The Grumman F-14 Tomcat

v1.0.1 / 01 jun 03 / greg goebel / public domain

* One of the mainstays of US Navy fleet defense in the late 20th century was the Grumman "F-14 Tomcat", a twin-engine interceptor armed with long-range Phoenix missiles. The Tomcat is now in its final years of Navy service, having also been pressed into the reconnaissance and, as the "Bombcat", strike roles. This document provides a short history of the F-14.

[3] TOMCAT IN SERVICE 1974:1991
[5] F-14B / F-14D


* In the late 1950s, the US Navy was interested in obtaining an interceptor to protect carrier battle groups from adversary strike aircraft, and the Douglas company proposed an aircraft named the "F6D-1 Missileer". The Missileer was to carry advanced radar and eight big Bendix "AAM-M-10 Eagle" long-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs) to knock down intruders at distances of up to 205 kilometers (110 NMI), before they could get close enough to be a real threat.

The whole idea was at least a bit ahead of its time and the development program didn't go well. The Missileer itself began to look unpromising, since it was envisioned as a lumbering "missile truck" that would not be capable of close-in dogfighting, and the Eagle missile program faltered as well. The Missileer was cancelled in December 1960. However, the work on the advanced radar was not abandoned, and the Navy still retained the requirement for a fleet-defense interceptor.

In the early 1960s, American Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara wanted to promote commonality of equipment between different US armed services, and he believed that the Navy could fill their requirement for a fleet-defense interceptor with a navalized version of the Air Force's "variable geometry" or "swing-wing" General Dynamics F-111A tactical fighter. Few thought this was a good idea since the F-111 was a big, heavy machine, not all that adaptable to carrier operation, but McNamara insisted.

The Navy never became very enthusiastic about the "F-111B", as their variant was designated. The initial prototype performed its initial flight on 18 May 1965, with flight trials leading to a Navy report in October 1965 that concluded the F-111B was highly unsatisfactory. Attempts were made to fix the problems, but it was impossible. Congress cut funds in May 1968, work was halted in July, and the program was formally axed in December, after the construction of a total of seven F-111B prototypes and evaluation aircraft.

The Grumman company had actually been responsible for developing the F-111B as a subcontractor for General Dynamics. In January 1966, following the highly negative Navy report on the F-111B, at the Navy's request Grumman began work on a set of designs for a more effective carrier-based interceptor, with the company designation of "G-303", derived from their F-111B work. Grumman submitted their finalist proposals to the Navy in October 1967.

In July 1968, when the F-111B was clearly dead, the Navy began a new competition for a fleet defense interceptor under the "VFX" program. Grumman submitted the G-303 against proposals from North American, LTV, General Dynamics, and McDonnell Douglas. Grumman, which tended to have a leg up in any competition for the Navy as the company had been supplying excellent aircraft to the service for decades, won the award in January 1969. The project was assigned high priority. The Navy was worried about new Soviet threat aircraft like the MiG-25 Foxbat, and the long delays in fielding an improved fighter that piled up from the cancelled Missileer and F-111B programs left the admirals very worried.

A mockup of the definitive G-303 concept was inspected by Navy officials in the spring of 1969. Although some of the earlier concepts had featured fixed wings, the mockup used swing wings. An initial development contract for six prototype and evaluation "YF-14A Tomcats", as the type was designated, was awarded to Grumman that same year. Incidentally, the name "Tomcat" was selected partly to in tribute to Navy Admirals Thomas Connolly and Thomas Moorer. Connolly was such a strong supporter of the program that the aircraft was referred to as "Tom's Cat", and the name stuck. The contract was later modified to fund twelve YF-14As. Development went forward under Grumman program manager Mike Pelehach.

The initial prototype F-14A performed its first flight on 21 December 1970, with company test pilots William "Bob" Miller and Robert Smythe in the cockpit. It was a short hop with the wings left in the forward position. The second flight was on 30 December 1970, when the prototype suffered a catastrophic hydraulic systems failure. Both Miller and Smythe ejected safely from just above the treetops, but of course the aircraft was completely destroyed.

The second prototype made its first flight on 24 May 1971 and the program moved swiftly after that, though there were serious cost overruns, as well as a few more accidents:

Initial deliveries of production Tomcats to the Navy took place in October 1972, with the aircraft arriving at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar in California.



* The F-14A is a big aircraft, with tandem seating for a pilot in front and radar intercept officer (RIO) in back on Martin-Baker GRU-7A "zero-zero (zero speed, zero altitude)" ejection seats. The cockpit layouts are specialized for the pilot and RIO, and have little duplication. The aircrew sits under a clamshell canopy that hinges open from the back. Visibility is said to be very good. The aircrew gets into the cockpit on fold-out steps mounted on the forward fuselage.

The variable-geometry wing scheme incorporates a number of advanced features. One is the fit of "glove vanes", small triangular foreplanes mounted in the wing gloves that are automatically extended at high speeds as the main wings are swept back, compensating for any change in aircraft pitch caused by the change in wing geometry.

The wing sweep is controlled by a "Mach sweep programmer" that automatically moves the wings through the range of 20 degrees to 68 degrees sweep, as dictated by flight requirements. The pilot can also set the sweep manually, and can select a special 55-degree mode for ground attack. The wings can be set back 75 degrees to an "oversweep" position, overlapping the horizontal tailplane, for carrier-deck storage.

The wings feature spoilers to improve maneuverability, plus full-span trailing-edge flaps and leading-edge slats to improve low-speed handling. The inboard flaps are of course disabled when wing sweep blocks their operation. The spoiler position can be tweaked by a thumbwheel on the pilot's control stick during landing approach to adjust speed and angle of descent without requiring a change in aircraft attitude, a scheme known as "Direct Lift Control (DLC)".

The tail assembly features "all moving" horizontal tailplanes, with differential action for roll control, and twin outward-canted vertical tailfins. Some early concepts had featured a large single tailfin. There are also twin ventral fins. The mockup had featured long ventral fins that folded to the outside for landing, but in practice the ventral fins are fixed. There are hydraulically-operated speed brakes on the top and bottom of the rear fuselage forward of the engine exhausts.

The F-14A follows in the Grumman tradition of building rugged aircraft. It is built primarily of aircraft aluminum alloy and titanium, with selective use of graphite-epoxy composite assemblies. The aircraft was initially powered by twin Pratt & Whitney (P&W) TF30-P-412 turbofans with 54.9 kN (5,600 kgp / 12,350 lbf) dry thrust and 93 kN (9,480 kgp / 20,900 lbf) afterburning thrust each. The TF30 was one of the items inherited from the F-111B.

The engines are fitted in separate housings underneath the fuselage. The major rationale for this configuration was that it ensured adequate airflow to the engines, which had been a major problem for the F-111. It also gives maintenance crews direct access to the engines and makes engine replacement easier, though it has a few drawbacks as well. Each engine has a wedge-style inlet with a variable ramp in the throat, and is canted slightly away from the fuselage. A single external tank with a capacity of 1,011 liters (267 US gallons) can be carried under each engine pod. A retractable inflight refueling probe is fitted to the right side of the nose.

The main single-wheel landing gear retract forward into the wing gloves, rotating 90 degrees to lie flat. The steerable nose gear has twin wheels, a catapult hookup, and retracts forward as well. There is a stinger-type arresting hook on the belly between the engine exhausts.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan (spread)       19.55 meters        64 feet 2 inches
   wingspan (closed)       11.65 meters        38 feet 2 inches
   length                  19.10 meters        62 feet 8 inches
   height                  4.88 meters         16 feet

   empty weight            18,190 kilograms    40,100 pounds
   loaded weight           33,725 kilograms    74,350 pounds

   max speed at altitude   2,520 KPH           1,565 MPH / 1,360 KT
   service ceiling         17,100 meters       56,000 feet
   combat patrol radius    1,235 kilometers    765 MI / 665 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   The combat patrol radius assumes fit of external tanks.
The Tomcat's distinctive weapon is the big Hughes "AIM-54 Phoenix" AAMs. with a range of 200 kilometers (125 miles) and a fully active radar seeker, allowing the missile to perform its terminal-phase attack on a target without requiring that the Tomcat keep the target "illuminated" with radar. In principle, it gave the Tomcat the ability to destroy intruders at very long range.

The Phoenix was another item inherited from the F-111B, and is the ultimate evolution of the Hughes Falcon series of AAMs. It owes something to the Hughes "GAR-9" missile developed for the experimental Lockheed YF-12A interceptor version of the SR-71 Blackbird. In principle, the Tomcat, which is the only aircraft to ever carry the Phoenix operationally, can carry six Phoenix missiles, with four carried in the fuselage "tunnel" between the engines and two on wing pylons.

However, the Phoenix, nicknamed the "Buffalo" because of its size, is so heavy that a Tomcat can't carry six of them if the aircraft is to land on a carrier. No such restriction exists if the Tomcat is operating off a land base. Another problem with carrying six Phoenix missiles is that the drag of the two extra missiles on the wing glove pylons cuts into aircraft performance and flight endurance.

In practice, a full armament load consists usually of four Phoenix missiles on the tunnel stations, plus two AIM-9 Sparrow semi-active radar homing (SARH) medium-range AAMs and two AIM-7 Sidewinder heatseeking short-range AAMs, for a total of eight AAMs. A Sparrow and a Sidewinder are carried on a special dual rack mounted on each wing glove pylon, with a Sparrow on the bottom of the rack and a Sidewinder to the outside. This unusual configuration was used because mounting stores pylons on a swing wing is tricky while there was limited room on the wing gloves. If the Phoenix is not carried, there are also recesses in the fuselage tunnel for carriage of three more Sparrows.

The Phoenix and Sparrow are controlled by a Hughes AN/AWG-9 radar and the AN/AWG-15 fire control computer. The AN/AWG-9 was also inherited from the F-111B, with roots going back to the Missileer program as well as the "AN/ASG-1" radar, developed by the Air Force for the cancelled North American F-108 Rapier program and the Lockheed YF-12A. The AN/AWG-9 gives the Tomcat a wide-area air-surveillance capability, with a range of 160 kilometers (100 miles) or more. The radar can search while tracking 24 targets, and engage six targets simultaneously.

Early F-14As were fitted with a steerable "AN/ALR-23 Infrared Search and Track (IRST)" sensor under the nose that could be slaved to the radar or used independently. In the early 1980s, the IRST was replaced in Tomcat production with the Northrop "AN/AXX-1 Television Camera Set (TCS)", a steerable daylight video camera with a telephoto lens, and the TCS was retrofitted to the earlier F-14As. TCS allows a Tomcat to inspect a target at long range before engaging it, at least in daylight / clear weather conditions. The inability to determine if a target was a friend or a foe had been one of the limiting factors for use of "beyond visual range (BVR)" AAMs such as the Sparrow in Vietnam.

Other stock avionics include UHF radio; identification friend or foe (IFF) transponder and interrogator; an inertial navigation system; a TACAN beacon-navigation system; an automatic direction finder; and a radar altimeter. The F-14A was originally also fitted with an AN/APR-45 radar warning receiver (RWR) system; AN/ALQ-126 deception jammers, with antennas in the tips of the horizontal tailplane and under the nose; and AN/ALE-39 chaff-flare dispensers, mounted under a "boattail" fixture on the end of the fuselage.

The Tomcat features a built-in General Electric (GE) M61A1 six-barreled Gatling-type 20 millimeter cannon, with an ammunition store of 675 rounds. The cannon is fitted under the left side of the cockpit.

* The Tomcat took up the reconnaissance role early on. In 1979, the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, began development of the "Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS)" for the Tomcat. TARPS was derived from a reconnaissance system developed for the LTV A-7 strike fighter but not fielded for that aircraft. The streamlined pod is about 5.18 meters (17 feet) long; weighs 794 kilograms (1,750 pounds); and includes a CAI KS-87B serial frame camera in the nose, a Fairchild KA-99 panoramic camera in the midsection, and a Honeywell AN/AAD-5 infrared line scanner in the rear.

TARPS is carried on the right rear fuselage tunnel station. The pod requires additional control, power, and environmental control connections, and so Tomcats had to be specially modified to carry it, with about 50 aircraft given TARPS capability. The modifications did not rule out carriage of the Phoenix on that station. The system is controlled by the RIO in the back seat who has a specialized TARPS display to observe reconnaissance data, though the pilot does have a camera on-off switch on his stick as well. AAMs can still be carried on the wing glove pylons for self-defense.

TARPS was introduced in 1980 and proved an extremely valuable, since dedicated reconnaissance aircraft like the Vought RF-8G Crusader were being phased out. TARPS was only supposed to be an interim solution, since the Navy was hoping to obtain a dedicated reconnaissance version of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, but that didn't happen. The TARPS Tomcat would be a Navy firstline reconnaissance asset for the rest of the century.


[3] TOMCAT IN SERVICE 1974:1991

* The Tomcat entered operational service with Navy fighter squadrons VF-1 and VF-2 on board the carrier USS ENTERPRISE in September 1974. The Navy eventually acquired 478 F-14As, including the 12 development aircraft, with the type replacing the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom and Vought F-8 Crusader in US Navy service. Tomcat production put Grumman under severe financial stress, as the contract with the Navy had specified a fixed delivery cost and the late 1970s were a time of abnormally high price inflation in the US. Grumman was forced to plead with the government for changes in the contract before the Tomcat drove the company out of business, and the government did agree to modify the arrangement.

Pilots called the F-14A the "Turkey" because of its profusion of control surfaces on carrier approach. The nickname might have also initially reflected some distaste for the type. The F-14A was not wildly popular with its aircrews at first. It was a capable aircraft, but also big, heavy, somewhat underpowered, was something of a handful on carrier approach, and had a few nasty handling characteristics. The widely-separated engines meant that if an engine was lost while in afterburner, the Tomcat would immediately go into an unrecoverable spin. The P&W TF30 engines proved particularly troublesome. The worst of the engine problems was a tendency to shed fan blades, with the blades slicing through the aircraft's fuselage.

Intense effort by P&W led to the development of the more reliable "TF30-P-414" variant, and a protective steel lining was installed in the engine duct to protect the aircraft from engine failures, though at the expense of increased engine weight. By 1979, all F-14As had been upgraded to the new engine fit and the aircraft's reliability then rose to more reasonable levels. In 1981, P&W introduced a minor upgrade of the engine, the "TF30-P-414A".

The TF30 problems gave the engine a terrible reputation, but Pratt & Whitney could at least plead mitigating circumstances. One of the major difficulties was that the Tomcat had such excellent high-speed maneuverability, well beyond that of the previous generation of fighters. This implied an equally unprecedented level of tweaking throttle settings during high-thrust flight, and it put an entirely unexpected level of stress on the engine. The same problem would be encountered with other contemporary high-performance fighters with other engines.

Despite its limitations, the Tomcat has been regarded as highly serviceable for its designed role of providing air defense for carrier battle groups. Its ability to loiter for extended periods at extended range, coupled with its advanced missile armament and powerful radar, made it an impressive shield against intruders such as adversary strike aircraft and, with the introduction of the definitive AIM-54C Phoenix variant in 1979, long-range antiship missiles. Its automatic swing wings also give it good maneuverability in close-in combat.

The only concern with the Tomcat in the fleet-defense role is that it has never been seriously tested in combat in such a scenario. There have been many test firings of the Phoenix that have demonstrated a high kill ratio, including a test performed in 1973 with a Tomcat ripple-firing six Phoenix missiles to destroy six targets. This exercise was described by the pilot involved, Commander John "Smoke" Wilson, as financially equivalent to "setting fire to a ten-storey car park filled with brand-new Cadillacs."

However, there have been criticisms that this particular test was highly contrived and unrepresentative of a real combat environment. In fact, it appears that the Phoenix has never shot down an adversary aircraft in combat, if partly because of limited opportunity, and it is difficult to give a true assessment of its actual capability.

* This is by no means saying that the Tomcat has never fired a shot in anger. Although Tomcats performed top cover flights during the evacuation of Vietnam in 1975, they saw no combat in that exercise. The F-14A saw its first combat in 1981, during confrontations between the US and Libya. The US government under Ronald Reagan had "fingered" Colonel Mohamar Khadaffi, the eccentric Libyan dictator, as a sponsor for international terrorism and wanted to show him who the boss was.

Colonel Khaddafi had declared the Gulf of Sidra, bounded by Libya's coast in the Mediterranean, as Libyan waters, and in defiance in the summer of 1981 Mr. Reagan ordered the US Navy to steam into the gulf and dare Khaddafi to do something about it. There was a confrontation between US Navy Tomcats and Libyan fighters on 18 August, but nobody made any wrong moves and nobody opened fire.

The next day the Libyans got more aggressive and fighting broke out. Two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 ground-attack fighters confronted two US Navy F-14As, piloted by Commander Henry "Hank" Kleeman and Lieutenant Larry "Music" Muczynski from the carrier USS NIMITZ. The Su-22s approached head-on, with the first firing an AAM that failed to track. Both Tomcats focused on the lead Su-22 as it was the most immediate threat, but when Muczynski reported that he had a target lock on the bandit Kleeman turned to get on the tail of the second Su-22, which was passing them.

Both F-14As fired AIM-9L Sidewinders and scored hits. Both Libyan pilots ejected, though only one parachute was seen to open. It hadn't been much of a contest, Muczynski saying their opponents were "a couple of bush-leaguers who couldn't even make the second-string team." However, it was an early and classic example of Ronald Reagan's grasp of political theater, which as a professional actor he understood instinctively, and it went over very well in the American news media and the public.

The squabble had been otherwise of little consequence, except in one respect: the US military had got into a fight and traded shots in what was supposed to be peacetime. The big Cold War was still on in earnest for the time being, while the era of continuous dirty little fights was being born.

* Tomcats from the carrier USS INDEPENDENCE equipped with the TARPS pod performed reconnaissance sorties in support of the American invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983 and in support of US operations in Lebanon in the last months of 1983. Neither of these operations were much to write home about either. The motivation for the Grenada operation was questionable and the planning hasty and poor. The poorly-thought-out US intervention in Lebanon proving a humiliating fiasco that made the Americans appear weak.

At least the Grenada operation went over well with the US public, and it did demonstrate the need to implement reforms in the military, particularly to improve joint operations. The Lebanon fiasco was generally swept under the carpet. It would come back to haunt the Americans later as it emboldened Islamic terrorists to believe the US was easily intimidated.

The next action the Tomcats got into was much more successful, though it was mostly theater as well. In October 1985, four Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Italian cruise liner ACHILLE LAURO in the Mediterranean, where they murdered an elderly American tourist. The terrorists managed to cut a deal with Egypt to take an Egyptair Boeing 737 airliner to Libya.

American signals intelligence was monitoring the whole affair, and seven Tomcats were scrambled from the carrier USS SARATOGA to intercept the airliner. They forced it to land at Sigonella, Italy, where the terrorists were arrested and tried by the Italians. It might not have been a massive blow to terrorism, but it was great action-movie stuff. It is little wonder in hindsight why Ronald Reagan was so popular in his time.

* Despite these distractions, Mr. Reagan had not forgotten his old nemesis Colonel Khaddafi. In March and April of 1986, the US Navy played the same game of provoking the Libyans in the Mediterranean under OPERATION PRAIRIE FIRE, and got a response. The Libyans fired surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at some Navy aircraft, and Libyan MiG-25 Foxbat fighters confronted US Navy Tomcats. In response, Navy aircraft flew strikes against Libyan targets on 24 through 26 March. Tomcats flew top cover but did little or no shooting.

Then, on 2 April 1986, a bomb blew up in a Berlin disco that was a popular hangout for US servicemen, killing two people, including one GI, and injuring 200. Signals intelligence linked the bombing to terrorists backed by the Libyans. The evidence was unambiguous and Mr. Reagan authorized another strike, a big one this time, designated OPERATION EL DORADO CANYON. A large combined US Navy and US Air Force air fleet struck selective targets in Libya on the night of 15 April 1986. US Navy Tomcats provided air cover for the operation, protecting both Navy and USAF aircraft. The Air Force strike aircraft were operating from the UK and the extreme range made Air Force fighter protection impractical. In any case, the Tomcats didn't fire a shot.

The strikes came close to killing Colonel Khaddafi and Libyan support for terrorism seemed to go on the fade, but the US Navy was not done with Khaddafi just yet. The US Navy performed yet another provocation exercise in the Gulf of Sidra in early 1989, and on 4 January 1989 two Tomcats from the USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (JFK) were on combat patrol when they were confronted by two Libyan MiG-23 fighters.

The crews of the two Tomcats included the squadron boss, Commander Joseph B. "Beads" Connelly, with Commander Leo F. Enright in the back seat, and Lieutenant Hermon C. Cook III, with Commander Steven P. Collins in the back seat. A Grumman E-2C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft warned them of the takeoff and approach of the MiGs, which the Tomcats then picked up on their own AN/AWG-9 radar at long range. The MiGs were on an approach vector, and when the Tomcats changed their own course several times, the MiGs changed their course to keep on coming at them.

This all was monitored on board the JFK, and the Tomcat crews were given the authorization: "Warning yellow, weapons hold" -- indicating they recognized as being under threat ("warning yellow") and were free to prepare for and engage in combat ("weapons hold", as opposed to "weapons tight"). The fighters launched two Sparrows and a Sidewinder, with one Sparrow and the Sidewinder scoring kills. Both Libyan pilots ejected successfully, but were apparently lost at sea. The press made a bit of a fuss about the kills, misinterpreting the "weapons hold" command as meaning "hold your fire" and suggesting the Tomcat crews were trigger-happy, but the Navy said it was done by the book.

* Tomcats flew air patrols again during the 1988:1989 Persian Gulf convoy operations, occasionally firing missiles at Iranian F-4 Phantoms but not scoring any kills. F-14s also flew during the 1991 Gulf War, performing air patrols to protect Navy ships, which as it turned out were never presented with any real threat. It appears that the only kill scored by F-14As during the conflict was of a Mil Mi-8 "Hip" helicopter, shot down by two Tomcats on 6 February 1991.

TARPS-equipped Tomcats did get more into the thick of things, with one being shot down, apparently by ground fire, on 21 January 1991. Both aircrew ejected safely. The pilot, Lieutenant Devon Jones, was rescued by a combat search-and-rescue team, but his back-seater, Lieutenant Lawrence R. "Rat" Slade was captured and remained a prisoner for the rest of the brief war. This was apparently the only combat loss of a US Navy Tomcat.

* During the rest of the year, the final act of the end of the USSR played itself out, and by the end of 1991 the Soviet Union was history and so was the Cold War. It was the Tomcat's fortune (or misfortune) to go into service in the role of defending Navy fleet elements at a time when threats to US ships at sea were on the decline, and so during that era the Tomcat didn't really see a great deal of shooting action.

On the other hand, the sputtering quarrels it did see action in were the shape of the future. As much fuss as the Reagan Administration made about Colonel Khaddafi, the "Libyan Lunatic" was not much of a threat compared to what would come later, and in hindsight Khaddafi seems a little bit like a comic-opera dictator decked out with too much gold braid. The Tomcat would see more action from that time, but mostly in a different role, as discussed later.



* The only foreign user of the F-14 was Iran. The Shah of Iran ordered 40 "F-14AGRs" in 1974, followed by 40 more in 1975. They were almost stock F-14As with some minor changes, such as a desert survival kit and no door over the retractable flight refueling probe. There was some concern that Iran was biting off more than it could chew with the Tomcat, but the Shah wanted an interceptor that could deal with intrusions by Soviet MiG-25 reconnaissance aircraft over Iran's northern border. The Tomcat and its Phoenix missile seemed to fit the bill.

79 new-build aircraft were delivered before the Shah's downfall in the Iranian Revolution and his death from cancer not long afterward. The 80th Iranian Tomcat was retained stateside by the US Navy. 284 of the 714 Phoenix missiles on order were also delivered. These were simplified versions of the missile, lacking the electronic counter-countermeasures capabilities of their US Navy equivalents.

Iranian F-14s were painted in a neat, thoroughly un-naval desert camouflage scheme featuring a sand-colored base and banding with several shades of brown. They are believed to have seen some action in the Iran-Iraq war, using their powerful AN/AWG-9 radar to act as an air controller for other fighters. However, it was much more difficult to obtain spares for the Tomcats in the face of a somewhat leaky Western arms embargo than for the Iranian F-4 and F-5 fighters, since there were many nations that used these two earlier types. Eventually the lack of spares grounded the Tomcats.

A few Iranian F-14s are believed to have been shot down during the war, with the Iranian F-14s claiming a small number of kills of their own. It is known that the Soviet Union obtained both the F-14 and the Phoenix missile for reverse-engineering from Iran. It is unclear if this was done by the Iranian Islamic Republic's government or by a defecting Iranian pilot. F-14 technology may have influenced development of the Soviet MiG-31 "Foxhound" or "Super Foxbat", and it seems very likely that the Phoenix had a strong influence on the Soviet "AA-9 Amos" AAM, since the two missiles closely resemble each other externally.

This loss was something of a blow to the US, as the US Navy had been careful not to compromise the Tomcat's secrets. On 14 September 1976, a Phoenix-armed F-14A had rolled off the deck of the US Navy carrier JOHN F. KENNEDY in the North Sea, with the crew ejecting safely. Of course a Red Navy cruiser had been shadowing the American carrier group and presumably the Soviet sailors didn't fail to notice the bungle, and so the Navy performed an expensive eight-week deep-water recovery effort to retrieve the fighter. It is unclear if it ever returned to service after recovery, though it seems a bit unlikely.

In any case, the Phoenix was compromised at the same time that the AIM-54C variant was in development. As a result, the missile's development program was modified to ensure that the new variant of the Phoenix could defeat countermeasures developed against older variants.


[5] F-14B / F-14D

* The TF30 turbofan was never entirely satisfactory, and in fact it had only been specified because the Navy was in such a hurry to get the Tomcat into service. The TF30 had been intended from the outset as a interim fit until sometime better became available.

Pratt & Whitney came up with a better engine, the P&W F401-P-400 turbofan with 56.7 kN (5,775 kgp / 12,740 lbf) thrust. Two prototypes of the "F-14B" fitted with this engine were to be built. The first prototype, rebuilt from the seventh YF-14, performed its initial flight on 12 September 1973. The Navy also wanted to build an "F-14C" with the TF30-P-414A and improved avionics. However, the F401 engine development program ran into trouble. Both the F-14B and the F-14C were cancelled, and the second F-14B prototype never flew.

The Navy didn't give up on the idea of a Tomcat with a more satisfactory engine, and in the early 1980s the service selected a variant of the GE F101 turbofan, developed for the Rockwell B-1 bomber, for evaluation on the Tomcat. The old F-14B prototype was pulled out of storage, fitted with the an "F101-DFE (Derivative Fighter Engine)", and performed its initial flight on 14 July 1981.

Performance was so impressive that the Navy decided to authorize development of a production version of the new engine, the GE "F110", which featured fan and afterburner derived from the GE F404 engine used on the F/A-18 Hornet. The F-14B prototype was reengined again, with GE F110-GE-400 engines, performing its first flight in this configuration on 29 September 1986 with test pilot Joe Burke at the controls. Five more Tomcats were upgraded with the F110 for development and evaluation.

The new engine was all that was desired, and on 15 February 1987 the Navy placed a contract for an initial batch of production F110 engines. They were to be used to manufacture of what amounted to a stock F-14A fitted with the GE engines, originally designated the "F-14A (Plus)". Refit of the new engine was straightforward as its form-factor was very similar to that of the TF30, demanding only minor airframe modifications.

38 new-build F-14A (Plus) Tomcats were built, along with 32 conversions from F-14As, the first entering service in late 1988. None of the new-build machines were configured for TARPS. In 1991, the F-14A (Plus) was redesignated the "F-14B", recycling the designation of the F401 demonstrator, which had been converted to the new configuration.

It is difficult to tell an F-14B from an F-14A. The F-14B has bigger exhaust nozzles, no wing glove vanes, a modified door near the gun port, and antennas for a new AN/ALR-67 radar warning receiver (RWR) under the wing gloves. The new engines not only provide improved performance, for example allowing carrier takeoffs without afterburner, they also are more fuel-economical, permitting longer loiter times or a greater radius of action, and can be operated without the same kind of babying demanded by the old TF30s.

* The Navy also decided to obtain an F110-powered Tomcat with a substantially improved digital avionics suite, including an AN/APG-71 radar system; a modernized cockpit layout, featuring new display systems and compatible with night-vision goggles (NVGs); new Martin-Baker Mark 17 NACES ejection seats; an AN/ALR-67 RWR; dual MIL-STD 1553B digital data buses; and both IRST and TCS sensors. The new variant was designated the "F-14D", with four conversions from F-14As as development prototypes, the first flying on 24 November 1987.

The AN/APG-71 is a considerable improvement on the powerful but elderly AN/AWG-9 radar. It was derived from the AN/APG-70 built for the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle, with about 60% commonality between the two radars, and provides improved search and tracking at slightly longer ranges than the AN/AWG-9, as well as improved resistance to countermeasures. The IRST and TCS sensors are fitted in a distinctive dual chin pod that provides a recognition item for the F-14D relative to the F-14A, at least when viewed from head-on where the pod's "double-barreled" appearance is obvious.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan (spread)       19.55 meters        64 feet 2 inches
   wingspan (closed)       11.65 meters        38 feet 2 inches
   length                  19.10 meters        62 feet 8 inches
   height                  4.88 meters         16 feet

   empty weight            18,950 kilograms    41,780 pounds
   loaded weight           33,725 kilograms    74,350 pounds

   max speed at altitude   2,000 KPH           1,240 MPH / 1,080 KT
   service ceiling         16,150 meters       53,000 feet
   combat patrol radius    1,995 kilometers    1,240 MI / 1,075 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

A total of 37 F-14Ds were built, the first entering operational service in November 1990, along with 18 "F-14D(R)" upgrades from F-14As. The original intent had been to upgrade the entire Tomcat fleet to F-14D standards, but with the end of the Cold War the full upgrade program was judged too expensive. The F-14Ds were the last Tomcats built, with the final production tally as follows:

   variant        new    update   sum

   F-14A          557        -    557
   F-14A (Iran)    80        -     80
   F-14B           38       32     70
   F-14D           37        -     37
   F-14D(R)         -       18     18

   totals         712       50    762



* There were several proposals for new Tomcat variants. In the early 1970s, the US Air Force was after an "Improved Manned Interceptor (IMI)" for continental defense, and Grumman modified one of the Tomcat mockups to demonstrate a solution based on the Tomcat. This concept featured conformal fuel tanks to provide considerably extended range, but the Air Force didn't bite. Grumman also proposed several cost-reduced Tomcat variants to the Navy, with designations such as "F-14T", "F-14X", and "F-14 Optimod", that went nowhere as well, and a dedicated reconnaissance variant, the "RF-14", was dropped in favor of the Tomcat-TARPS solution.

Much later, the Navy had hopes to develop a new-technology "stealthy" strike aircraft, the "A-12 Avenger", to replace the Grumman A-6 Intruder, but the A-12 program went out of control and was axed in 1991. With the A-6 facing obsolescence and the A-12 program dead, the Navy was faced with having no heavy precision strike aircraft in its inventory.

Grumman proposed production of strike-optimized F-14s. This was not as big a stretch as it might have seemed, since Grumman had basically designed the Tomcat as a multirole machine. Even before the F-14 performed its first flight Grumman had published images of the machine carrying a heavy bombload, and apparently the Tomcat's AN/AWG-15 fire-control computer included support for the strike mission. The company came forward with the notion again several times in the 1970s and 1980s, but the Navy didn't bite on it.

With the cancellation of the A-12, Grumman came back to the idea once again, proposing a "QuickStrike" derivative of the F-14D that could be developed in a short time. The QuickStrike F-14D was to feature an improved AN/APG-71 radar, substantially improved cockpit, carriage of targeting and navigation pods, and a revised stores carriage system to allow the machine to tote a heavy warload under its fuselage and wings.

This concept led to the "Super Tomcat 21" featured all the refinements of the QuickStrike F-14D, plus advanced General Electric F110-GE-129 turbofans with thrust-vectoring nozzles; more fuel capacity; improved flight control surfaces to permit takeoffs at higher weights; and a new single-piece wraparound windshield. The new GE engines would permit the ability to cruise at supersonic speed without using afterburner.

Grumman tweaked the design further to add more fuel and further improved flight control surfaces, resulting in the "Attack Super Tomcat 21". However, by the mid-1990s all these proposals were dead, which at least prevented Grumman from coming up with even more long-winded names for further F-14 attack variants.

The problem with the schemes for the improved Tomcats was that the money simply wasn't there. The end of the Cold War meant a certain retrenchment in defense spending, at least for a time, and the Navy had committed to a scaled-up version of the F/A-18 Hornet, the McDonnell Douglas "F/A-18E/F Super Hornet" as their multirole combat aircraft for the future. There wasn't money to buy another major combat aircraft type.

In terms of payload-range in the strike role the "Super Bug" wasn't quite in the same league as the A-6 or the advanced Tomcat strike variants, but the Navy determined that the F/A-18E/F could well meet their operational requirements. It was the future and there was no prospect of building more Tomcats. However, as discussed in the next section the notion of an attack Tomcat didn't go away.

* Although the Navy couldn't get new Tomcats, it could provide modest upgrades for those it had in service to keep them flying and capable.

In 1988, the Navy initiated the "Multi-Mission Capability Avionics Program (MMCAP)", first known as the "F-14++" program, to modernize their F-14A/Bs. This featured installation of the improved AN/ALR-67 RWR; fit of Swedish BOL chaff-flare dispensers on the rear end of the Sidewinder launch rails; an improved mission computer; two MIL-STD 1553B digital databuses; and a new "Programmable Tactical Information Display System (PTIDS)" for the RIO in the back seat. The first MMCAP F-14A was redelivered in 1994.

The HUD fitted to the MMCAP F-14B didn't work out well, leading to a replacement program in the late 1990s. It is unclear if a different HUD was fitted to F-14As during MMCAP or if the Navy simply decided not to bother to upgrade the less capable F-14A. There was also an effort to refit F-14As with NACES ejection seats, but this program was cancelled and it is unclear if any F-14As were fitted with the new ejection seats. Yet another minor upgrade replaced the old AN/ALE-39 chaff-flare dispenser on the F-14B and F-14D with the modern AN/ALE-47 dispenser, resulting in a much more effective system integrated with the BOL chaff dispensers.

One of the most interesting upgrades was the GEC-Marconi "Digital Flight Control System (DFCS)", with implementation begun in 1996 and Northrop Grumman participating in systems integration. The idea behind DFCS was to replace the Tomcat's old analog flight-control system with a modern digital FCS featuring advanced software. DFCS was based on technology developed for the Eurofighter Typhoon and was a definite plus for the Tomcat. DFCS not only did much to tame the Tomcat's infamous spin departure characteristics, reducing the likelihood of a departure and improving recovery when one occurred, but also substantially improved approach handling and was far easier to maintain.

* Along with modest refinements to the Tomcat itself, the TARPS reconnaissance pod was improved. The original TARPS pod recorded all of its imagery on photographic film, which meant that reconnaissance data wasn't available until the Tomcat had landed and the film was developed. Modern reconnaissance platforms carry "electro-optic (EO)" sensors to take digital images that not only do not require development, but can be relayed over a datalink to provide real-time imagery to reconnaissance users.

The Navy decided to modernize TARPS by replacing the KS-87B film camera in the forward pod station with a Pulnix digital camera. The Pulnix camera was arranged to shoot only out the bottom-facing window and could take 200 frames. The updated "TARPS Digital (TARPS-DI)" pod was introduced in 1996. The pod was further updated beginning in 1998 to the "TARPS-CD" configuration, featuring an improved digital camera system. In 1999, some Tomcats were fitted with the "Fast Tactical Imagery (FTI)" datalink to allow transmission of EO imagery in real time. The datalink can also transmit TCS imagery.



* Despite the fact that by the advanced strike versions of the Tomcat hadn't panned out, the idea of a strike Tomcat remained alive, with the concept that the existing fleet of F-14s could be assigned the job. The Navy had been experimenting with dropping bombs from Tomcats as far back as 1987, though weapons clearance went at a very slow pace. It wasn't until 1992 that the Tomcat was even cleared to carry "iron bombs" operationally.

Although the advanced strike Tomcat concepts had featured wing pylons to carry weapons, the standard Tomcat was restricted to carriage of four bombs on munitions adapters mounted on the Phoenix stores stations. It is possible to fit "triple ejector racks (TERs)" that can carry three stores each, but this is apparently only done to carry practice bombs.

Even after clearing the Tomcat for bomb carriage, the Navy still seemed a half-hearted about the idea. Tomcats did perform a few strikes in Bosnia in 1995, but they had no means to designate targets for laser-guided bombs (LGBs) themselves and Hornets had to provide "buddy designation" for them. However, by this time the attack Tomcat concept was building up momentum, driven by the time gap between the phaseout of the A-6 Intruder and the arrival of the Super Hornet. By 1994 Grumman and the Navy were proposing ambitious plans for Tomcat upgrades to plug that gap, but Congress balked. The upgrades were priced in the billions, a bit much for an interim solution, and they would take too long to implement to meet the looming gap.

The solution finally devised was a limited cheap and quick upgrade, with fit of the Lockheed Martin "Low Altitude Navigation & Targeting Infra-Red for Night (LANTIRN)" targeting pod system to the Tomcat, which would give the F-14 a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera for night operations and a laser target designator to direct LGBs. The upgraded Tomcats would also go through a "service life extension program (SLEP)" to keep their airframes airworthy and would be fitted with a set of modest improvements, detailed under the MMCAP program description in the previous section.

Although LANTIRN is traditionally a two-pod system, with an AN/AAQ-13 navigation pod with terrain-following radar and a wide-angle FLIR, along with an AN/AAQ-14 targeting pod with a steerable FLIR and a laser target designator, the decision was made to only use the targeting pod. This was apparently done for cost reasons, though the Tomcat's LANTIRN targeting pod did feature some improvements over its baseline configuration, most significantly a Global Positioning System / Inertial Navigation System (GPS/INS) capability that would allow a Tomcat to find its own location at any time. The pod is carried on the right wing glove pylon.

Fit of the AN/AAQ-14 pod didn't require any updates to the F-14's own system software, which would have substantially increased the time and expense of the upgrade. It did require that the Tomcat have the MIL-STD 1553B bus, fitted standard to the F-14D and available on MMCAP F-14A/Bs. The RIO receives pod imagery on his display and guides LGBs using a new hand controller. Initially the hand controller replaced the RIO's TARPS control panel, meaning a Tomcat configured for LANTIRN couldn't carry TARPS and the reverse, but eventually a workaround was developed that allowed a Tomcat to carry LANTIRN or TARPS as needed.

* Initial flight of a LANTIRN-equipped Tomcat was on 21 March 1995 and the test program went smoothly. Official rollout of the first "F-14 Precision Strike Fighter" was on 14 June 1996. The "Bombcat" had finally come of age and was on its first operational cruise by the end of the month, on the carrier USS ENTERPRISE. Lockheed Martin engineers were on board the carrier to provide fixes and make changes as required. The Bombcats flew sorties over Bosnia but did not see any combat.

Interestingly, Bombcat crews reported that the FLIR on board the LANTIRN pod was more effective in checking out distant targets than the old TCS system. The FLIR has 4x, 10x, and 20x magnification capabilities and can be steered 150 degrees off the aircraft centerline. Later on, when the FTI datalink was fitted to the F-14, LANTIRN FLIR imagery could be relayed along and TARPS and TCS data to provide night reconnaissance imagery in real time.

The LANTIRN Bombcat made its combat debut in OPERATION DESERT FOX, air strikes conducted against Iraq in December 1998 after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein evicted UN arms inspectors. The Bombcats saw more combat in the NATO air campaign against Serbia over Kosovo in the spring of 1999, flying hundreds of sorties, and then in more strikes on Iraqi air-defense targets.

Tomcats also flew in the air-defense role during the Iraq strikes, and on 6 January 1999, one fired two Phoenix missiles at two Iraqi MiG-25s at extreme range. Both missiles missed. This was the first time the US Navy had ever fired the Phoenix in anger, though it appears that the Iranians shot off a few at the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq War. Two more were fired at Iraqi fighters in September 1999, missing again.

These incidents leave the effectiveness of the Phoenix an open question. Apparently the Iraqi fighters were at extreme range and just trying to be an nuisance, and the missiles were mainly fired to suggest that the Iraqis get lost. However, the blank combat record of the Phoenix is consistent with the blank record of the Hughes Falcon series of AAMs in general. The AIM-120 AMRAAM, a Sparrow derivative with a fully-active seeker, is a more modern and by the evidence a much more effective weapon than the Phoenix, though AMRAAM's range does not match that of the Phoenix. New ramjet-powered versions of AMRAAM are being considered that may outrange the Phoenix. Plans were made to modify the Tomcat for AMRAAM carriage but fell through.

* In any case, by this time the Bombcat was receiving a new strike capability in the form of the GPS-aided GBU-31/32 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guided glide bomb. Details of the implementation of JDAM on the Tomcat are a bit unclear and it is not apparent if the bombs can be loaded with GPS target coordinates in flight, or if the coordinates have to be preloaded before the the mission. Tomcat LANTIRN pods were also improved to permit high-altitude operation up to 12,200 meters (40,000 feet), with the first updated "LANTIRN 40K" pod going into service in 2001.

Bombcats got a chance to use their new weaponry during OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM, the American intervention in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001:2002, following attacks by Islamic terrorists on the United States. While details of the Afghan campaign remain unclear, it appears that Bombcats performed close-support strikes using LGBs and JDAMs, and also marked targets with LANTIRN for F/A-18 Hornets. It is plausible that F-14s also participated in the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, but details are not known at this time.

* The last Tomcats are expected to be out of service in 2008. The Navy has considered qualifying a off-the-shelf "synthetic aperture radar (SAR)" pod for carriage by the Tomcat to give the aircraft a day-night all-weather strike and reconnaissance capability. A SAR pod developed by Elta of Israel and sold by Lockheed Martin in the US has been evaluated on the F-14D, but the status of operationally deploying such a pod remains unclear.

If the Navy does retain their Tomcats after 2008, another SLEP and upgrades will be required to keep them in fighting trim. It seems unlikely that this will happen, as the Tomcat fleet is definitely showing its age and is an increasing maintenance headache. The phase-out of the Tomcat will be the end of an era, as it will be the last Grumman fighter in US Navy service.



* One interesting little comment about that Tomcat that didn't fit neatly into the main text is that the Navy has also used F-14As as "adversary" aircraft, most or all flown by the Naval Strike & Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon, Nevada. They are used as substitutes for threat aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker and MiG-31 Foxhound. Some of them were painted in blue-splinter Su-27-style camouflage, but apparently all have now adopted an Iranian-style desert camouflage pattern to match the Nevada environment.

* Relative to its numbers and length of service, the Tomcat's combat history has been relatively modest, but it has had an interesting movie career, which has a certain justice considering its role in Reagan-era political theater.

The best-known movie involving the Tomcat is the Tom Cruise vehicle TOP GUN, but though popular it is arguably less entertaining to an aircraft enthusiast than THE FINAL COUNTDOWN, which puts the Tomcat almost in a starring role with Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen in support.

The plot is negligible, a comic-book scenario in which a modern US Navy aircraft carrier is transported back in time to just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and amounts to little more than an excuse to watch Tomcats in action. It's all good silly fun, Kirk Douglas was obviously enjoying himself in that spirit, and helped pass it on to the audience.

* Sources include:

* Revision history:

   v1.0.0 / 01 may 03 / gvg
   v1.0.1 / 01 jun 03 / gvg / Minor corrections.