The Grumman F-14 Tomcat

Text by Divan Muller
Arguably one of the best-known and most beautiful fighters of all time, the F-14 Tomcat has had a fascinating history.
F-14 Tomcats prepare to take off from the flight deck of USS Enterprise in 2001 - U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class, Martin Maddock
Development and variants

During the early 1960s, the U.S. Navy (USN) realised the need for a fleet defence fighter to counter the growing threat of Soviet bombers and cruise missiles. In order to defend carrier battle groups against these threats, the aircraft would have to be able to carry heavy, state-of-the-art, long-range Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. To American Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, the solution seemed simple. McNamara was an experienced business executive and as secretary of defence, he had gained a reputation for implementing cost reduction programmes. He reasoned that money could be saved by developing a naval fighter variant of the U.S. Air Force’s F-111 low-level strike aircraft. In a way, this did not seem to be such a bad idea. The F-111 had variable geometry wings, also known as swing-wings, a long range radar and would be able to carry Phoenix missiles. General Dynamics, which had developed the F-111, subcontracted Grumman to build seven naval F-111B evaluation aircraft. From the beginning, the USN decision makers opposed the idea of modifying an aircraft, which had been designed specifically for air force duties, for carrier operations. Ultimately, the navy’s contempt for McNamara’s money-saving plan was justified, as the F-111B proved too heavy and lacked the required performance to serve as a naval fighter. Clearly, a brand new fighter had to be designed. Grumman used its experience in helping to develop the F-111B to produce a new concept, which it submitted to the USN. General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, North American and Vought followed suit, but Grumman’s G-303 was selected to be developed into what would become the F-14.
High-speed pass - U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain
Grumman's new aircraft was similar to the F-111B in that it had variable geometry wings, a long-range radar and the same Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines. However, most importantly, it was capable of carrying Phoenix missiles. Other than that, the F-14 was a brand new aircraft, designed to serve as an interceptor and air superiority fighter. Admiral Tom Collory was responsible for the F-14 programme. Given the fact that Grumman's fighters had always been named after cats, it was humorously referred to as 'Tom's Cat!’ The name stuck and Grumman officially named the F-14 - the ‘Tomcat.’

The F-14A prototype completed its maiden flight on 21 December 1970, with the first production aircraft entering service with the USN two years later. Tomcats proved to be excellent air superiority fighters and due to their advanced long-range radars and Phoenix missiles, were in a class of their own as interceptors. When equipped with Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod Systems (TARPS), fully armed Tomcats could be used effectively as reconnaissance aircraft. F-14As could also be used in a ground attack role, albeit in a limited capacity.

The Tomcat's greatest weakness came in the form of its TF30 engines, which it had inherited from the F-111. These engines were simply not designed to be used by fighters and as a result, F-14As were alarmingly underpowered. The engines were also prone to compressor stalls at high angles of attack, especially when the aircraft's throttle was moved aggressively, as would happen during air combat manoeuvring. F-14A pilots complained about having to “fly the engines instead of the plane.”
In 1987, the USN placed an order for General Electric's more powerful F110 engines. The navy ordered 38 new F110-powered Tomcats, whilst 32 F-14As were retrofitted with the new engines. All of these aircraft were designated F-14+ and were equipped with more modern avionics. The new engines breathed life into the Tomcats. The thrust-to-weight ratio was improved to such an extent that Tomcats could be launched from aircraft carriers without the use of afterburner. In fact, these engines even allowed the upgraded Tomcats to 'supercruise', meaning they could fly faster than the speed of sound without the use of afterburner.

In 1991, the F-14+ was redesignated F-14B. The F-14C, which was intended to be equipped with multi-mission avionics, never entered production. However, in 1987, Grumman introduced its F-14D Super Tomcat. It was the definitive variant and presented a vast improvement over previous production versions and concepts, such as the proposed F-14C. The 'D' had digital avionics, similar to those found in F/A-18s, as well as an even more powerful radar, which had a range of 370 kms. In November 1990, the first of 37 newly-built F-14Ds entered service with the USN, whilst 18 F-14As were upgraded to F-14D standards.

Grumman, which had by then merged with Northrop, proposed several additional variants to the USN, but without success. The most interesting of these concepts was the 'Tomcat 21', which would have been comparable with the F-15E Strike Eagle in terms of ground attack capability. Interestingly, it would also have had stealth characteristics and thrust vectoring engine nozzles, as can be seen on F-22 Raptors. In the end, the USN opted to replace its F-14 fleet with what many regarded as an inferior aircraft type, the F/A-18. F-14s remained in service with the USN until 2006.
An F-14A Tomcat aircraft banks into a turn during a flight out of Naval Air Station, Miramar, Calif. The aircraft is carrying six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. - U.S. Navy
The Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix

In addition to its powerful radar system, one other factor set F-14s apart from contemporary fighters. The Tomcat was the only launch platform of the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix radar-guided, long range, air-to-air missile. Tomcats would often carry six AIM-54s, each weighing more than 450 kg, with a length of four metres and a control fin span of almost one metre. The Phoenix completed trials and entered service during the early 1970s. During these trials, an F-14 launched six Phoenix missiles in 38 seconds, scoring direct hits on four different target drones. During another test, a Phoenix missile hit a target drone travelling at Mach 1.5 at a distance of 135 km.
Test firing a Phoenix air-to-air missile - U.S. Navy photo by Capt. Dana Potts
Combat history

Tomcats arrived in Vietnam in 1974, which was too late to have a significant impact on the war, which had begun in the late 1950s. After that conflict, F-14s flew hundreds of combat sorties and served in almost every major American military operation. During the Cold War, Tomcats frequently intercepted and escorted Soviet bombers and reconnaissance aircraft that approached carrier battle groups. Tomcat pilots claimed their first aerial victories in 1981, when two F-14As from the USS Nimitz shot down two Libyan Su-22s, in the Gulf of Sidra incident. Eight years later, two Libyan MiG-23s were shot down by F-14As from the USS John F. Kennedy in what became known as 'the second Gulf of Sidra incident.’ The last USN Tomcat combat mission was flown in February 2006, when an F-14, armed with laser-guided bombs, attacked ground targets in Iraq. When configured as strike aircraft, F-14s were referred to as 'Bombcats.’
Hanger Deck Crew move a F-14D Tomcat assigned to the Bounty Hunters of Fighter Squadron Two (VF-2) onto one of four aircraft elevators aboard USS Constellation - U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain
Of course, Grumman had one export customer. In 1973, the Shah of Iran ordered a total 80 F-14As, along with Sidewinder, Sparrow and Phoenix missiles, for the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF). After receiving its Tomcats, the IIAF conducted tests in which it shot down high altitude drones with Phoenix missiles. As a result of these tests, the Soviet Union stopped its MiG-25 spy plane surveillance flights over Iran. After the fall of the Shah, relations between the USA and Iran declined dramatically. The IIAF was turned into the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). The US imposed an arms embargo against Iran, which meant that no more Tomcat spares or missiles would be supplied. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iranian Tomcats saw intense combat. The IRIAF had to cannibalise some of its F-14s to keep others airworthy. Nevertheless, Iranian Tomcats were used very effectively in that war, shooting down more than 50 Iraqi aircraft. On one occasion, a Tomcat actually shot down three enemy aircraft with a single Phoenix missile. The three Iraqi aircraft were flying in close formation at the time. However, as Iran's supply of Phoenix missiles dwindled, Tomcats, with their long-range radars, were used as airborne warning aircraft, whilst escorted by other Iranian fighters. Iran has shown quite a bit of resourcefulness in keeping its F-14s flying, despite the lack of spares from the USA. It is estimated that the IRIAF currently may have more than twenty Tomcats in service.
Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force Tomcat formation
Grumman F-14D Super Tomcat
Length: 19.1 m
Wingspan: 11.7 - 19.6 m
Height: 4.9 m
Empty weight: 19 000 kg
Max. take-off weight: 33 500 kg
Thrust: 27 080 lbs
Max. speed: Mach 1.7