of Hickory, North Carolina
On Loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation
|Wing Span:||64′ (38′ Swept)|
|Empty Weight:||42,000 LBS|
|Max Weight:||61,000 LBS|
|Max Speed||1544 MPH/2.34 Mach|
|Rate of Climb:||45000 feet per minute|
|Text Markings: USS Theodore Roosevelt; 107; LT Blake Coleman, Big Chili; LT Duke Swain, Donne; PC AN SARVIS Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina; AJ; Lt. Justin Halligan JUGS; Lt. Luke Swain;|
Description by Kyle Kirby:
The Grumman F-14 Tomcat is the last of the line for the company’s fabled series of ‘cat’ fighters. These aircraft were built exclusively for the US Navy and Marine Corps. It all started when the Navy took delivery of their first XFF-1 on 29 Dec. 1931. Grummans ‘Ironworks’ as they were known for their ruggedness and durability had produced aircraft pontoons, etc. but this was their first complete aircraft delivered. It would be a very incredible relationship. Their first aircraft were the biplane FF-1, F2F, and F3F series. These aircraft were well received by pilots, and the F3F was a real ‘hot rod’. Next came their first monoplane fighter, the F4F Wildcat. This rugged little beast defended the U.S. Pacific Theatre in early WW II until supplanted by the F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat. It did so admirably with some incredible pilots which were smaller in number than Churchill’s chosen few in the Battle of Britain. The Wildcat flew throughout the war. The F6F followed and first saw action in 1943. Of the 6500 Japanese aircraft shot down in WW II, the Hellcat accounted for 5000 and achieved a 19 to 1 kill to loss ratio!!! It also produced more aces (305) than any other American aircraft in history. The incredible twin engined F7F Tigercat followed. It outperformed most single engine fighters. Marine Squadron VMF(N)-533 actually arrived with Tigercats on Okinawa the day before the Japanese surrender. It served very well in Korea and really made significant advances in aircraft design. Just too late for WW II service, the F8F Bearcat is considered by many to be the ultimate piston engined fighter. It actually held the climb record to 10,000 feet from brake release until the advent of the Mach 2 F-104 Starfighter!!! This could be done in 92 seconds, giving an indication of its blistering performance. Following this were the first jets. First the F9F Panther which gave sterling performance in Korea and the later swept wing F9F Cougar. Last of the fighters prior to the Tomcat was the fabulous F11F Tiger which served only briefly in frontline service although the Blue Angels flew it for over a decade. Two Super Tigers (F11F-1F) were built with the GE J-79 engine. They are noteworthy as they upped the world speed record to 1386 mph and flew at over Mach 2 at 80,000 feet more than once!!! There was one experimental swing-wing type built by the Ironworks, but we’ll get to it later. Grumman built many other non-fighter types that were and still are very effective and important. But obviously, the new Grumman F-14 had a huge reputation to live up to as a fighter.
The F-14 story actually begins with another type of aircraft. It first flew in May 1966 and was known as TFX. Then Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara was fixated on commonality with inter-service aircraft partly due to the mighty F-4 Phantom. The U.S. would produce a ‘common’ fighter for both the USAF and USN. General Dynamics would produce the USAF version and Grumman the USNs. It would become the F-111A/B and they would be the first production swing-wing aircraft. Grumman reluctantly worked on the program and after the first flight on 18 May 1965 there were serious problems. Admirals Tom Connelly and Tom Moorer argued against the huge bird and eventually won out in Congressional hearings. The F-111 became a great aircraft in USAF service as a bomber but just wasn’t capable of giving the Navy the aircraft it wanted. In the background, Grumman engineers were already working on a new fighter that would revolutionize Navy capabilities. After cancellation of the F-111B, the Navy’s new interceptor requirement was renamed VFX. Grumman’s entry beat out the other manufactures proposals after tremendous research and studies by project director Steve Pelehach and his crew at Grumman. Their proposal was a massive twin engined, two seat, swing wing interceptor with incredible fighter skills as well. Grumman’s work on their experimental XF10F-1swing wing Jaguar in the early fifties and the F-111B gave them considerable experience in swing wing technology which the new F-14 would employ.
The Tomcat, named in honor of the two previously mentioned Admirals, was an answer to growing threats abroad and fighter performance early in the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union was producing the new supersonic Backfire bomber, the MiG-23, triplesonic MiG-25, and a plethora of long range anti-ship missiles. The Navy wanted to provide the fleet with a further reaching interceptor and have a fighter that could provide superior air-to-air performance than the current F-4 and F-8 that were battling MiGs in Southeast Asia. A tall order to incorporate into one design. To counter the bomber and missile threat, the F-14 would retain the Hughes AN/AWG-9 radar and Phoenix missile pioneered by the F-111B. This system allowed the aircraft to detect targets at over 100 nautical miles, fire six AIM-54s, and track 24 more targets simultaneously. This would remain the F-14s trump card until very late in its career. This would counter all threats to the fleet including the anti-ship missiles. As well the Tomcat would be able to ‘mix it up’ with enemy fighters with the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder, and M-61 Vulcan cannon. This mix and flexibility of weapons was unprecedented. The Tomcat could destroy targets from a few hundred feet to over 100 miles away!! Also the high demand of varying air-to-air missions (not to mention landing on a carrier) required the swing wing incorporation. The Tomcat would have no air to ground weapon capabilities early on. The new fighter also incorporated two aircrew like the F-4 before it. This was a winning combination especially in light of the complexity of the radar/missile workload. The twin vertical tails helped the large airframe in the maneuverability department as did the huge horizontal stabilizers that could operate independent from one another. The widely spaced engines would help survivability if one was hit in combat. That gets us to the early F-14’s weakest link. It also retained the TF-30 turbofan engine of the F-111 program and it was always an unsuitable engine for the big fighter. It suffered from compressor stalls when pilots ‘yanked and banked’ and never provided suitable power to unleash the full potential of the remarkable airframe.
This new superfighter first flew from Grumman’s Calverton facility on 21 Dec. 1970 with Bob Millar and Robert Smythe at the controls. The same aircraft crashed on its second flight on 30 Dec. after a hydraulic failure with both pilots ejecting safely at treetop height!! This was an omen of things to come. The transition for the US Navy into Tomcats would not be easy. Twenty F-14s were developed for test duties and flight trials to ready the type for service. After a long development process, VF-124 began to receive the F-14A in October of 1972. VF-124 would be the FRS or ‘RAG’ that would train the new F-14 pilots for the west coast squadrons to follow. VF-101 followed soon after as the east coast RAG although the first two east coast squadrons (VF-14 and VF-32) trained at Miramar NAS with VF-124. The first two operational squadrons to fly off of a carrier were VF-1 and VF-2 who operated with the Pacific Fleet aboard the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65). During their first cruise they actually flew the first operational missions off the coast of Vietnam supporting ‘Operation Frequent Wind’, the evacuation of Saigon. F-14A ranks began to grow in the Navy and the F-14 would eventually serve in 31 Navy squadrons in its career including test and reserve units. During its tenure in service, the Tomcat was awe inspiring in its presence and other nations feared its capabilities. On August 19th, 1981 the F-14 got to show how formidable it was after much sabre-rattling by Libyan leader Col. Muamar Khadaffi. VF-41 F-14As had set up a CAP off the Libyan coast under the call-sign FAST EAGLE. One of the crews is noteworthy to us here. Cmdr. Henry (Hank) Kleeman was in FAST EAGLE 107. Hank Kleeman was Joel Eaton’s roommate on the USS America in 1968 when he flew our A-7!!! Late in the CAP, two Libyan Su-22s were detected and were not following normal Rules of Engagement. After a head on engagement by the 22s they fired a missile. Kleeman and Larry (Music) Muczynski in FAST EAGLE 112 maneuvered and shot both aircraft down with AIM-9L Sidewinders. Kleeman was later killed at Miramar when his F/A-18 skidded and flipped over while landing.
F-14As of VF-74 and VF-103 also intercepted an Egyptian Airline’s 737 that was carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers in Oct. of 1985. Flying from the Saratoga and using help from E-2Cs and RC-135s, the seven F-14s forced the 737 down at Sigonella, Italy where the hijackers were prosecuted. They also provided CAP duties for Operation ‘El Dorado Canyon’ in April 1986. On 4 January 1989, VF-32 got in on the action. In what turned out to be a controversial action, F-14As again knocked out two more Libyan aircraft after repeated provoking passes at the Tomcats. This time it was MiG-23 Floggers and both were again brought down. Ironically, missile shots were fired at F-4 Phantoms in 1988 and 1989. They were Iranian Phantoms harassing fleet refueling operations but the missiles were fired outside of parameters. Problems continued in the Middle East and Saddam Hussein launched his attack on Kuwait on 2 Aug. 1990. During ‘Desert Storm’, F-14s flew mostly carrier BARCAP missions and didn’t see hardly any action since they had no air-to-ground mission at that time. The TARPS toting F-14s actually did venture deep into enemy airspace and saw considerable action. It is kind of sad but the chief architect of airpower for the war was Air Force General Chuck Horner and obviously the F-15C was going to get the prime MiG assignments where the Navy’s F-14 crews were going to be less utilized in a much lesser role. That’s just the way it goes and it’s not meant negatively here, it’s just a fact. I think the F-14 could have done very well here with its incredible complement of air-to-air weapons before the Iraqis realized they were fighting KING KONG and started defecting to Iran and before their aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Again, our great training that came from Vietnam produced the best forces in the world.
There are basically two F-14 stories to tell. The TF-30 era and the F-110 era. As mentioned earlier, the TF-30 engine was always the Tomcat’s weakest link in its armor. The Navy finally got the TF-30-414 which was pretty good, but it took until 1979 to get it with the 235th airframe and it still left some thrust to be desired. In Pratt&Whitney’s defense it was the first production afterburning turboFAN ever delivered in the US. Grumman tried to rectify the problem early on with the first F-14B Super Tomcat. It utilized the F401 engine and performed well. The engine proved to complex and costly for the Navy and the program was abandoned in 1974. It would take some time to rectify this problem but the F-14 performed well enough for the Navy that it decided to press on with F-14A production. The same aircraft that flew with the F401 engine (BuNo 157986) was tasked with trials on a new engine that could transform the Tomcat into a ‘viceless’ aircraft. It was thus modified and made its first flight at Calverton on 14 July 1981. The engine was then known as the GE F-101DFE (Derivative Fighter Engine). It was developed from the B-1B bomber program and offered thrust in the 27-29,000 lb range. This was a significant increase over the TF-30s 21,000 lb range. The program was finished in the autumn of 1981 and test pilot Chuck Sewell said the aircraft with the new engine was a ‘fighter pilot’s dream’!!! The Navy finally had the aircraft it really wanted and big plans were made to field a fleet of F-14s with new digital avionics and a more sophisticated radar. This would become the F-14D. In the meantime an interim aircraft would become operational with the new engine only. The new engine was redesignated F-110-400-GE and the new aircraft would be designated F-14A+ (A Plus). In 1991 the Navy decided to call the aircraft the F-14B. The new B model began to get bombing capabilities and arrived early enough to serve in Desert Storm alongside its A model brethren. There are no records to indicate that a Tomcat ever dropped a bomb during this conflict. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the ‘blue water’ Navy was becoming a ‘brown water’ Navy where they became more involved in policing actions closer to shore rather than patrolling vast expanses of the world’s oceans. Two F-14s did succeed in bringing down a Mil-8 Hip helicopter in Iraq.
While the F-14As and Bs were serving the fleet, the new F-14D was under trials and eventually flew in its complete form 8 Dec. 1987. This new aircraft was a reborn machine. It featured the new AN/APG-71 radar that was derived from the F-15Es APG-70. Being a digital system it increased the Tomcat’s detection and tracking ranges as well as allowing the AIM-54 Phoenix to be fired from slightly longer ranges. It also incorporated all new avionics, night vision goggle (NVG) capability, improved ALR-67 radar warning receiver, and NACES ejection seats. The new radar also was highly capable of operating in severe electronic countermeasures environments. The new Tomcat had it all as it retained the excellent F-110-400 engine of the B model. Late in its career the F-14D participated in all actions after Desert Storm until its retirement in 2006. It became a very good ground pounder and flew with various precision guided munitions (PGM) including joint stand-off munitions (JDAM) and laser guided bombs in conjunction with the LANTIRN pod. It was always a love affair with the F-14 and its crews. It represented naval aviation all of its career and was a movie star as well. It was also looked at as the new ATF for the Navy. A new version was proposed that was called the Tomcat 21. This stood for 21st century, and the new aircraft was modified to ‘supercruise’ as well as many other advancements including vectored thrust that would make it even more viable for future use. All of this was cancelled and the Tomcat was destined for retirement. This happened on Sept. 22nd 2006 at Oceana NAS. Our Tomcat (BuNo 163902) made that last ceremonial flight and represented all of these magnificent birds in the end. It is unbelievable that we have this historic aircraft in our collection and it draws people from near and far. The Tomcat is one of the most beloved of all military aircraft and has huge following. I should add here that the only export Tomcats went to Iran prior to the Shah’s fall. Like the F-4, it’s service there is a mystery, but it is known that the Tomcats have done well there. It is believed that there are several Iranian F-14 aces and that they actually modified them to carry the Hawk surface to air missile in the air-to-air mode after Grumman technicians sabotaged the AIM-54 Phoenix capability on the Iranian F-14As!!! They still fly there today in very limited numbers.
The Tomcat was always one of the most ingenious airframes ever designed and once it got the F-110 it was able to live up to its intended capabilities. It is still controversial that it was retired by its faithful. Come out to the Hickory Aviation Museum and see this awe inspiring example of American airpower in its livery with VF-31. I think it was poetic that historic squadron VF-31 (Felix) and known as the ‘TOMCATTERS’ got to fly the last official Navy flight in our very airplane. Also, I would like to thank the backseater on that flight Lt. Mike Petronis for coming to Hickory to participate in our Grand Opening ceremonies….FELIX RULES!!!