The United States Navy has Officially retired the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. I discovered this while watching a TV news station in Los Angeles. The service took place at Miramar which is located close to San Diego. Many Americans equate the F14 into the movie,”Top Gun”. When you mention to someone you spent many years in the Navy working on F14’s, they generally say something about the film. It’s always interesting to talk to someone who does not know it up close and personal. I never flew the plane, but I knew how keep it combat ready for the fleet. At that moment, the USS Forrestal was at sea in the Mediterranean, so this required a flight to the ship while at sea. So, when I overhear someone talking about the F-14 Tomcat in Naval Aviation, I take some personal knowledge.
My initial experience with the aircraft was in 1977. At the time, I was a 19 year old sailor from St. Louis and I had just seen a few still pictures of it in magazines prior to my arrival at NAS Miramar, California. The F-14’s were replacing the old Navy F-4 Phantoms in 1977 and the Tomcats appeared to be something out of a science fiction book. At the moment, I’d tribulations on learning how to master its complexity. My specialization was in the AN/AWG-9 Radar which was the most effective airborne radar mounted into a supersonic fighter. The radar was unique in its main function to shoot down small low flying high speed cruise missiles skimming the ocean surface and also MIG 25’s flying at MACH 3 up at 80,000 feet. After spending nearly two years in Navy technical schools, I was deemed worthy to work on the intricate F-14 radar system. At the time, the aircraft proved to be a truly revolutionary upgrade to Naval Aviation. Even to this day, a number of its unique capabilities are still unmatched.
My oldest brother retired as a USAF Lt. Colonel and flew the F-4 ghost, F-5 and F-16. He spent years as an aggressor pilot teaching pilots dog fighting skills. Being the sole Navy man in the family, I get a great deal of ribbing when I speak of the F-14 as being the true top gun. When they say the F15 and F16 are better in close in combat, I say it depends upon the pilot as much as the machine. But more importantly, if your job is to take off and destroy an enemy aircraft, you’re not going to fight a fair fight. You’re going to use whatever advantage you have to kill him before he kills you.
The F-14 can out gun the others by using its superior radar, so the Navy has eyes on goal first. The F-14 could detect an aerial treat at much longer range than any other airborne fighter. The F-14D Tomcat could also fly at supersonic speed without light up it is afterburner for supersonic cruise. And the Navy can take using their long range AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. The USAF currently uses the new AIM-120 AMRAAM missile which is an outstanding air to air missile, but it has less than half the range of the AIM-54. This implies the Navy fighter pilot can take his missiles at longer range and still be effective. When the missile gets within close reach of the target, it uses its active onboard radar to maneuver to final impact. Throughout live firing missile exercises, the kill rate of this AIM-54 exceeded 90 percent that’s outstanding. The AIM-120 uses this same idea and this technology was carried over from our experience with the AIM-54. The F-14 Tomcat is the only fighter to use the extended range AIM-54.
The only AIM-54 ever used in combat was by the IAF (Iranian Air Force) which bought 100 F-14 Tomcats in the mid 70’s. Iranian airspace has been violated by large flying MIG 25’s flying at Mach 3. For this reason, Iran chose the F-14 Tomcat to protect their airspace. After their F-14 aircraft downed an unmanned high speed Russian resonance aircraft, the flights over from Russia ceased. During the Iraq / Iran war, they effectively utilized their AIM-54 missiles to destroy their opposing force. Unofficial kills using their limited number of missiles go as large as 40. We’ll probably never know the exact number, but Iran continues to fly their Tomcats.
It is among the most realistic combat simulations anywhere on earth. Air Forces all over the world come to these exercises to hone their battle skills. On one deployment, I was told that the navy F-14 crews were not allowed to use their aerial radar outside of the battle area because this could give them an edge. Typically, 1 F-14 would sweep a section of the sky to look for enemy targets. This aircraft would share its data with other patrolling F-14’s without turning on their radars. This discrete information sharing will keep the enemy guessing as to their true location. This tactic would not give away their location since it was not required to turn on their individual radars.
As far as one on one battle between fighter USAF and USN pilots, I can’t speak for them. He said first you must have excellent eyesight since the first to detect another at long range has the advantage in battle. However, he also said he was a good pilot because he had a lot of flying experience. I deployed to the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in 1977 and spent the next four decades and three months ahead. The one thing that really amazed me was how aircraft could land at night on a slick flight deck which was pitching up and down and from side to side. I’m not saying Navy pilots are better, but they’re quite experienced and good at what they do. If I had a few MIG fighters inbound with hostile intent, I would feel really comfortable knowing one of our F-14’s was patrolling over the horizon. I took a picture of an F-14 cockpit that had five red stars painting on it from squadron VF-2. The RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Willie Driscol flew with fighter pilot Randy Cuningham at a Navy F-4 Phantom in during the Vietnam War. I slept at ease on the boat knowing we had experienced crews protecting our aircraft carrier at sea.
During the first Gulf war, the F-14’s were restricted from flying fighter cover over the Iraqi territory with the maximum concentration of MIG fighters. The majority of the tomcats were confined to stay over water near the carriers for air cover. When the Iraqi Air Force chose to fly all of their remaining fighters to Iran, the coalition Air Forces had nothing in place that could shoot them down. As a result, the Iranian Air Force currently has an extra 50 to 100 fighters. Iran fought a long hard war with Iraq and I doubt if they ever let them fly back after the war stopped. It would have been a beautiful sight to see dozens of AIM-54’s from the sky shrieking at their goals at Mach 4 because they attempted to escape to Iran.
This airplane will dominate the airspace of any enemy. Its full capabilities are still somewhat classified, but it’s a truly revolutionary fighter for the 21st Century. I have never seen it fly, but I will attend the open house at Edwards AFB this weekend and watch the aerial flight demo of this F/A-22. When I watch this flight, I will be almost 50 years old, but my thoughts will go back almost 30 years ago when as a young Navy enlisted man, watching F-14 Tomcats fly over NAS Miramar (Fighter Town USA). The Tomcat provided the United States Navy with a proud history. I’m convinced the F/A-22 will do the same for the USAF in another 30.
To summarize, I didn’t write this article to stir any animosity between the USAF and USN fighter community. Each service has a proud history and will continue to have pilots that are truly,”The Best of the Best”. I have the utmost respect for the men and women who serve our nation, particularly in the tricky war we are faced with today. God bless them and may they all come home safely when their tours of duty have been completed.