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Historic Aircraft – A Premier Fighter

Almost all famous fighter aircraft—those of the United States and other nations—primarily gained their fame by a large number of aerial kills. Not so the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Although considered an outstanding fighter aircraft by most criteria, the F-14 did not have a significant aerial score in U.S. Navy service. Indeed, Navy pilots shot down only five enemy aircraft during the more than three decades that the F-14 was in the Fleet: four Libyan-flown fighters and one Iraqi-flown helicopter.

Significantly, and virtually unknown in the West, Irani-piloted F-14s reportedly achieved 150 air kills in the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War. Today, Iran, ostensibly an “enemy,” is the only nation flying the F-14.

The Tomcat evolved from a failure. In the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara proposed a common fighter-attack aircraft to be flown by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps— an action that was intended to accrue financial savings in design, procurement, and support. This became the General Dynamics F-111 tri-service fighter (TFX). Subsequently, strategic bomber (FB-111) and electronic attack (EF-111) variants were developed.

But the Navy’s F-111B variant proved too heavy for carrier service and, following trials, its acquisition was canceled. The Navy turned to Grumman to develop the follow-on fighter to the highly successful McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II flown by all three services and numerous allied nations. Grumman had developed some great Navy fighter aircraft—the F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, and F9F Panther/Cougar—as well as other widely used carrier aircraft such as the TBF/TBM Avenger, S2F Tracker, WF Tracer, and W2F Hawkeye.

The Navy wanted a fighter that could provide long-range fleet air defense against Soviet missile-armed bombers. That role required a large radar/fire-control system and heavy missile payload. Still, because aircraft numbers on board carriers were limited, the aircraft also had to be capable of close-in combat, requiring high maneuverability and gunfire, and attack roles. The resulting F-14 met these requirements—and more.

Grumman initiated in-house studies for a future Navy fighter—designated VFX—as soon as it became evident that the F-111B would not meet the requirements for a carrier-based fighter. The Grumman design team, led by Michael Pelehach, was able to build on fighter experience in Vietnam as well as F-111 and the firm’s XF10F-1 experience with swing-wing aircraft.

Grumman and five other contractors submitted VFX proposals to the Navy in June 1968, a month after Congress refused further funding for the F-111B. Grumman was pronounced winner of the competition on 14 January 1969. Moving rapidly, the company had the prototype F-14A ready to fly on 21 December 1970. Unfortunately, that aircraft was lost on its second flight, on 30 December. The crew ejected safely, and the problem—a hydraulic failure—was quickly identified. Flight tests resumed on 24 May 1971, with carrier trials on board the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) in June 1972.

The basic design provided a twin-turbofan fighter with a complex system of variable-geometry air intakes. Twin vertical tail fins were provided to compensate for the sudden loss of thrust in the event of an engine failure. The variable-sweep wings were automatically controlled for optimum performance through the aircraft’s entire operating envelope without pilot attention. In comparison with the F-4 Phantom, the F-14 was 230 mph faster with a 40 percent greater radius of action, range, and endurance. The Tomcat’s ceiling was higher and landing speed was almost 30 mph slower, increasing the safety factor in carrier operations. In a dogfight, the F-14 demonstrated a higher roll rate and better acceleration than the F-4.

The Tomcat’s two-man crew—a pilot and radar-intercept officer in tandem seating—employed the AN/AWG-9 radar/missile-control system that could simultaneously guide long-range Phoenix missiles to six targets. Unique to the F-14, the Phoenix was intended to intercept attacking Soviet bombers at a range of 60 miles. In addition, the fighter could carry infrared-guided Sidewinder and radar-guided Sparrow air-intercept missiles. While up to six Phoenixes could be carried, a more typical payload would be four Phoenixes and two 280-gallon drop tanks, or eight Sparrows and Sidewinders with the drop tanks for a mission time of almost three hours.

A variety of bombs could be carried: 14 MK 82 500-pound bombs and two drop tanks provided a combat radius of some 550 nautical miles in a high-flight mission profile, or 400 nautical miles in a low-flight profile. The aircraft also was fitted with an internal M61A1 Gatling gun with 676 rounds of ammunition. The lack of an internal gun was a major shortcoming of Navy–Marine Phantoms.

Fleet Readiness Squadron VF-124 at Naval Air Station Miramar, California, received the first F-14s in early 1973; Fleet introduction came with fighter squadrons VF-1 and VF-2 embarked in the Enterprise (CVAN-65). They participated in the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. Although there was no aerial combat, the “Big E” Tomcats strafed North Vietnamese troops during the evacuation.

Two F-14 squadrons soon became the standard air-wing component on board U.S. carriers. A total of 33 VF squadrons plus four VX development squadrons flew the Tomcat. The plane was involved in a variety of Cold War–era crises around the world. Their first combat occurred on 19 August 1981, when two F-14s from VF-41 on board the carrier Nimitz (CVN-68) shot down two Libyan Su-22 Fitter fighters with Sidewinder missiles about 60 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. There was a repeat action on 4 January 1989, when two Tomcats from VF-32 on the John F. Kennedy (CV-67) shot down two Libyan MiG-23 Flogger fighters with Sidewinders and Sparrows. The fifth and final F-14 kill occurred on 6 February 1991 during the Gulf War when a VF-1 Tomcat from the Ranger (CV-61) downed an Iraqi Mi-8 Hip helicopter.

F-14s also were used in the attack role, beginning on 5 September 1995, when an F-14A from the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on Serb positions in Bosnia. More strikes followed, but the aircraft’s reconnaissance role was more important than its attack role. With retirement of the Fleet’s RA-5C Vigilante, RF-8 Crusader, and RF-4B Phantom reconnaissance aircraft, the Navy developed the Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) for F-14s to conduct photo and other “recon” missions. From the late 1970s approximately 65 F-14A and all F-14D variants could be fitted with TARPS while retaining their combat capabilities.

Production of the Tomcat continued through March 1987, with 632 aircraft being delivered to the Navy: 557 F-14A including development aircraft, 38 F-14A+ (redesignated F-14B), and 37 new F-14D variants. (Thirty-two F-14A aircraft were modified to the F-14A+ configuration, provided with upgraded engines and advanced electronics. An earlier up-engined F-14B prototype converted from an F-14A was tested, but no production followed.) A planned F-14C all-weather attack-and-reconnaissance design was stillborn. The F-14D variant—of the 55 total, 18 were modified from F-14As—had improved engines and electronics.

The Marine Corps at one point planned to fly the Tomcat; however, the Marine leadership decided instead to procure additional F-4s and to proceed with the AV-8 Harrier vertical-takeoff/landing aircraft. Beyond the 632 F-14s produced for the U.S. Navy, another 80 F-14A aircraft were built for Iran.

The Iranian government suffered frustration from periodic incursions by Soviet high-performance reconnaissance aircraft, thus their leadership sought F-15 Eagle or F-14 Tomcat fighters as a deterrence, with the latter being selected. The shah’s government ordered 80 F-14A aircraft, with 79 being delivered—with Phoenix missiles—from 1976 to 1979. The Islamic revolution of 1979 caused the last aircraft to be retained by Grumman.

With the fall of the shah’s regime, the U.S. Navy initiated actions to develop electronic countermeasures to defeat the AIM-54A Phoenix missiles sold to Iran, and to make U.S. missiles invulnerable to Iranian countermeasures. Still, the Islamic Republic’s acquisition of F-14s and Phoenix missiles led to concern for future U.S. air operations. The Iranian fighters are generally credited with 150 air-to-air kills of Iraqi aircraft. Reportedly, some are still operational, kept in service in part with Russian assistance and illegally acquired U.S. parts.

The U.S. Navy has phased the F-14 out of the Fleet. The last F-14D squadron, VF-213, retired its aircraft on 22 September 2006. Thus, the fighter served the U.S. Navy for just over three decades. While not a record-maker, the F-14 Tomcat was a truly great aircraft.


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