The United States Navy has Officially retired the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. I found that while watching a TV news channel in Los Angeles. The service took place at Miramar which is located close to San Diego. Many Americans equate the F14 to the film,”Top Gun”. When you mention to someone you spent many years in the Navy working on F14’s, they usually 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 airplane, but I understood how keep it combat ready for the fleet. I spent six years in the Navy as an F-14 Radar technician. I spent another 7 years working for the Navy as a civilian “Tech Rep”. At that time, the USS Forrestal was at sea in the Mediterranean, so this required a trip to the boat while at sea. So, when I overhear someone talking about the F-14 Tomcat in Naval Aviation, I take some private understanding.
My first experience with the aircraft was in 1977. At the time, I was a 19 year old sailor from St. Louis and I’d only seen a few still pictures of it in magazines before my arrival at NAS Miramar, California. The F-14’s were replacing the old Navy F-4 Phantoms in 1977 and the Tomcats seemed to be something from a science fiction book. At the time, I had tribulations on learning how to master its complexity. My specialty was in the AN/AWG-9 Radar which was the most effective airborne radar ever mounted into a supersonic fighter. The radar was exceptional 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 almost two years in Navy technical colleges, I was deemed worthy to work on the complex F-14 radar system. At the time, the aircraft proved to be a truly revolutionary upgrade to Naval Aviation. Even to this day, some of its unique capabilities are still unmatched.
My family has a history of being involved with United States fighters. He spent years as an aggressor pilot instructing pilots dog fighting skills. My brother retired as a USAF Radar Technician and worked on the F-106, F-4, F16 and F-15. So, being the sole Navy man in the household, 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 on 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 good fight. You are going to use whatever benefit you need to kill him before he kills you.
The F-14 can out gun others by using its superior radar, so the Navy has eyes on target first. The F-14 could detect an airborne treat at much longer range than any other airborne fighter. The F-14D Tomcat could also fly at supersonic speed without lighting up it is afterburner for supersonic cruise. The Naval Aviators called it, “Super Cruise”. And the Navy can shoot first using their long range AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. The USAF currently utilizes the new AIM-120 AMRAAM missile which is an outstanding air to air missile, but it’s less than half the assortment of the AIM-54. This implies the Navy fighter pilot can shoot his missiles at longer range and still succeed. When the missile gets within close range of the target, it uses its active onboard radar to steer to final effects. Throughout live firing missile exercises, the kill rate of the AIM-54 exceeded 90 percent that’s outstanding. The AIM-120 uses this same concept and this technology has been carried over from our experience with the AIM-54. The F-14 Tomcat is the only fighter to use the long range AIM-54.
The only AIM-54 ever used in combat was by the IAF (Iranian Air Force) which purchased 100 F-14 Tomcats in the mid 70’s. Iranian airspace has been violated by high flying MIG 25’s flying at Mach 3. For this reason, Iran chose the F-14 Tomcat to protect their airspace. Once their F-14 aircraft downed an unmanned high rate Russian Dot aircraft, the flights over from Russia stopped. Throughout 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 will probably never know the specific amount, but Iran continues to fly their Tomcats.
The USAF and USN practice their combats skills over the Nevada desert in an exercise called,”Red Flag”. It is one of the most realistic combat simulations anywhere on earth. Air Forces all over the world come to these exercises to hone their battle skills. On a single deployment, I was told that the navy F-14 crews weren’t permitted to use their aerial radar beyond the battle area because this could give them an advantage. 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 would keep the enemy guessing as to their true location. This tactic wouldn’t give away their location since it was not required to turn on their unique radars.
As far as one on one combat between fighter USAF and USN pilots, I can’t speak for them. But I do know that a World War II ace and test pilot Chuck Yeager wrote about what makes a good pilot. He said first you should have excellent eyesight since the first to detect another at long range has the advantage in combat. But he also said that he was a good pilot since he had a good deal 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 onboard. The 1 thing that really amazed me was how aircraft could land at night on a slick flight deck that was pitching up and down and from side to side. I am not saying Navy pilots are better, but they are very experienced and good at what they do. If I had a few MIG fighters inbound with hostile intent, I would feel really comfortable knowing among 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. I slept at ease on the ship knowing we’d 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 remain over water close to 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. Because of this, 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 ceased. It would have been a gorgeous sight to see dozens of AIM-54’s from the sky shrieking in their goals at Mach 4 because they attempted to escape to Iran.
The USAF now has a wonderful new stealth fighter, the Lockheed Martin”F/A-22 Raptor”. This airplane will dominate the airspace of any enemy. Its full capabilities continue to be somewhat classified, but it is a really revolutionary fighter for the 21st Century. I’ve never seen it fly, but I will attend the open house at Edwards AFB this weekend and watch the airborne flight demo of the F/A-22. The Tomcat supplied the United States Navy with a proud history. I am sure 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 which are truly,”The Best of the Best”. I have the utmost respect for the women and men who serve our nation, especially in the difficult war we are faced with today. God bless them all and may they all come home safely when their tours of duty are finished.