietnamese MiG to the ground when his own missiles wouldn’t fire—was relegated to a crap job for not having followed proper procurement procedures on the development of a shell for a new gun for the A-10 attack plane. A shell, as it turned out, that was so improved by the officer’s initiative—which saw him employ the deviant tactic of pitting contractors against one another to see who could build a better shell for less money—that it worked better than anyone had expected and saved taxpayers $1 billion.

No military can survive by promoting the reckless and the inept. But the effect of the so-called zero-defect culture was that the services raised up a generation of cautious, risk-averse bureaucrats who were judged on how well they followed procedures and were rewarded not for innovation—which is fraught with risk—but for playing it safe. Many thought these officers were shadows of the men who had led US forces through World War II, when it wasn’t uncommon to relieve a disastrous officer of his command but then give him another one and let him try again.

In an extensive investigation of military leadership and the system of promotion published in The Washingtonian in 1984, current and former officers pointed to the zero-defect culture, as a “system [that] inhibits the innovation and risk-taking that mark great leaders.”

But the fact that Dorsey wasn’t drummed out of the service altogether, and that he stayed in and made it to the top, suggests that something has changed in the Navy.

This culture was especially pronounced in the Navy. When Dorsey was just coming up in the service, officers were selected for promotion based not on derring-do but on how quickly they had climbed the requisite steps on the career ladder: staff tours, a rotation in Washington, working as an aide to a general or admiral—a glorified “horse holder.” Office jobs, management posts, and breadth of experience over depth of expertise were the new ways to get ahead. Risk was a path to ruin, not glory. So absolute was adherence to the zero-defect culture that those who didn’t properly punch their tickets were deemed irreparably flawed. Even true heroes were passed over for promotion. Of the 151 Navy personnel who survived capture and internment in North Vietnamese prisons—men who exemplified courage and survival—the Navy chose only six to promote to admiral because all those years in confinement had kept the POWs from punching their career tickets back home.

Rather than cultivate capable officers and embrace their unique qualities, “the system seems to wear most men as smooth as beach pebbles,” journalist Ward Just wrote in his book Military Men, published in 1970. The zero-defect “syndrome,” as it was called, as if it were a disease, sapped ingenuity from the officer corps and replaced it with slavish careerism.

But the fact that Dorsey wasn’t drummed out of the service altogether, and that he stayed in and made it to the top, suggests that something has changed in the Navy. Because if it can hold out redemption for a guy who shot down a friendly aircraft, then it should be willing to forgive far lesser sins. It should be able to reward promising officers who, save for one significant mistake, might be the future leaders of the armed forces. And if the zero-defect culture really has robbed the military of those leaders, as many experts believe, then this change is a very good thing.

Still. How the hell did a guy like Dorsey ever get selected for admiral? And is that fair?

Shot DownChapter 3

Dorsey arrived on the Saratoga in June 1987 and joined Fighter Squadron 74, known as the Be-Devilers.

He was a “nugget,” a rookie aviator on his first tour, with just 516 hours of flight time under his belt—not an insignificant amount but less than his squadron mates had.

Dorsey wasn’t a natural in the cockpit. “He disqualified on his first time at the boat”—that is, he botched the landing on the aircraft carrier, says Kenneth McCrory, who was Dorsey’s squadron leader. “They sent him back into training. He qualified the second time and did an outstanding job and was designated ready to deploy.”

On September 22, 1987, Dorsey was flying with a more seasoned aviator in the back seat of his F-14 Tomcat, a supersonic twin-engine fighter with movable, sweeping wings—the plane made famous in the movie Top Gun, which came out a year before Dorsey got his wings. Dorsey’s radar-intercept officer, or RIO, was Lieutenant Commander Edmund Holland, who had logged nearly 1,600 hours of flight time. By Holland’s recollection, he had flown with Dorsey only two, at most three, times before that day.

The rules of the war game were clear to all. Dorsey and Holland, along with other Be-Devilers, were on the blue team. They’d fly out from the Saratoga and search for Air Force jets, the orange team. Some of the orange players were to make low-altitude runs at the carrier. Get close enough to take photos of the numbers on its hull. The blue jets were to chase the orange jets and try to get a missile lock on them—simulated air-to-air combat.

The cramped cockpit of Dorsey’s F-14 was filled with switches, dials, screens, and gauges. Getting a missile lock wasn’t as simple as ready, aim, fire. An aviator had to go through a sequence of switch-flipping and button-pushing to arm the missile, get the guidance system going, and achieve a lock. Amid all that “switchology,” an aviator could screw up the sequence and accidentally fire a missile. That’s one reason the Air Force prohibited pilots from carrying live ordnance during war games. Let the pilot go through the motions, but don’t run the risk that he might shoot someone.

The Navy had no such prohibitions, but its officers had agreed on paper not to arm their planes during this exercise. It was a promise that, for reasons that remain unclear, they didn’t keep. Which is why when the blue team went out hunting orange jets, they were all armed and their competitors were carrying nothing but extra fuel bladders under their wings.

Dorsey was airborne less than five minutes before he got a radio call from the air controller in the Combat Information Center aboard the Saratoga, who went by the call sign Strike. There was a change of plans. Dorsey was to proceed not to his predesignated coordinates in the war game but instead to check out a new contact Strike had picked up but hadn’t yet identified.

This kind of last-minute change wasn’t uncommon. The skies over the Mediterranean were crowded, and Navy pilots were often instructed to make visual contact with unidentified aircraft. Sometimes they were friendly planes, sometimes commercial or private jets just wandering through. There was no reason to believe that the contact Strike passed to Dorsey was hostile, as Dorsey saw for himself when he got closer to the unknown bird: an F-4 Phantom, refueling off a long boom coming out of a KC-135 tanker, flown by the Illinois Air National Guard.

Mystery contact: friendly.

But Dorsey seemed rattled. Later he’d tell investigators that Strike had radioed “five or six times” to say, “We don’t have a clue who this guy is.” But Strike never said, or gave any indication, that the contact was hostile. An investigator later asked Holland, Dorsey’s RIO, “Was there anything on the radio or inter-cockpit or anything that ever made you think that this is changed from an exercise scenario?”

“There’s nothing in my mind,” Holland said. He presumed the F-4 was an orange-team player, probably doing reconnaissance. “We joined up on a guy refueling from an Air Force tanker, and even though I didn’t notice any sort of markings on [the F-4] . . . I couldn’t imagine a US tanker refueling anybody else but . . . a US Air Force aircraft.”

Shot DownChapter 4

Dorsey followed the F-4 as it backed off the fuel boom.

At first, the jet steered away from the Saratoga, but then it turned back. Holland relayed the course change to Strike, who said to continue following the jet.

By now, Strike and another man in the Combat Information Center had identified the F-4 as an orange player. No one told this to Dorsey. But as Strike later told investigators, “No one ever pretended that this was not an exercise.”

Dorsey tested his missile-guidance system, a routine practice when aviators carried live Sidewinders. A high-pitched electric tone filled the cockpit. “Good buzz,” Dorsey noted. The missiles could lock on the F-4.

He put the jet in the crosshairs on his cockpit display. To Holland, sitting right behind the nugget, Dorsey was doing precisely what one would do in an exercise. Test the missile-guidance system. Line up the target. Pretend he was getting ready to take a shot. Holland kept a notepad on his knee for keeping track of simulated missile firings.

Ross felt a blast of wind. The blood rushed out of his head and he blacked out. His limbs flailed as he twisted, unconscious, in midair. When he came to, his parachute had already opened.

But Dorsey wasn’t in the world of the exercise anymore. In his mind, he was following an aircraft that hadn’t been identified. He became agitated. At one point, Dorsey thought he saw the F-4 dropping chaff, a stream of fine metal particles meant to foil missile-guidance systems.

Dorsey was sure that the F-4 pilot or his back-seater had seen him. He fell in low behind the jet’s tail, in its blind spot. “I was going to make the RIO have a hard time seeing me,” Dorsey later told investigators. “And be a real son of a bitch by getting low into his six [o’clock position].”

Holland switched over to a close-up view of the F-4. Both men could see that the missile pylons were empty. The jet was on a level course.

About 30 seconds later, the jet rolled to the left and aimed its nose down, toward the carrier. “There he goes,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey followed him. Almost immediately, he heard a radio call from Strike. “Red and free on your contact.”

Dorsey remembered his training. “Red and free” meant one thing. Weapons free. Fire at will.

“Jesus, do they want me to shoot this guy?” he asked Holland.

Dorsey’s RIO, head down in the back seat with the notepad on his knee, replied, “Yeah, shoot.” He waited for Dorsey to say, “Simulated Fox 2,” the standard call for pretending to fire a Sidewinder.

Dorsey squeezed the trigger on his control stick. But nothing happened. “It didn’t go,” he told Holland.

Holland was confused. What didn’t go?

The Sidewinder under the F-14’s left wing had malfunctioned. So Dorsey did his switchology and moved over to a missile under the right wing. Meanwhile, Holland was wondering, What didn’t go? Why aren’t you calling, “Simulated Fox 2”?

Holland figured Dorsey had just forgotten to call out the shot. So he did it for him. “Simulated Fox 2,” he said, and began to jot down the time in his notebook.

Just as he did, Dorsey squeezed the trigger again. Holland heard a whoosh! from the right side of the aircraft.

“What was that?” he said, his head popping up. Holland looked out the window and saw what looked like a red dot speeding to the left of the F-14. Then it whipped back to the right, straight for the F-4, and slammed into the jet’s tail.

“Kill,” Dorsey said.

Holland was stunned. “What did you do? Did you shoot?”

He watched as the F-4’s left wing dipped and the plane rolled and headed straight down, flames streaming behind.

“You shot him down!” he yelled. Holland called over the radio: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Got a kill on an F-4. No chutes. No chutes.”

Shot DownChapter 5

Air Force captain Michael Ross was pissed that the F-14 had sneaked up behind him while he was refueling.

It seemed like cheating to catch him in a defenseless position. But Ross told himself, “If this guy’s going to be an asshole and follow me off, what can I do?”

In this undated photo, Air Force Cpt. Mike Ross stands next to an F-4 Phantom, the type of plane he was flying on September 22, 1987, when he was shot down by friendly fire.

Ross inched off the fuel boom and pulled away to the right. The F-4 lumbered with all that fuel. Ross pointed his nose down to pick up speed and dropped his altitude, slow and easy. He aimed to make a low-altitude pass at the Saratoga, staying more than a thousand feet away, per the rules of engagement. He’d snap a few shots of the hull, then head back to base in Italy. Just as he had four days earlier, when he’d flown the same type of exercise.

But that damn F-14! Now he’d fallen into Ross’s six.

“Where is the guy?” Ross asked his back-seater, Lieutenant Randy Sprouse. “I lost him.”

“I don’t have him, either,” Sprouse said.

Ross knew the airspace was crowded. And if he couldn’t see the F-14, he might run into him. “I’m going to remain predictable,” he told Sprouse. No sudden movements.

He saw the Saratoga off in the distance to his left. He banked the F-4 and headed down. He felt the force of gravity triple as his air speed increased and the jet descended. Then he felt a thump! And the F-4 shook like he’d never felt before.

Collision! he thought. We hit him!

“What the hell was that?” he and Sprouse both yelled.

“I’ve got fire lights,” Ross said. Unbeknownst to either man, the Sidewinder had struck the F-4’s left stabilizer and sheared off the tail. Fortunately, the fuel tanks were full, so there wasn’t enough vapor to cause an explosion. But the plane caught fire and lost all hydraulic pressure. Ross and Sprouse were riding a flaming hunk of metal straight down from 10,000 feet.

The F-4 rolled over, putting the two men into a negative-G dive—their bodies felt lighter than they actually were. Ross floated eight inches off his seat and into the canopy.

“Let’s get the f--- out of here,” Ross told Sprouse.

“I’m gone,” Sprouse said, and pulled his ejection handle, which was rigged to both seats.

The canopy blew off, and rockets under Sprouse’s seat sent him clear of the burning jet. Ross felt the pressure change inside the cockpit and heard a rush of air. A pilot’s manual he kept in the front seat whizzed past his head.

The F-4 continued to roll. Then the rockets underneath Ross fired while he was still floating above his seat, jamming the seat straight into him, with 17 times the force of gravity.

Ross felt a blast of wind. The blood rushed out of his head and he blacked out. His limbs flailed as he twisted, unconscious, in midair. When he came to, his parachute had already opened. (Holland, Dorsey’s RIO, hadn’t immediately seen the chutes deploy and thought the men might not have ejected.)

Ross reached up to take hold of the chute’s steering lines. But his arms wouldn’t move. The force of the ejection had dislocated both of his shoulders. He might survive the splashdown, but without the use of his arms, Ross—who didn’t know how to swim—would probably drown.

Ross contorted his body and popped his arms back into their sockets. The pain was excruciating. He looked below and saw his jet burning on the surface of the water. Then it dawned on him: I got out. I’m alive. He felt strangely calm, floating down, watching the plane burn. After a few seconds, his safety training kicked in. He inflated his life vest, hit the water, and got out of his chute gear. Within minutes, a rescue chopper fished out Ross and Sprouse, who had also dislocated a shoulder, and transported them to the Saratoga.

A medical crew took blood samples and checked the men for wounds. Navy lawyers took statements. Members of the crew brought Ross and Sprouse clean clothes.

The commander of the Saratoga, Captain David Frost, went to meet the airmen. He asked if they knew what had happened. Ross still thought there’d been a midair collision.

Frost seemed surprised. “We shot you down,” he said. “We really shot you down, and we’re really sorry.”

The airmen seemed incredulous. “You’re kidding, right?” Sprouse asked.

“No,” Frost said.

“Geez, guys,” Sprouse said, “I thought we were supposed to be on the same side.”

“Well, normally we are,” the captain replied. “Today it didn’t work out like that.”

Shot DownChapter 6

Ross is a hulk. Six-foot-four with huge hands that don’t seem suited to all that nimble switchology.

He played tight end in high school and college. When I knocked on his front door in suburban Atlanta, it took him a full minute to answer.

Ross, now 57, extended his arm to greet me, moving like an unoiled Tin Man. He shuffled his feet as he showed me into his living room, where he eased himself into a leather sofa, grimacing and holding his breath until he finally let his knees go and plopped into the seat.

He picked up a yellow plastic bag next to him that rattled as he shook it. It was full of pill bottles.

Dorsey remembered every detail of the shootdown. But he was completely, maddeningly at a loss to explain it.

Like Dorsey, Ross remembers everything about September 22, 1987, because, he says, he’s still living with it in his shredded muscles and battered bones. Ross blames Dorsey for his injuries. For the back pain he says he has suffered as a result of the ejection. For the surgeries on his knee and wrists. For the way his shoulders still pop out of their sockets sometimes.

After the shootdown, Ross assumed Dorsey had been thrown out of the Navy. Then one day in February 2012, he heard from an old Air Force buddy that the guy who’d relegated Ross to a life of physical misery had been selected for admiral. Ross was furious. He’d thought Dorsey should have faced a court-martial for attempted murder.

Dorsey had told investigators that when he fired on Ross and Sprouse, he was just following his training. That explanation had always struck Ross as preposterous. And he wasn’t alone. Retired admiral James Busey, who was commander in chief of US Naval Forces in Europe in 1987, told me that aviators “were trained to know the difference between an actual missile shot and an exercise.” Indeed, when directly questioned by investigators, not a single Navy officer involved in the war game said he thought he was in a real-world combat situation. The men were asked if they needed to hear the word “simulated” or “exercise” preceding “red and free on your contact” to know they hadn’t been actually ordered to fire a missile. They all said they did not.

Word passed through the ranks of retired Air Force and Navy officers that the trigger-happy nugget was about to make flag. Some had trouble believing it. Retired general Bill Kirk, who was commander in chief of US Air Forces in Europe at the time of the shootdown, told me Dorsey should have been prosecuted or thrown out of the military: “I wouldn’t have him wearing the Navy uniform, much less promoted him to admiral.”

Busey said he was “astounded” that Dorsey might be joining the admiralty. In Busey’s experience, an accident like that was an obvious career-killer. He said he met with Kirk after the shootdown and told him he was sure Dorsey would never fly for the Navy again. Dorsey didn’t. But then Busey lost track of him and presumed he’d left the Navy. He learned otherwise when a friend e-mailed him last year to tell him about Dorsey’s selection for promotion.

The Air Force and the Navy conducted dual investigations into the incident and shared their findings. The admiral who ordered the inquiry called the shootdown “an illogical act.” That admiral’s boss, the commander of the US Sixth Fleet, declared, “Nothing, in my opinion, can mitigate Lieutenant Dorsey’s basic error in judgment.”

The investigators who had watched Dorsey chain-smoke and offer halfhearted acceptances of his role in the disaster concluded that Dorsey’s response to the radio command “demonstrated an absolute disregard of the known facts and circumstances.” He had reacted in a “purely mechanical manner” and “failed to utilize the decision-making process” taught in his flight training. “The performance of Lieutenant Timothy W. Dorsey on September 22, 1987, raises substantial doubt as to his capacity for good, sound judgment,” they wrote.

Substantial doubt as to his capacity for good, sound judgment. The conclusion of everyone who reviewed the shootdown wasn’t that Dorsey might get past the incident, that he might learn from it and be a better aviator. They found that he might not have even the capacity for sound judgment. That he was deficient.

For reasons that remain part of Dorsey’s confidential personnel record, he was not dismissed from the Navy. Several former officers I spoke to, from the Air Force and the Navy, pointed out that his father, James F. Dorsey, was at the time a senior naval officer, a onetime aviator and commander of an aircraft carrier. The elder Dorsey went on to attain the rank of vice admiral and commanded the US Third Fleet in Hawaii. While it’s difficult to imagine that Dorsey’s father blatantly pulled strings to keep his son in the Navy, many retired officers said that his stature might have caused the younger Dorsey’s commanding officers to think twice about kicking him out.

Shot DownChapter 7

After the shootdown, Dorsey pulled desk jobs. In 1991, he joined the Navy Reserve. That’s when he decided to become an intelligence officer.

To go from the revered status of aviator to the unglamorous profession of reserve intelligence officer was like getting demoted from major-league baseball to a farm team. Dorsey may not have left the Navy, but he was starting his military career over, at the bottom. He began a long journey of reinvention.

Dorsey enrolled in law school at the University of Richmond. He commuted to Virginia Beach one weekend a month for reserve duty, where he took to the logical work of intelligence analysis. He was also an excellent law student, according to a former professor. In the interview he gave after the shootdown, there are signs of a budding legal mind. Dorsey was adept at compartmentalizing and attributing different motives to specific actions along the timeline on the day of the shootdown. He also did his best to argue his way out of full culpability, though he did admit to “pilot error, poor logic, poor judgment.”

News coverage in the wake of the shoot down
Chicago Tribune: Downing of U.S. Jet Exposes War Games' Danger
Associated Press: Navy Blames Pilot for Shooting Down Air Force Jet

Dorsey earned accolades for his intelligence work and his skills as a manager. In February 1996, after a Cuban fighter jet shot down two planes flown by the exiled activist group Brothers to the Rescue, Dorsey led a team of analysts for 26 days, responding to requests from US Atlantic Command and providing overhead imagery analysis. He was given the Joint Service Achievement Medal in recognition of his performance, one of two awards he received for his work on Cuba.

In 1999, Dorsey moved to a reserve unit at the Joint Forces Intelligence Command. Service in a joint-duty assignment is a prerequisite for making admiral. He was punching his ticket—and aiming high. He was selected for a job as an administrative officer. For the Navy, it was a test to see if he was ready for a command position down the road, the first sign that he was gaining trust and putting his past behind him.

Retired captain Tim Lockhart, who was Dorsey’s boss, told me he handpicked him for the job because “I needed someone I could count on.”

“He outworked everyone,” Lockhart said. “Knew the regulations backward and forward. He had great people skills. He’s not a martinet.” Lockhart knew about the shootdown. “It was no big secret,” he said. But Dorsey “never mentioned it. I never asked him about it.”

Lockhart said Dorsey so impressed his superiors that they had him skip an intermediate position and gave him his own unit to command. This was an unusual promotion, but Lockhart said he wasn’t surprised: “Dorsey is one of the finest officers I’ve ever served with.”

Retired captain Ray Kallman, who was a commanding officer in a unit Dorsey once reported to, used similar superlatives to describe him. “He showed traits that said he’d go far,” Kallman said. His work: “Thorough.” His demeanor: “Levelheaded.”

Dorsey served as a commanding officer five times over 12 years—“more tours than any other Navy intelligence officer I know,” Lockhart said. Dorsey was part of an emergency-response team that did counterterrorism analysis after the 9/11 attacks. He was credited with turning around a poorly performing intelligence unit that supports Navy SEALs. He deployed overseas twice, including to Iraq in 2003, where he set up a team of Navy intelligence officers that interrogated prisoners of war. (Dorsey has said that they didn’t engage in any harsh interrogations like those at Abu Ghraib prison.) He received 19 medals and awards, including the third-highest peacetime military honor, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, by the time he was put up for admiral.

The farther Dorsey went up the chain, the less his “illogical” act as a 25-year-old lieutenant seemed to matter to his bosses. I asked Kallman to evaluate Dorsey’s judgment, that indispensable quality that his bosses once said he lacked.

“Within his administrative capacity, it was excellent,” Kallman said. “He made great decisions in terms of organizing his department.”

Kallman knew Dorsey had once shot down an Air Force jet. Did that mistake concern him?

“I don’t think so. At this point, we weren’t in an operational context. But he had a lot of responsibility.” Then Kallman said something remarkable—that it was “hard to answer” whether a shootdown should automatically end an officer’s career.

Did the “zero defect” rule no longer apply? Could a potentially great officer now rise despite a misstep, even a nearly fatal one?

Dorsey offered compelling evidence that something was changing in the Navy. Every time he was up for promotion, a selection board reviewed his performance and the record of the shootdown. They’re required to consider any “adverse information” in their decision. There’s actually a mark in a personnel record, called a Field-Code 17, that signals to members of a selection board that there’s a black mark in the officer’s past. That code stays in the officer’s file. In Dorsey’s, it pointed to hundreds of pages of testimony about the shootdown, flight records, even an invoice that itemizes millions of dollars in damage he caused to US government property.

During every promotion review, the shadow of the shootdown hung over Dorsey. But it never overtook him.

The competition for promotions becomes more intense the higher an officer rises. At the time of his nomination, there were only 208 admirals in the Navy, 48 of them in the reserve. Even those who were astonished that Dorsey still had a career to speak of concede he would never have gotten this far unless he had excelled at his jobs. “He’s obviously done well or he wouldn’t be selected,” said Busey, the Navy’s former commander in Europe.

“There was a lot of negative reaction” to Dorsey’s promotion, Kenneth McCrory, his former squadron commander, told me: “A lot of people were shocked. Frankly, I was. But some said, ‘Good for him—he must have overcome.’ All I can assume is he did a great job, did well for himself. I don’t begrudge him.”

Even Kirk, the retired Air Force general who thought Dorsey should be brought up on charges, conceded that he might have put his past behind him: “I guess it’s possible he redeemed himself.”

Shot DownChapter 8

Michael Ross is unconvinced. “I don’t want to see him make admiral,” he told me when I visited him last August.

All selections for flag rank in the military require Senate approval, and at the time Dorsey’s was still pending. Ross had been talking to journalists about the shootdown. He said he still suffered from injuries that had forced him to end his Air Force career early.

Watch a January interview with Michael Ross on CBS Evening News

Ross’s efforts to stall Dorsey’s selection appeared to be working. The administration had sent Dorsey’s name to the Armed Services Committee, along with those of eight other captains, in February 2012. Within a few months, all had been confirmed except for Dorsey.

Ross showed me a DVD of the cockpit footage from inside Dorsey’s F-14. (He said a friend had obtained it for him but didn’t say who or how.) He talked me through the disaster frame by frame. The moment of impact is violent and sudden. I recoiled when I saw it. The film cuts off as the F-4 banks and tilts nose down. You don’t see Ross’s ejection. But you see a fireball and flames streaming.

As the screen went black, Ross held out his arms. His flesh was covered in goosebumps and his hair stood on end. “I still have nightmares,” he said.

He’s angry that Dorsey never apologized to him face to face. During the evening Ross and Sprouse spent aboard the Saratoga, Dorsey came to meet the men he’d shot down. But according to interviews with the aviators present, as well as newspaper accounts and hundreds of pages of official records, Dorsey spoke only to Sprouse, the F-4 RIO in the back seat.

A newspaper article published six months after the shootdown, which contained what was then the most definitive public account, has Dorsey meeting with Sprouse after dinner. “I’m sorry,” Dorsey told him, according to the article.

“That’s okay,” Sprouse said. “I’m alive and right now that’s the only thing that really matters to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Dorsey said again.

Sprouse told the newspaper reporter, “We shook hands, for the record.”

The article never mentions Dorsey meeting Ross and apologizing to him. Ross swears Dorsey never did.

After Dorsey’s nomination hit the skids, he sent Ross a letter, which Ross showed me.

“I was greatly distressed to read your comments in the newspaper lately about your injuries stemming from the shootdown incident in 1987,” Dorsey wrote. “As discussed below, I was unaware you suffered from any lingering injuries.”

Dorsey recounted the night of September 22 as he remembered it. “I asked to come down to meet you and Randy so that I could apologize.” Dorsey said he asked about the men’s condition and was told by a ship doctor that “you both had been checked out and that the only injury of note was your separated shoulder.” In the Air Force’s medical records, Sprouse was found to have a dislocated shoulder. Ross was not—because, he says, he popped both his shoulders back in after the ejection.

“When I arrived in sick bay,” Dorsey continued, “you and Randy were standing there with the ship’s captain, David Frost. He introduced us and I apologized to you and Randy. After some light-hearted comment from you or Randy (I cannot recall which), I apologized again and we shook hands before I departed.”

Had Dorsey confused Sprouse with Ross? Four weeks after the shootdown, Sprouse told investigators he had met Dorsey and his squadron leader aboard the Saratoga and that Dorsey had apologized to him.

An investigator asked, “Where were you when they came down? Were you in the ward?”

“Yes, sir. We were in the hospital ward,” Sprouse replied.

“But this was just you?”

“Yes, sir, just me. Mike [Ross] was still in x-ray.”

Sprouse didn’t reply to messages I left at his home. But there’s no reason to believe his story has changed. I asked Holland, Dorsey’s RIO, if he remembered meeting Ross or Sprouse. He said he didn’t. The only man who thinks Dorsey apologized to Ross is Dorsey.

Dorsey’s letter to Ross seemed pained. “I have operated under the doctor’s assessment for all these years, believing you were fine. Indeed, I have prayed in thankfulness for it. I am truly sorry for the incident and even sorrier for its impact on you. I will pray for your continued recovery.”

But Ross was suspicious of Dorsey’s sincerity; he said that the letter had arrived only after Dorsey was selected for admiral and a string of newspaper reports about the shootdown threatened to derail his nomination.

I called Dorsey at his office in Virginia Beach, where he’s vice president and general counsel at USA Discounters, a retail chain that caters to military servicemembers and government employees. He said that the shootdown “happened a long time ago” and that he had moved on with his career and his life. He noted that his selection was still pending in the Senate but he’d be willing to speak with me about it. He’d just returned from a business trip and would call me in a day or so.

A few days went by, and I got a call from a Navy spokesperson at the Pentagon, who said Dorsey had referred my inquiries to her. He wouldn’t be giving any interviews.

Shot DownChapter 9

Dorsey’s selection for admiral had garnered extraordinary media attention. But whatever the Senate might do, the Navy had spoken.

The six men and one woman, all of them admirals, who gathered in a dimly lit room at the Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee, at 8:20 am on October 25, 2011, and reviewed every page of Captain Timothy Dorsey’s record, decided he was admiral material. All the way. One member of the selection board was a former aviator, with 4,440 hours of flying time, who did a tour on the Saratoga. Another had flown multiple tours in the F-14, and had finished his training only five years before Dorsey joined his own squadron. There was only one flag billet available for reserve intelligence officers. They saw no reason why Dorsey shouldn’t have it.

This wasn’t a purely subjective judgment. Written instructions given to all members of a selection board state that they can’t vote down the promotion of an officer who, save for one misstep, might have a promising career and be considered the “best qualified” among those up for promotion.

“While the Navy is, and will remain, a service of the highest standards and strict accountability, we do not embrace blind adherence to a zero-defect mentality,” the guidance states. “All of us have made mistakes in the past; the test is of the character and resilience of the individual and his or her ability to learn and grow from that experience.” The instructions were first used in late 2006 and have been ever since.

This isn’t to say the Navy turns a blind eye to failure. But lately the service has been more concerned with punishing personal indiscretions than professional mistakes. An investigation by the Navy Inspector General’s Office reviewed 80 cases of relief between 2005 and 2010 and found that more than half were for adultery, inappropriate relationships, drunk driving, and sexual harassment or assault.

“While the rate of [commanding officer] dismissals for cause for professional reasons is rising only slightly, there is a marked and increasing trend in the number of reliefs for personal and ethical causes,” wrote Captain Mark Light, a faculty member at the US Army War College, in a study published last year.

Read More about Admiral Chester Nimitz's career in the Navy's online archives.

There are examples sprinkled throughout Navy history of officers who have survived major professional stumbles and still risen to the top. The most famous is Admiral Chester Nimitz, who in 1907, when he was a 22-year-old ensign, ran his destroyer onto a sandbar. Eighteen months later, Nimitz was promoted, and he went on to have one of the most storied careers in Navy history, leading the Pacific Fleet to victory over the Japanese in World War II. For decades, those who disputed that the zero-defect syndrome was real have pointed to Nimitz’s tale as proof that one can overcome even the most obvious setbacks. Nimitz himself was known to make that argument.

But his recovery was rare and the result of a long struggle. Nimitz was convicted in a court-martial for neglect of duty and then relegated to the submarine service, which was considered a career dead end. Short of drumming him out of the Navy, this was arguably the worst fate Nimitz’s commanding officers could devise. He distinguished himself in his new line of work, which he correctly sensed had a bright future in naval warfare. But it was a decade after the mishap before he was assigned to a battleship, the coveted post he’d always wanted. Nimitz got ahead with the help of an influential captain, who saw great potential in the younger officer and became his mentor and lifelong friend. When the captain became an admiral, Nimitz became his flag aide. Nimitz was a brilliant officer. But absent that help from above, and his own persistence, he might never have risen in the ranks.

Today a selection board would be told not to deny Nimitz a promotion simply because of one mishap when he was a young sailor. His fellow officers would judge him not on his mistakes but on how he might learn from them.

“We are all going to fall on our faces now and then,” Admiral Mike Mullen told a class of midshipmen at the Naval Academy in 2011, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior officer in all the armed forces. “And the measure really is, how do you get up off the deck, how do you dust yourself off, and how do you look to the future?” His words were practically identical to those used in the Navy’s guidance for selection boards.

Mullen knows from personal experience that the Navy is changing: He was that young ship driver who hit a buoy in the Chesapeake Bay. It was 1973, and Mullen was an ambitious 26-year-old who, against the advice of friends, had taken command of a gasoline tanker, a challenging assignment for which he probably wasn’t ready. A Navy report blamed the collision on Mullen’s “youth and lack of experience.”

“Those lines haunted me for a long time,” he told the midshipmen. “It was the first time I had really failed at anything.” He said his career “took a nosedive, and I fell behind for a long time.” Like Nimitz, it took him more than a decade to get back on track. But Mullen was the product of a newer generation, and the Navy culture was changing. Today, he said, officers would get the benefit of the doubt.

“I’m not saying, ‘Seek failure here and you will do okay.’ That’s not the case. But it does happen. We are all human.”

One month after Mullen’s speech, Dorsey’s selection board convened. In putting him up for admiral, they emphasized that the service was practicing what it preached: a doctrine of second chances. Today’s Navy is more interested in redeeming its future leaders than in punishing them.

Shot DownChapter 10

The Navy may have changed. But the US Senate has the final say. And its members appear unconvinced that Dorsey is the model of redemption.

Usually, the approval of flag nominations is perfunctory, and barring any embarrassing revelation or public controversy, the Senate gives a thumbs-up to whomever the Defense Department puts forward. In Dorsey’s case, the members and staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee were blindsided by the revelations, first reported in February of last year by the Washington Times, that a would-be admiral had been involved in a shootdown that had apparently caused permanent injuries to another pilot.

Michael Ross clearly suffers. During the afternoon we spent together, he couldn’t stand without supporting himself against a wall or door frame. But it’s hard to know for sure whether Dorsey is responsible for everything that has gone wrong for Ross in the past 25 years. A medical officer who examined Ross three days after the shootdown, and whose sworn affidavit is included in the Air Force’s final report, found evidence of “some degenerative joint disease of the lower back. This usually occurs over a long period of time, and should not be related to the ejection.” The doctor noted “a mild anterior compression” of Ross’s lower vertebra. But “when it occurred is impossible to determine. This injury may likely have been ejection related.” Ross told me that he had also been injured playing football before he joined the Air Force.

The shootdown didn’t immediately end Ross’s career. He flew ten more years in the Air Force and then another nine as a private pilot. He says his injuries got more painful during that time and affected his work. He took a medical discharge in 1997. But he told me he was motivated to leave because of a toxic relationship with a senior officer. He wanted to continue flying. Ross now collects retirement and disability pay from the Air Force. He isn’t employed.

Dorsey’s nomination sat before the Armed Services Committee for 323 days without a vote. No one in the White House or the Defense Department offered a public defense of his selection. A Navy spokesperson recited the guidance of the selection board, that one mistake shouldn’t end a promising career.

Had Ross not gone public, Dorsey might be an admiral today. The Armed Services Committee was more concerned by the harm Dorsey had done to Ross than to an airplane. And if Dorsey had made a stronger apology to Ross, perhaps the ex-pilot would have forgiven the man who nearly killed him. Some visible, public contrition on Dorsey’s part might have helped his case, but he dodged journalists and seemed to put his trust in the official process, which had served him well for many years.

On January 3, 2013, the 112th Congress ended. Dorsey’s nomination was sent back to the administration. If the Defense Department still wants to see Dorsey make admiral, it will have to resubmit his selection to the Senate. And that’s unlikely. The Navy is willing to forgive. The public, perhaps not.

In January, Ross sent me an e-mail with a link to an article reporting that Dorsey’s nomination was dead. Ross had gotten his wish. You’d think that might give him some peace.

But reminders of the shootdown linger in Ross’s life. He still watches that DVD of the missile impact, the one that makes him shudder. And he keeps a worn, fading copy of the Air Force’s report in a three-ring binder in his home office.

He was incredulous at the news of Dorsey’s fate. “We’ll see if he survives this time,” he wrote. Ross had finally won, but he expected another fight. Like it was still September 22, 1987.

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