In 1987, over the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, a routine NATO drill took an unexpected and tragic turn, leaving a lasting impact on the lives of those caught in its wake.

With a lot of geopolitical tensions and armed skirmishes happening in recent years, it’s not surprising how the United States military has been conducting extensive and large-scale war games with its allies around the world. These exercises, long a staple of military training, aim to simulate real-life combat situations and test tactics and strategies against potential adversaries.

This has always been a part of the US military’s tradition to conduct intra-service drills and joint exercises with its allies, forging not just great relations and strong partnerships but also establishing combat readiness and preparedness. But one particular incident during the “Display Determination 87” exercise would cast a long shadow over these endeavors.

A Tragic Anomaly: Display Determination 87

Display Determination 87” was a NATO exercise that brought together F-14 Tomcats from the USS Saratoga (CV-60) and RF-4 Phantoms from the US Air Force (USAF) based in West Germany. The objective was seemingly straightforward: the Phantoms had to locate the Saratoga and launch an assault if the Tomcats failed to detect them first. The Tomcats, on the other hand, had to approach the USAF aircraft closely enough to read their hull numbers, a critical requirement in these complex war games.

As the exercise began, Lt. Timothy Dorsey found himself at the helm of one of the Tomcats. However, what unfolded in the skies above the Mediterranean was far from routine. Dorsey, for reasons unknown, inexplicably targeted an Air Force aircraft with his Sidewinder missile—an act that would later be described as “illogical” and “deliberate” by Navy officials.

The chain of events that followed was nothing short of tragic. The Phantoms, piloted by Captain Michael Ross and 1st Lt. Michael Sprouse, were unaware of the impending danger as they located their intended target—22 miles offshore. Ross initiated a simulated attack run, completely oblivious to the threat closing in on his aircraft.