Let’s just get this out of the way: Maverick. Iceman. Charlie. Are you done swooning yet? For many, the 1988 film Top Gun caused the F-14 to embody everything cool about fighter jets and the pilots that flew them.
And the Tomcat was cool—entering service in 1975, it was arguably the first operational fourth-generation jet fighter that successfully combined the characteristics of high speed, high maneuverability, and sophisticated avionics and armament that are now standard today.
However, there’s a profound irony in the Tomcat story. The Tomcat is one of the U.S. fighters that has seen the most sustained and intense air-to-air combat of its generation. And yet, American F-14s only shot down five hostile aircraft.
The Tomcat, however, chalked up its extraordinary combat record in the service of one of the United States’ bitterest rivals, Iran.
Defending the Fleet
To understand why the Tomcat was so revolutionary, one must consider the context of its time. The U.S. Navy then operated the F-4 Phantom—a heavy aircraft powerful engines and sophisticated electronics for the time, but a bit of a clunker in a dogfight . The Navy was forced by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara into pursuing the troubled TFX program to create a plane that would serve both the Air Force and Navy. While the Air Force was able to adapt the TFX into the F-111 bomber , Navy Admiral Thomas “Tomcat” Connelly testified before Congress that the TFX was a disaster for carrier operations. The TFX carrier fighter was cancelled, and the Navy got to pursue its own design.
The Navy’s number one priority was to have a “fleet defense fighter.” While the U.S. Navy outgunned its Soviet counterpart, experience in World War II had demonstrated aircraft were a greater threat than opposing ships. Were the Cold War to have gone hot, formations of Soviet bombers would have descended on U.S. carrier task forces and unleashed enormous volleys of long-range cruise missiles from more than a hundred miles away.
A naval task force’s air defenses could shoot down only so many aircraft and cruise missiles. The Navy needed fast-moving interceptors to range ahead and take out as many of the bombers as possible, preferably at long distances using sophisticated missiles of their own. Such a conflict would have been a brutal contest of attritional arithmetic.
However, recent combat experience in Vietnam had shown that U.S. Navy fighters also needed to be capable of winning air superiority—that is, defeating an opponent’s fighter planes. Dogfights between American F-4 Phantoms and North Vietnamese MiG-21s had demonstrated that high speed and long-range missiles were not enough—an air superiority fighter needed to be maneuverable as well. While the U.S. Navy Top Gun school demonstrated that using proper Air Combat Maneuvering tactics made a big difference, having a more agile plane than the F-4 was still desirable.
In 1969, the Navy selected the design proposed by Grumman Aerospace Corporation—a two-seat “heavy” fighter which owed a number of designs features to the TFX, including the engines, radar and swing wings. Let’s look at what came together to make the Tomcat revolutionary.
The Tomcat variable-geometry wings could automatically swing from a twenty-degree angle up to sixty-eight degrees while in flight. An aircraft with less wing surface can attain higher speeds, but to take off from short runways—such as carrier runway—requires more wing surface to generate lift. Thus, Tomcat kept its wing extended while landing and flying at low speeds, and tucked them in when going fast. The Tomcat’s wide fuselage also contributed a lot to lift, and it was possible but dangerous to land with the wings tucked in. Additionally, the Tomcat’s wings could be tucked up to seventy-five degrees when parked to make them easier to stow under the carrier’s deck.
The Tomcat’s twin TF30 turbofans allowed them to attain speeds of Mach 2.34. However, they provided inferior thrust to the F-15, which came into service shortly after the Tomcat, and the fan blades and compressors were prone to catastrophic breakdowns. Thus, later-model Tomcats were refitted with the F110 engines used in the F-16, causing a dramatic improvement in the Tomcat’s thrust-to-weight ratio.
The Tomcat’s nose held an AWG-9 X-band pulse-doppler radar with one of the first microprocessors ever, one of the most powerful fighter-mounted radars at the time. The AWG-9 could detected bombers up to one hundred miles away, was still effective against targets flying at low altitude, and was capable of tracking twenty-four contacts at a time. The AWG-9 also had sufficient resolution to track cruise missiles and shoot them down. The Tomcat was also the only Western fighter of its generation to have an internal Infrared Search and Track sensor, the ALR-23. This was later replaced by an electro-optical sensor with a sixty-mile range that integrated its data with the AWG-9.
Most importantly, the AWG-9 could provide guidance for the Tomcat’s powerful AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, up to four of which were normally mounted under the belly. These were central to the F-14’s ability to defend the fleet. One of the most sophisticated and expensive air-to-air missiles fielded by the United States, the Phoenix could hit targets over 120 miles distant traveling at speeds up to Mach 5. The sophisticated radar and missiles were operated by the backseater on the F-14, known as the Radio Intercept Officer (RIO).
The Tomcat could theoretically fire up to six Phoenix missiles in rapid succession at different targets—an ability that was actually tested once. The result? Four hits out of six launches.
Tomcats usually carried larger numbers of more conventional AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and medium-range AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles. The F-14 also had a twenty-millimeter cannon, a feature Navy Phantom fighters lacked. However, like the early models of the F-15 entering in service at the time, the F-14 was a pure air-to-air platform and was not built to carry air-to-ground munitions.
All in all, the Tomcat was fast enough to intercept Soviet bombers, had radar and missiles capable of detecting and shooting them down over long distances, and the maneuverability to dogfight and defeat agile enemy fighters. This combination of capabilities became the gold standard of a new generation of aircraft including the F-15 and Su-27. Additionally, the Tomcat of course had the reinforced landing gear and arrestor hook necessary for carrier operations.
U.S. Navy Service: From Tomcats to Bombcats
The Navy chose to skip the prototype phase, so production of the F-14 began in 1969 in Bethpage, in Long Island, New York. A total of 712 were ultimately produced through 1991.
The Tomcat entered operational service in 1974 with the VF-1 and VF-2 squadrons on the USS Enterprise . Some even flew cover for the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, though none actually saw combat during the Vietnam War. Over the course of the Cold War, Navy F-14s routinely intercepted Soviet bombers and maritime patrol planes shadowing U.S. carrier groups, and frequently posed for photo ops with their Communist counterparts.
Frequent cat-and-mouse games between Libyan aircraft and Tomcats on freedom-of-navigation missions proved considerably tenser, with numerous near launches of weapons—and several incidents in which they were released.
In August 19, 1981, two F-14s flying with VF-41 on board the USS Nimitz were escorting an S-3 Viking patrol plane that had crossed into contested airspace when they were intercepted by two Libyan Air Force Su-22s. One of the Su-22s fired an AA-2 heat-seeking missile at the lead Tomcat, which successfully evaded. The Tomcats then returned fire with Sidewinders and splashed both Libyan fighters, in what became known as the Gulf of Sidra incident.