Iranian Air Ace Jalil Zandi – 11 Aerial Victories. Highest-Scoring Pilot ever on F-14 Tomcat

anil chopra, air power asia, Iranian Air ace. Jalil Zandi

Brig. General Jalil Zandi was a fighter pilot in the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force who served during all of the Iran–Iraq War. His combat record qualifies him as one of the most successful pilot of that conflict in air-to-air combat, as well as one of the best Iranian Aces ever. It also made him the highest-scoring pilot in the history of the F-14 Tomcat.

Image Siurce: military.wikia.org

Service Career

          Born on 2 May 1951 at Garmsar in Iran, (Garmsar is located about 95 kilometres southeast of Tehran. It lies on the edge of Dasht-e Kavir, Iran’s largest desert) Jalil Zandi began in the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) and stayed on to serve in the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF)  when it was somewhat dangerous for pilots to continue their military service. While a Major, he often clashed with his superior Lt. Col. Abbas Babaei. Abbas Babaei was “notorious for his merciless treatment of the pilots and officers” considered disloyal to the new regime and because of this Jalil Zandi was condemned to ten years of imprisonment. When he was in prison, he was threatened to be sentenced to death, but by demand of the then-air force commander and many other air force pilots, he was released after six months.

Iranian F-14s. Image Source: erospaceweb.org

Iranian Purchase of F-14s

          Back in the early 70s the pro-western Shah of Iran had a big problem with the Soviets flying reconnaissance  flights over his airspace, so he sought from the USA some aircraft capable of engaging the MiG-25 Foxbat. The U.S. offered F-14 Tomcats and F-15 Eagles. The Shah bought two billion dollars’ worth of F-14s and missiles and the other stuff that goes with it. Iran trained its best pilots, engineers and technicians with the US Navy personnel in the operation and maintenance of the aircraft.  By 1979, Iran had almost 80 F-14s and over 120 qualified pilots to fly them. 

Ouster of the Shah – Jalil Put Behind Bars

          Iranian Air Force Major Jalil Zandi was a daredevil, fighter pilot and in awesome love  of his aviator sunglasses. Trained with the US Navy, he was pro-American on many counts, so naturally, when the Ayatollah came to power and declared a new ultra-conservative Islamic republic, Jalil Zandi was one of the first guys arrested at gunpoint in the middle of the night, thrown in jail, and sentenced to ten years in prison for disloyalty to the new regime.  Loyalty outweighed the benefits of having a highly-trained F-14 Tomcat pilot. Many of the F-14 pilots and technicians who had trained in the US were arrested or killed, but not before some of the techs sabotaged the aircraft and missiles on their way out. In 1980, however, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army launched a full-scale invasion of Iran, the Ayatollah had to change his mind and released them from prison to save their country.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, and Ayatollah Khomeini. Image Source: middleeasteye.net

Eight Years of Action – Many Times Single Handed

          For the next eight years Jalil Zandi was in constant combat against the MiGs and Mirages of the Iraqi Air Force. He was flying the ever-shrinking operational force of F-14 Tomcat fighters, as the United States refused to ship replacement parts, missiles, or weapons for the Tomcat. By 1986 the operational strength of the Iranian Tomcat fighter wing had dropped from 80 to 25. Jalil often had to engage much larger swarms of enemy fighters that vastly outnumbered him.  He was tasked primarily with defending Iranian oil fields. He sometimes had to engage nearly the entire Iraqi squadron, but he brought down many enemy MiGs without mercy. 

The Early Aerial Victories

          In one of his first engagements, Jalil attacked a pair of MiG-23s on his own, nailing one with a long-range Phoenix missile and the other with a Sidewinder.  In another engagement he escorted a massive Iranian oil tanker plane on a dangerous run deep through Iraqi airspace and found himself engaged with a squadron of MiGs.  The plane he was escorting survived. 

Iraqi MiG 23. Image Source: theaviationgeekclub.com

The Final Engagement

          Jalil’s final fight took place in October of 1988, when he found himself going up against eight French-built Mirage F1 fighters.  Zandi fought hard, scoring two unconfirmed kills in the engagement, but eventually was shot. He somehow managed to limp the aircraft across the Iranian border, then ejected when his second engine also shut down. The rest of the war running things from the ground.

Iran–Iraq War – Aerial Victories

          The Iran–Iraq War was an armed conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Iraq lasting from September 1980 to August 1988. He earned his fame as an F-14 Tomcat pilot during the Iran–Iraq War. He has been reliably credited with shooting down 11 Iraqi aircraft. Eight victories have been confirmed through examination with US intelligence documents released according to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiry and three probable victories. The victories include four MiG-23s, two Su-22s, two MiG-21s, and three Mirage F1s. This makes him one of the most successful Iranian fighter ace ever, & the most successful F-14 Tomcat pilot worldwide.

Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) Sukhoi Su-22M-4 observed at Saddam International (BGW / ORBI) in April 1989
[photo: T. Laurent]

          Counting air-to-air kills has always been a complex exercise, and it was much worse in case of a war like the Iran-Iraq War where each side was running an intense propaganda machine. Iran officially credits Major Jalil Zandi with destroying eight enemy aircraft, with three more listed as “probable” to bring his total to 11. Iraq claims he only shot down three, which, incidentally, would still be enough to tie the number of kills earned by the United States’ top-scoring fighter pilot of the supersonic age.  What was great was that Jalil survived eight years of non-stop war, and flew the F-14 despite limited repair facilities.

Iraqi Mirage F1. Image Source: flying-tigers.co.uk

Jalil’s Personal Impressions

          In a story about Jalil in the Badass of the week Jalil has reportedly siad, “The MiG-23 was not the fighter the Iraqis had hoped for. It could not outmaneuver any of our fighters and we have had very little respect for them on a one-to-one basis. We were concerned only when facing large numbers of Iraqi MiG-23s, later during the war. The most impressive thing about the MiG-23 was its ability to rapidly accelerate when we chased them—but it could not outrun an F-14.”

Image Source: badassoftheweek.com

Summary of Aerial Victories

The most successful pilot of the war in air combats, with 11 aerial victories. The most successful F-14 Tomcat pilot worldwide.

DateVictim AircraftWeapon Used
15 May 81MiG 21AIM-9P
January  82MiG 21AAM
10 Oct 82

MiG 23AIM-54A
September 83MiG 23AIM-54A
September 83Su 22AAM
April 86Su 22AAM
April 86MiG 23AAM
29 Aug 87MiG 23AIM-54A
February 88Mirage F1AAM
February 88Mirage F1AIM-9P
October 88Mirage F1AIM-9P
Iranian F-14 Air Ace Shahram Rostami. Image Source: Wikipedia

The Other Aces of the War

          There were two more Iranian Air Aces of the war.  Shahram Rostami who scored six victories flying F 14 Tomcat, and  Yadollah Sharifirad who scored five victories flying the Northrop F-5. There was only one Iraqi Air Ace Colonel Mohommed Rayyan. Nicknamed “Sky Falcon,” he scored five air combat kills, making him the most successful Iraqi fighter pilot of that war. Rayyan, while only a Flight Lieutenant and flying a MiG-21MF, claimed two (later confirmed) kills against Iranian F-5 Freedom Fighters in 1980. Later he qualified on the MiG-25P in 1981 and claimed 5 more victories (3 verified by western sources.) Most of his victories were F-4 Phantoms. In 1986, having attained the rank of Colonel, Rayyan was shot down and killed by IRIAF Grumman F-14 Tomcats. His 5 to 8 air combat victories make Rayyan the most successful MiG-25 fighter pilot ever. Another notable Iranian pilot, though not an Ace, was Major Rahnavard, who on 16 February 1982 is reputed to have shot down four Iraqi fighter jets in two separate encounters over Kharg Island. Records indicate that two of his confirmed kills were Mirage F1s.

Iraqi Colonel Mohommed Rayyan (died 1986), nicknamed “Sky Falcon”, the most succssful MiG 25 Pilot ever. Image Source Wikipedia

Book on Iranian Tomcat Units in Combat

          In 2004, Tom Cooper published “Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat”, based mainly on primary interviews with Iranian pilots. The book makes many claims that contradict previous reports. In particular, Cooper claims that Iran’s F-14s had up to 159 kills, and that in one incident, four Iraqi aircraft were shot down with one AIM-54 (The missile’s warhead exploded between them and severely damaged them). By 1980, with the prospect of war with Iraq becoming ever more likely, most of the 77 surviving F-14 airframes were found to be in non-operational condition, or at least had non-functioning radars. As a result, F-14 pilots were forced to rely on ground control for their first wartime patrol and intercept missions. Within a few days of the start of the war, a dozen or so F-14s were made operational. Tom Cooper, wrote in the  “Persian Cats”, Smithsonian Air & Space.

Iranian Tomcat Pilots. Image Source: badassoftheweek.com

          The first confirmed kill by an F-14A during the Iran–Iraq War occurred before the formal start of hostilities: on 7 September 1980, an IRIAF F-14A destroyed an Iraqi Mil Mi-25 (export variant of the Mil Mi-24) Hind helicopter using its 20mm Vulcan cannon. Six days later, Major Mohammad-Reza Attaie shot down an Iraqi MiG-21 with an AIM-54 Phoenix while flying a border patrol. A single AIM-54 fired in July 1982 by Captain Hashemi may have destroyed two Iraqi MiG-23s flying in close formation.

Major Mohammad-Reza Attaie. Image Source: http://www.airspacemag.com

F-14 Spares and Modifications

          Cooper claims the AIM-54s were used only sporadically during the start of the war, most likely because of a shortage of qualified radar intercept officers, and then more frequently in 1981 and 1982—until the lack of thermal batteries suspended the missiles’ use in 1986. There were also rumors that suggested that Iran’s Tomcat fleet would be upgraded with avionics derived from the MiG-31 “Foxhound”. However, IRIAF officials and pilots insist that the Soviets were never allowed near the F-14s, and never received any F-14 or AIM-54 technology. Also, the AIM-54 missile was never out of service in the IRIAF, though the stocks of operational missiles were low at times. Clandestine deliveries from US sources and black market purchases supplied spares to top up the Phoenix reserves during the war, and spares deliveries from the US in the 1990s have also helped. Furthermore, an attempt was made to adapt the MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missiles that were also a carry-over from the pre-revolution period, to be used as air-to-air missiles for the F-14; at least two F-14s have been successfully modified to carry the hybrid weaponry.

Tomcats with AIM-54A missiles. Image Source: http://www.badassoftheweek.com

AIM-54A Targets

          All in all, the IRIAF was said to have launched possibly 70 to 90 AIM-54A missiles, and 60–70 of those scored. Of those, almost 90 percent of the AIM-54A missiles fired were used against Iraqi fighters and fighter-bombers. Only about a dozen victories by AIM-54s were claimed to be against fast, high-flying targets such as the MiG-25 or Tu-22 ‘Blinder’.

Spares Shortage and Depleting F-14s

          By the close of the war, both sides were unable to obtain new aircraft or parts, and aerial combat had become rare, since neither side could afford to lose aircraft they could not replace. In particular, the IRIAF F-14 fleet suffered from a lack of trained technicians, and by 1984 only 40 F-14s were still in service. By 1986, that number had dropped to just 25. The F-14 was relegated to protecting Iran’s vital oil refining and export infrastructure; in this role, they often encountered French-built, Iraqi Dassault Mirage F1EQ fighters attempting to attack Iranian oil pipelines.

Tomcat F-14 with its weapons. Image Source: nationalinterest.org

A Tomcat Shoots Three MiG 23s With One Missile

           Blake Stilwell writes in the “Mighty History” a story about “That time an F-14 killed three MiGs with a single missile.” A lot of crazy things happened in the Iran-Iraq War. The backbone of the Iranian Air Force at the time was the beloved F-14 Tomcat, a plane the Iranians still fly. It gave them an edge in the air war against Iraq. But technology can only take you so far. And it was the skills of Iranian pilots that allowed the IRIAF to claim three kills with one missile. Iranians are really good behind the stick of the Tomcat. In fact, the highest scoring ace in a Tomcat is the Iranian Jalil Zandi. The U.S. Air Force, has also confirmed Jalil Zandi’s 11 kills flying F-14s, an amazing achievement for any fighter pilot. Before the Iraqi ground troops crossed the border, Saddam’s air forces attempted to destroy the Iranian Air Force while it was still on the ground. They missed and it cost them big time. In the opening days of the war, Tomcats took their toll on the Iraqi Air Force, downing fighters and bombers alike. Their most deadly weapons, Phoenix missiles, carried an explosive payload that was much larger than other anti-aircraft missiles. They were designed to take down Soviet-built Tupolev bomber aircraft, the same kind the Iraqis were trying to fly over Tehran.

Iranian pilot Asadullah Adel. 3 Kills with one Missile. Image Source: blog.museumofflight.org

          On 07 January 1981, Iranian pilot Asadullah Adeli and his Radar Intercept Officer Mohammed Masbough responded to reports of unidentified aircraft headed toward Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf. The Tomcat realised that the intruders were actually three Iraqi MiG-23s. Iranian ground radar couldn’t see all three, but authorized Adeli and Masbough to engage the MiGs anyway. “They were flying really low,” Adeli recalled. “Even though it was night, they were flying at around 2,000 feet.” Masbough told him to target the one in the middle, just hoping to damage the other two enough that they might break off. That’s almost what happened. The American-built Phoenix missile’s explosive delivery was so powerful, it downed all three enemy aircraft. The wreckage of all three MiGs was found on Kharg Island the next day.

All those aviator sunglasses… and Top Gun wouldn’t even be released for another five years. Jalil standing on the left. Image Source: You Tube

Iran and the Tomcat F-14

          The Tomcat made its combat debut during Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of American citizens from Saigon, in April 1975. F-14As from Fighter Squadron 1 (VF-1) and VF-2, operating from the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), flew combat air patrols over South Vietnam to provide fighter cover for the evacuation route. Tomcats of the U.S. Navy shot down two Libyan Su-22’s on 19 August 1981. But Iranian F-14’s had been blasting Iraqi MiGs out of the sky since September, 1980. The F-14 is an example of Iran’s so-called “resistance economy” wherein Iran stretches its resources to the limit, getting the most mileage out of their planes as possible by domestically-built or internationally-acquired parts. The world is likely see Iran’s F-14s until they’re shot out of the sky.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Jalil’s Post-War Days

          His last official post, was deputy for planning and organization of the Iranian Air Force, in the rank of Brigadier General. He was awarded the Fath Medal, Grade II On February 4, 1990. He died with his wife Zahra Moheb Shahedin in 2001 in a car accident near Tehran. He was 49 years old. He is buried in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in the south of Tehran. He had three sons: Vahid, Amir, and Nader.

Image Credit: Pinterest

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

3 thoughts on “Iranian Air Ace Jalil Zandi – 11 Aerial Victories. Highest-Scoring Pilot ever on F-14 Tomcat

  1. Thank You Sir for sharing these informations, not known to many.

    Sir, who are our ( Indian ) top Air Warriors in your view ? Any article on Indian Air Force and its Bravehearts … I know, One is You only for us … Respect to You Sir

    Like

    1. Thanks for the appreciation. These are series of Air Aces. These are those who have shot more than 5 aircraft in the air. We have had an Indian Air Ace (Only one), Infra Roy. I have written about him. Regards

      Like

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