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The Need for Speed: The Grumman F-14 Tomcat

Before jumping in to today’s video, let’s all “come clean” by admitting that at some point in the past 3 ½ decades, each and every one of us has engaged in some or all of the following behavior – 

  • Referring to a spouse, child, friend, coworker or significant other as Maverick, Goose or simply, “wingman”
  • Performing the cheesy high and low-5 hand slap like Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards in the Top Gun beach volleyball scene 
  • Uttering the phrase “I feel the need for speed”  

With that embarrassing bit of housecleaning out of the way, we can all probably agree that –  

  • The 1986 blockbuster hit Top Gun was an awesome flick
  • Soundtrack hits Take My Breath Away (performed by Berlin) and Highway to the Danger Zone (performed by Kenny Loggins) are as poignant today as they were back then
  • The movie made the venerable F-14 Tomcat the most popular and recognizable military aircraft of the era 

OK enough said, let’s get into it. 

Background

As far back as the late ‘50s, US Navy brass saw the need for a high-tech high-performance fighter-interceptor that would be capable of tracking enemy aircraft and missiles day or night in nearly all weather conditions, and blasting them out of the sky before they posed a serious threat to the all-important carrier battle groups. 

Unfortunately for the Navy however, when Robert McNamara became Secretary of Defense in 1961 he wasted little time instituting his cross-service aircraft standardization scheme, officially called the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program. 

The idea was to save money and hasten development by building aircraft that could be used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.  

At about the same time, the first McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantoms were being delivered to operational units, but though they were primarily carrier-based aircraft, McNamara pushed them on the Air Force too. 

Years later in the skies over Vietnam however, a number of serious Phantom issues would be revealed.

Big, heavy and unmaneuverable, F-4s were hopelessly outclassed in close quarters dogfights against smaller, more nimble adversaries like MiG-17s and 21s. 

In addition, early variants lacked guns and cannons, which meant that when their air-to-air missiles missed their marks or malfunctioned altogether, the Phantoms were nearly defenseless. 

Dubbed F-111, the aircraft produced by the TFX program looked like a world-beater that might just be “everything to everyone.”

The new multi-role swing-wing warbirds were complex, fast, and capable of carrying large bomb loads long distances. 

On the downside, they were essentially a low-level penetration bombers, and what the Navy needed was air superiority fighter-interceptors. 

Needless to say, with maximum takeoff weights exceeding 80,000-pounds (36,287 kg), F-111s would never fit the bill. 

Both the Navy and Marine Corps objected to having F-111s thrust on them against their will.

McNamara and his cronies initially ignored their protestations, but shortly after F-111 Bs were introduced it became apparent that they’d never pass muster as carrier-based fleet defense aircraft.  

To explore alternatives, F-111 manufacturer General Dynamics partnered with Grumman to develop a naval version, but persistent weight and performance issues couldn’t be overcome, and Grumman was awarded a contract to study new designs in 1966. 

This contract would ultimately lead to the development of the F-14 “Tomcat,” named partially as a tribute to Admiral Thomas F. Connolly, and partly because Grumman had a history of naming its fighters after cats. 

To be clear, the “Tom” in Tomcat had nothing to do with Tom Cruise, because in the late ‘60s the future Hollywood hunk was just another youngster in Syracuse, New York.  

Admiral Connolly was among the F-14’s biggest proponents, largely because he’d personally flown early F-111s, after which he testified to Congress that they were totally unsuited to naval aviation and were generally lousy aircraft that couldn’t do anything particularly well. 

Then in May of 1968, Congress officially defunded the F-111B, and suddenly the Navy was free to pursue aircraft more to its liking 

Just a few months later, the Naval Air Systems Command issued an RFP for the Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX) program which called for a supersonic, twin-engine, two-seat dogfighter, interceptor and fleet defense aircraft bristling with rotary cannons and missiles of various descriptions. 

General Dynamics, Grumman and various other American manufacturers submitted bids, many of which included variable geometry wings. 

In December of 1968 Grumman and McDonnell Douglas became the two finalists, and the following January the former was declared the winner. 

Development

Anticipating a drawn out development and big production contracts, Grumman immediately expanded its Long Island, New York plant. 

To reduce development time and avoid the likelihood of the program being canceled, the Navy took the unprecedented step of skipping the prototype phase and proceeding directly to limited production.  

Grumman’s design incorporated Pratt & Whitney TF30 low bypass turbofan engines from the F-111B, though the Navy ultimately replaced them with the company’s F401-400 engines then under development.

At the time the F-14 was the heaviest and most complex carrier-based fighter ever produced, but despite the inherent challenges and rushed nature of the project development proceeded rapidly, and the first aircraft flew just before Christmas in 1970.

Flight testing over Long Island Sound revealed a stable and capable aircraft, but one with its fair share of flaws too. 

Missile tests were carried out beginning in mid-1972, the most impressive of which resulted in an AIM-54 Phoenix launched from an F-14 purportedly hit a moving airborne target 126 miles (202 km) away. 

In another, six short-range missiles were fired at different targets in less than a minute, four of which scored direct hits. 

Design

As air superiority fighters and long-range fleet defense aircraft, crews benefited from F-14’s high-set bubble canopies which provided excellent visibility, but the aircrafts’ most notable features were their variable geometry wings.  

Controlled by a central computer, F-14 wings automatically swept back as much as 20 degrees during supersonic flight, while sliding forward to 68 degrees at low subsonic speeds.  

Constructed from nearly 25% titanium, the wings were exceptionally strong and relatively light, partially offsetting the weight of the mechanical sweeping mechanism itself. 

During testing and in a few real world mishaps, F-14 crews experienced malfunctions referred to as asymmetrical wing-sweep, in which the wings became permanently oriented at differing angles. 

Even so, in nearly every case pilots were able to maintain control of their aircraft, thanks largely to the fact that like modern lifting bodies, F-14 fuselages provided nearly 50% of overall lift, and their “twin tail” setups offered greater lateral stability than traditional tails. 

In fact F-14s were so rugged and stable, that one was able to land safely after a mid-air collision that resulted in more than half of its right wing being sheared off. 

F-14 engines were housed in widely-spaced nacelles, and the large internal area between them was packed with everything from fuel and wiring to the motors that adjusted the wings.

Rated at more than 20,000 pound-feet of thrust each, the TF30 turbofans produced enough power to propel fuel and bomb-laden F-14s to a maximum speed of just more than Mach 2.3

(1,764 mph –  2,840 km/h) but over the life of the aircraft, early TF30 engines were constant objects of scorn and criticism.  

In the ‘80s Secretary of the Navy John Lehman testified before the Senate that the F-14/TF30 combo was among the worst airframe/engine mismatches of all time, and that TF30s were generally terrible power plants. 

Later on statistics bore this out, with more than 25% of all accidents being directly attributable to compressor stalls, thrown turbine blades and other chronic and often catastrophic engine issues. 

Sadly, turbine blade failures became so common that engine bay components had to be reinforced. 

Likewise, compressor stalls could be caused by even modest disruptions in airflow, like those caused when flying through another aircraft’s exhaust

You may recall from Top Gun that the flat spin that ultimately killed Goose during the botched ejection was caused by the F-14 flying through another aircraft’s “jet wash,” so in this respect the movie was accurate. 

Compressor stalls could also result from engines ingesting exhaust from the very missiles the F-14s had launched.  

This dangerous issue led to the development of a system to temporarily shield air inlets immediately after missile launch. 

Thankfully, most F-14s received new GE F110-400 engines as early as 1987. 

This F-14D variant also included a new avionics package, improved cockpits and Digital Flight Control System (DFCS), all of which improved performance and reliability.  

Specs

Unlike most previous Navy fighters and interceptors,mF-14s were crewed by both a pilot and a Radar Intercept Officer, the latter of which was necessary to assist with operating the aircraft’s advanced but demanding systems. 

At 62 feet 9 inches (19.13 m) long and with wingspans between 38 feet (11.6 m) and 64 feet (19.5 m) depending on sweep, F-14s had maximum takeoff weights of nearly 75,000 pounds (33,800 kg). 

Each could store more than 16,000 pounds (7,300 kg) of fuel internally, and externally mounted tanks were often added to increase range. 

On later versions power came from the aforementioned GE turbofans that produced 16,610 pound-feet of dry thrust each, which increased to more than 28,000 pound-feet when the afterburners were lit. 

With light fuel and weapons loads, F-14s had power-to-weight ratios approaching 1:1, which meant that they were capable of nearly vertical flight, and climbing at the rate of nearly 45,000 feet per minute (13,716 m/m). 

Officially their service ceilings were pegged at just 53,000 feet (16,000 m), but F-14s were capable of flying much higher. 

Other design features included robust double-front nose wheels and larger single main wheels in the back, all of which were overbuilt to withstand the rigors of catapult takeoffs and high-impact landings. 

Weapons

Unlike F-4s, F-14s had powerful 6-barreled 20 mm Vulcan cannons that could spew out more than 4,000 rounds per minute, or about 67 per second. 

That said, the missile age had arrived, and these were the primary weapons. 

Since the wings pivoted during flight they contained no hardpoints for weapons or fuel tanks. 

Instead, ten total hardpoints were spread over the fuselage, engine nacelles and wing-roots, that collectively were capable of carrying approximately 14,500 pounds (6,600 kg) of stores including Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) and weapons like rockets, JDAM precision-guided munitions, cluster bombs, dumb and laser-guided bombs, as well as  AIM-54 Phoenix, AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.  

During the ‘70s and ‘80s F-14 weapons loads typically consisted of two AIM-54s, two AIM-9s, three AIM-7s and 700 rounds of cannon ammunition, which collectively allowed them to engage targets at various ranges. 

Operational History

F-14s began replacing Navy F-4s in September 1974 with squadrons aboard USS Enterprise, but the first kill by a naval aviator wouldn’t be logged until mid-August of 1981 in what became known as the Gulf of Sidra Incident, when two F-14s encountered a pair of Libyan Sukhoi Su-22s just off the coast of North Africa. 

In the ensuing melee one of the Sukhois fired a heat-seeking AA-2 Atoll missile, which the F-14s evaded before firing their own missiles and downing both aircraft.  

In early January of 1989 another similar incident in nearly the exact location occurred, when two F-14s engaged and shot down two Libyan MiG-23s. 

Despite these successful engagements however, many F-14s were relegated to photo reconnaissance missions using TARPS, and in this role they ultimately replaced RF-8G Crusaders and RA-5C Vigilantes, the later of which were just featured in a Megaprojects video. 

In operation Desert Storm in 1991, F-14 participation was generally limited to Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, as well as overland missions consisting of strike escort and reconnaissance, because by then Air Force F-15s were the most capable dogfighters in America’s inventory. 

In addition F-14’s Hughes radars emitted powerful and detectable signals, and when they “lit up” Iraqi fighters they usually accelerated out of harm’s way. 

The Navy suffered its only F-14 loss from enemy action in early 1991 when an F-14A was downed by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile while on an escort mission near Al Asad airbase in Iraq. 

Both crew members survived ejection, but while the pilot was rescued the Radio Intercept Officer was captured and remained a POW until the end of the war. 

Additionally, F-14s participated in Operation Deliberate Force, Operation Allied Force, Operation Desert Fox, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation… well you get the idea.  

F-14s in Iran  

Though it may seem like a far-fetched notion now, decades ago America sold Iran dozens of F-14s and hundreds of air-to-air missiles that together may have downed more than 150 Iraqi aircraft. 

These claims were largely unconfirmed, but whatever the real numbers, F-14s usually fared well against their adversaries during the Iran-Iraq War, and as many as 50 air-to-air kills may have been made with Phoenix missiles between 1980 and 1988 alone. 

During the conflict Iran lost 16 Tomcats, nearly half of which were due to non-military accidents. 

Later however, thanks to souring relationships and far-reaching sanctions, Iran began running low on missiles and spare parts. 

To keep their planes armed, engineers attempted to modify Russian-made R-27R BVR missiles for use on F-14s, but they were never able to pull it off. 

Twilight of the Tomcat

By the early ‘90s, pretty much everyone but Tom Cruise knew that F-14s were flying on borrowed time. 

In 1994 Grumman proposed a number of upgrades that could conceivably have kept Tomcats in the air for another two or three decades, but each was rejected in favor of the entirely new aircraft that would replace them – McDonnell Douglas’ F/A-18 Hornet.

That said, F-14s continued to serve as the Navy’s main air superiority fighter, fleet defense interceptor, and tactical aerial reconnaissance platform into the new millennium.

The last American F-14 combat mission took place in early February of 2006, when a pair of Tomcats landed aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt after a bombing run in Iraq.

American Tomcats were officially retired in September of 2006, and though some were shipped off to museums, most were flown to the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona, where they’d spend their remaining days baking under the brutal desert sun.  

Even now some F-14s are still in service with Iran’s air force, and in recent years a few have been spotted escorting Russian bombers and reconnaissance aircraft on missions over Syria.   

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