Top Gun: A brief history of the F-14 Tomcat

The F-14 "Tomcat" is missed by many, but it was retired for a reason.
Christopher McFadden

First introduced in the mid-1970s, the F-14 "Tomcat" would become one of the most iconic American jet fighters of all time. After a distinguished career, the F-14s fame would perhaps reach its zenith in 1986 with the film "Top Gun". 

However, this moment also serves as a valuable yardstick to track the jet's decline and eventual retirement several decades later. Let's take a look at this venerable warrior of the skies.  

What is the F-14 Tomcat?

The F-14 "Tomcat" or its full name Grumman F-14 "Tomcat", is an American carrier-capable, supersonic, twin-engined, twin-seater, variable-swept wing fighter. The United States Navy developed the fighter jet to meet its need for a new kind of aircraft to meet its Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX) ambitions for hunting and killing high-speed bombers and other threats.

F-14 on display
An F-14A is on display at Grumman Memorial Park in New York. Source: The Wordsmith/Wikimedia Commons

The F-14 was the first of the so-called "Teen Series" of American fighters whose design was heavily influenced by America's experience tangling with Soviet MiG designation planes during the Vietnam War. 

For those outside the military, the plane is probably most famous for its lead role in the 1980s blockbuster film "Top Gun", making the F-14 "Tomcat"  perhaps one of the most recognizable American jet fighters of all time. 

Designed in the 1960s and first flown in December 1970, the "Tomcat" was officially brought into active service in 1974, with the first squadrons deployed to the venerable U.S. carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65). Initially intended to replace the aging McDonnell Douglas F-4 "Phantom", the F-14 quickly earned its stripes as the U.S. Navy's preeminent maritime air superiority fighter.

The aircraft also performed other vital duties, including fleet defense interception and tactical reconnaissance. The F-14 would be used well into the 2000s, officially being retired from the U.S. Navy in 2006 and replaced with the carrier-capable F-18 "Super Hornet".

The "Tomcat" can be equipped with a range of armaments, including an assortment of air-to-ground ordnance (MK-80 series GP bombs, LGBs and JDAM) in various configurations. It can also be armed with AIM-7, AIM-9, and AIM-54 air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground artillery, including the Rockeye bomb and CBU cluster bombs at the same time.

F-14s also usually came equipped with a single 20mm M61A1 Vulcan 6-barreled Gatling cannon, with 675 rounds.

To support its armaments, the F-14 uses a Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) targeting system that allows the delivery of various laser-guided bombs for precision strikes in air-to-ground combat missions and battle damage assessment.

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The fighter also came equipped with its so-called Fast Tactical Imagery (FTI) system that allowed it to transmit and receive targeting/reconnaissance imagery in-flight to provide time-sensitive strike capability. Later variants, like the upgraded F-14D "Super Tomcat", can also support the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS), which provides an in-theater tactical reconnaissance.

An Iranian F-14
An Iranian Air Force F-14. Source: Shahram Sharifi/Wikimedia Commons

The aircraft would serve in various theaters, ranging from Vietnam to serving in both Iraq Wars. More than 700 units were built by the Grumman Corporation (now the Northrop Grumman Corporation), and only the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force still operate them today. 

What are the vital stats of the F-14 Tomcat?

First flight: 21st of December 1970

Official introduction: 22nd of September 1974

Retired (United States): 22nd of September 2006

Top speed: Excess of Mach 1 at sea level, Mach 2.34 at altitude

Crew: 2 (one Pilot, and one Radar Intercept Officer)

Unladen weight: 43,735 lb (19,838 kg)

Service ceiling: circa 53,000 ft (16,000 m)

Range: 1,600 miles (3,000 km)

Wingspan: 64 ft 1.5 in (19.545 m)

Length: 62 ft 9 in (19.13 m)

Propulsion: Twin General Electric F110-GE-400

Armaments: Various, see main description above

Why did they stop using F-14 Tomcat?

The F-14 "Tomcat" was retired for various reasons, some of the most important being maintenance costs and obsolescence. While the aircraft served the U.S. Navy exemplary for over over 30 years, the aircraft's complex sweep wing engineering became too expensive to manage economically. 

The ability to sweep its wings back and forth is by far the most notable feature of the fighter and a very ambitious feature too. The F-14's wings position could vary from 20 degrees to 68 degrees while airborne to allow for the best possible flight characteristics at both low and high speeds.

F-14s in formation
F-14s in formation. Source: Shahram Sharifi/Wikimedia Commons

This system was controlled automatically by the F-14's "Central Air Data Computer" but could also be controlled manually by the pilot.

This system was complicated and, frankly, heavy and required a lot of maintenance. Time spent doing this varied, but most quoted Navy estimates range from between 30 hours and 60 hours of maintenance for every hour spent in the air.

That is a massive overhead. 

But there were also tactical reasons for retiring the aircraft. For example, pilots in other "Teen Series" fighters (which included the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and F/A-18 Hornet) reported that the shifting in wing position effectively "telegraphed" the F-14's intentions, making it easier to dogfight them.  

Are there any F-14 Tomcats still flying?

Yes, sort of. 

Most former American-operated ones have now either been scrapped or are museum pieces, but there are some still flying. There is also a large collection of them at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.

In 2007 it was announced that the current plan is to shred the remaining F-14s to prevent any components from being acquired to use as spares by Iran, which still operates a number of the jets. 

However, with the aircraft discontinued, any flying models count down their last days. Repairs and parts are harder and harder to come by, with the cannibalization of other planes as the only real source. 

It is, therefore, only a matter of time before even these venerable aircraft are grounded for good. 

Is F-14 Tomcat a good plane?

In its day, the F-14 "Tomcat" was a superb aircraft, but only for certain roles. When it first took to the air, it was by far the most advanced and capable fighter of its kind anywhere in the world. It was given the nickname 'Turkey' from how the fighter looked on the catapult or on approach to landing, when its entire trailing edge, including flaps, spoilers, tailerons, and twin rudders,  seemed to fan out like a turkey's tail - highlighting the plane's complexity.

It was, and still is, one of the best-looking jet fighters that have ever been developed. But, these advantages wouldn't last forever. 

F-14 taking off
Image of the last takeoff of a USAF F-14. Source: Nathan Laird/Wikimedia Commons

Specifically designed for a limited purpose, it was soon surpassed in some roles like dogfighting by other more specialized fighters like the F-15 "Eagle". The F-14 was also hampered from the outset by its engines that were actually developed for the F-111 Interdictor bomber meaning they weren't really suitable for dogfighting. 

Developments of other weapons systems, like Raytheon's Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) also rendered any benefits the F-14 had over its competition a moot point. It was also a little "clunky" with its relatively heavyweight, complex wing system, maritime customization, and need for a second crew member. 

When stealth-capable aircraft came into existence, it was only a matter of time before this heavy and expensive fighter's days would be numbered. 

But never forgotten. 

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