2010 Articles

DEC 21 2010
The F-14 Tomcat at 40

On the 21st December 1970, a United States Navy legend took to the skies for the first time. The F-14A Tomcat took to the air and would reign as king of the seas for the US Navy for the next three and a half decades, gaining a devoted band of enthusiast followers and becoming a movie star in the process. I was one of those devotees and, in 2004 and 2005, made the pilgrimage to NAS Oceana to capture the Tomcat on film before her retirement in 2006.

Conceived as a replacement for the F-4 Phantom II, the Tomcat took into account the experiences gained during the Vietnam War in terms of engagements with enemy MiG fighters. The largest and heaviest navy fighter to operate from an aircraft carrier, the Tomcat was the winner of the Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX) programme, with Grumman awarded the contract in 1969.

Initial Operational Capability was reached in 1973 and whilst the US Marine Corps also expressed an interest in the Tomcat, it only ever saw service with the USN and its only overseas customer, the Imperial Iranian Air Force. The aircraft entered service with squadrons, VF-1 'Wolfpack' and VF-2 'Bounty Hunters' aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and assisted in the American withdrawal from Saigon.

The type scored its first combat kill in 1981 when aircraft from VF-41 'Black Aces' downed two Libyan Su-22 Fitters in what became known as the Gulf of Sidra incident. History repeated itself on the 4th January 1989 when Tomcats from VF-32 'Swordsmen' shot down two more Libyan Fitters in the Gulf of Sidra region. The major role assigned to the Tomcat in the early years of its service life was reconnaissance, replacing the ageing RA-5C Vigilante and RF-8G Crusaders.

In 1991 during the first Gulf War conflict, the Tomcat flew Combat Air Patrol (CAP) missions over the Red Sea and Persian Gulf regions. It was during this period that the only ever Tomcat was lost in battle on 21st January 1991, when a VF-103 'Jolly Rogers' aircraft was shot down by a SA-2 surface-to-air missile near Al Asad airbase in Iraq. The F-14 also recorded its final kill in battle, a Mi-8 Hip helicopter. The Tomcat then played a part in Operations 'Deliberate Force' and 'Allied Force' in 1999 before leading some of the first strikes into Afghanistan in October 2001. In 2002 Tomcats took part in Operation 'Iraqi Freedom' before squadrons VF-31 'Tomcatters' and VF-213 'Blacklions' deployed on their last combat cruise in 2005 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).

The final trap and launch of an F-14 from a carrier at sea occurred on the 28th July 2006. The type was officially retired on the 22nd September 2006, shortly after its last starring role at the NAS Oceana Airshow. The final landing of an F-14 took place on the 4th October 2006, when a VF-31 'Tomcatters' jet landed at Republic Airport, Farmingdale, New York. A total of 712 of the type were built, developed over the years to become the F-14 'Super Tomcat', although not all fleet units ultimately operated this model.

In order to gain a better understanding of what the F-14 was like to work with, I've been fortunate enough to engage with former RAF personnel who participated in exchange programmes in order to fly the mighty Tomcat. One such veteran is Pete Legg, whose RAF career saw him fly the Phantom and Tornado F.2, with the Tomcat experience slotted in between.

"It was a bit of a cock-up to be very honest!" muses Pete as he recalls his path to flying in the United States Navy. "The exchange goes back to the days when it was F-4 Phantom to F-4 Phantom, which was a Royal Navy to United States Navy agreement. When the Royal Navy got rid of the Ark Royal the first time round, they got rid of their Phantoms, and the exchange became RAF F-4 to United States Navy F-4. And then when the Americans brought in the Tomcat they switched it to F-4 to F-14, and they did it at quite short notice. So there I was, a young bachelor out in Germany flying Phantoms. I got a call at the back end of 1982 saying 'how do you fancy going on exchange?' and I said great! He said it's to Oceana. It was myself and Stu Black. I was sent out there around Christmas time in 1982 to start training in the beginning of 1983."

It is crystal clear that Pete has very fond memories of his time with the Tomcat as he explains his first flight in the type. "It was with a chap called Dick Gallacher, he was my host exchange officer. As you're well aware there's no such thing as a two stick Tomcat, so what you did - literally - you went off in the back seat of this Tomcat, he flew it around and showed you what you were going to do. You came back, hot pit refuelled and changed seats and then it was your turn and off you went! So that first time you were in the front seat was the first time you'd ever flown the thing! Absolutely fantastic aircraft though, really great pleasure to fly."

It would appear that the Tomcat was as much loved by those who flew her as those who admired her sleek lines from the ground. "Coming from a Phantom, which was a little bit cramped, the Tomcat was like sitting in a Rolls Royce; there was so much space in the front seat. And its performance, well the Phantom was quite a punchy jet, but its performance compared to that was absolutely amazing. It was just such a beautiful aircraft to fly, very responsive, even though it's a huge thing, 75 foot wingspan with the wings fully forward. It was an absolute delight, a really, really nice aircraft."

The obvious question then to put to Pete would have to be his experience of getting to grips with carrier landings. Having stood outside of NAS Oceana myself, I can testify to the number of practice approaches that are made to simulate carrier landings, often in the dark and late at night. Pete explains his approach to the task. "I'd been there for about 18 months before I went out to the carrier, what they decided was that we would go together as the two Brits! The argument at the time was that if anything went wrong, they could just order a couple of replacements!! We used a field carrier landing practice site - it was an airfield called Fentress which was set up like a carrier deck. You went down there at night and did 10 field carrier landing practices, which was ten touch and goes, with the landing signals officer grading every pass that you did. They've got this weird marking scale from 0-4 and you had to get a 3.0 grade average, which we achieved, so they sent us off to the boat. It's how the United States Navy do things, it was literally 'off to the boat you go!'

"So we went out as a flight of three, I seem to remember. You have to do your first two passes on the boat which are touch and goes and if the landing signals officer likes the way you're flying the aircraft you can put your hook down and make your first arrested landing. I'd spoken to a couple of old hands about what to do about this; they'd been out to the carrier many many times and got the feel from them. Bearing in mind my Phantom background, I'd done a couple of field arrested landings with hydraulic failures and stuff like that so my expectation - naively - was that it was going to be a bit like that in the fact that you touched down, hook picks up the wire and you stop, but the boat is moving away from you so you have to keep going right of the centre line. They said when you touch down you have to take full power just in case the wire breaks or your hook skips over them.

"I'd never locked my harness up until this point, because I hated to feel restricted; I liked the freedom around the cockpit. To cut a long story short we came in - nice pass - I can't remember which wire we caught, but literally the next thing I knew was as if we'd been plucked out of the sky. I'm buried around the front of the control column with my hands on full power and the voice of the air boss who was looking down on us saying, 'OK son you can come back on the power, you won't make my ship go any faster!' And that was my first carrier landing! They literally shoot you off the bow, you come around again, do another trap; we did five or six of those on the first evolution. Eventually you end up with ten day traps and six night traps and that's you qualified on the boat.

"The catapult launch, again I'd spoken to those in the know about that. We saluted the catapult officer as that might be the last salute you ever get and then we got blasted off down the catapult and airborne. And again, no expectations of what it was going to be like, though I knew it would be quite an interesting ride. But what I didn't realise with the United States Navy was the backseaters do all the radios - that's the way they work - so when you get airborne you have to call 'airborne' and you do a clearance either left or right. We got blasted off down the catapult and what I was trying to say was 'holy shit' but it's impossible to breathe during the catapult stroke because you've got this +4G force flattening your chest - you simply can't breathe or speak. If you made it into a fairground ride you'd make a fortune!"

Returning back to the RAF and the Tornado made Pete realise just how much he had enjoyed his time on the Tomcat, so much so that both he and Stu Black considered joining the United States Navy permanently. He has fond memories of the American 'winter' which ran from September through to March, during which, every two weeks out of six, he would deploy to NAS Key West to train against the aggressors of VC-12 'Fighting Omars' and VF-43 'Challengers', flying against a range of different types such as the F-5, T-38, A-4 and the Israeli designed KFIR.

Having spoken to Pete, I wasn't at all surprised to hear him enthuse so much about the mighty 'Turkey', as it was affectionately known. The Tomcat was an iconic aircraft of its time, its popularity boosted massively by its starring role in Top Gun. I think the real fascination for me still lies in the ability of skilled airmen to land such a large jet on a floating structure at sea, especially in the dark. I still consider it a real privilege to have had to chance to witness them up close and the images I recorded still remain the pride of my collection of aviation photographs.

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2012-02-11 - C J FRANCIS
Enjoyed your bit on the F-14 and your indoc to the USN wrt the aircraft and landing on the Ship.

2010-12-22 - P.Chafer
Brilliant photos

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