When it came to appearance, versatility, fire power and glamour, very few aircraft could compare with the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. History has proven this warplane to be far more than just a movie star – this kitten meant business.
During the 1960s, the US Navy required a fleet defence fighter to replace its ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs. The aircraft’s primary role would be to protect ships from Soviet intruders armed with stand-off anti-ship missiles - this alone meant that the required aircraft would have to be capable of carrying several large, long range Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. At first, the Grumman F-111B, a naval version of the General Dynamics F-111, seemed to be the perfect candidate. The variable geometry wings (swing-wing), long range AWG-9 radar and the capacity to carry Phoenix missiles made it seem to be the ideal aircraft for the air defence role. The only real development problem with the F-111B was that it was too heavy for aircraft carrier conditions. This problem could not be remedied, so it was decided that an all new aircraft design was required.
Five companies submitted their plans, but in the end the Grumman G-303 design was accepted to be developed as the F-14. The G-303 was similar to the F-111B in that it also had variable geometry wings, TF30 engines, AWG-9 radar and was capable of carrying Phoenix missiles. However, it was much lighter than the F-111B and incorporated many new design features like ‘glove vanes’ – small surfaces that reduce the change of pitch as the wings move to swept or forward positions. Admiral Tom Collory was responsible for the F-14 programme, consequently the aircraft was given the nickname ‘Tom’s Cat’. The name stuck and eventually the plane was officially designated ‘Tomcat’.
The F-14A entered service with the US Navy in October 1972 and immediately proved itself to be a fighter of note. Because of their versatility and advanced radar systems, some Tomcats were modified to serve as reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft made use of TWARPS (Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System) to locate unidentified aircraft, while still carrying the standard load of missiles. The F-14A did have limited ground attack ability, but it was designed as an air superiority fighter, and that’s the area in which it excelled.
There was however, one area of concern. The TF30 engines were not designed to be used by fighters and were just not powerful enough for the heavily laden Tomcats. In fact, some Tomcat pilots complained about having to “fly the engines instead of the plane”. The only solution seemed to be the development of the F-14B, a Tomcat with much more powerful engines. The US Navy, however, did not have the budget to support such an initiative, so the idea was pushed aside. Later, a Navy requirement for a strike aircraft arose. Grumman proposed the F-14C, a ground attack version of the F-14A – with stronger engines. Again, the new Tomcats seemed too expensive and the plan was discarded. Finally, Grumman and the US Navy initiated the F-14A+ programme. This variant featured upgraded avionics and more importantly, powerful F110 engines. With these engines, Tomcats were able to be launched from an aircraft carrier without the use of an afterburner.
A little known fact is that the F-14A+ could actually ‘supercruise’. In other words, it was able to fly faster than the speed of sound – without using afterburners! Eventually the F-14A+s were redesignated as F-14Bs. Grumman then developed a fighter pilot’s dream – the F-14D ‘Super Tomcat’. On the outside it was similar in appearance to the F-14B; it even used the same engines, but on the inside it was a whole new aircraft. The F-14D boasted advanced digital avionics, like one would find in the F/A-18, and an even more powerful radar – the APG-71 – with a range of 370km.
Northrop Grumman had more plans to create advanced variants of the F-14, but these never materialised. One such example was the ‘Tomcat 21’. This version would be similar to the F-15E Strike Eagle regarding ground attack capabilities and would incorporate a degree of stealth technology and thrust vectoring similar to the F-22 Raptor. However, the US Navy saw the F-18 Hornet as a more practical option.
The two basic factors that set the Tomcat apart from contemporary fighters were the powerful radar and the ability to use the mother of all long range missiles – the Phoenix. Having completed initial trials in 1972, the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix was incorporated into the development of the Tomcat. As with all missiles, many firing trials were carried out.
The most famous of these was when an F-14 launched six Phoenix missiles in 38 seconds, scoring direct hits on four different target drones. This was allowed by the AWG-9 radar and Phoenix combination, which allowed F-14 to engage several targets simultaneously.
During another trial, a Phoenix missile hit a target drone that was travelling at one-and-a-half times the speed of sound, 135km away from the Tomcat that had launched it. By the time the AIM-54C went into production, issues with electronics had been resolved while ECCM (Electronic Counter Counter Measures) allowed the Phoenix to remain locked onto a target, despite radar jamming efforts. The only real cause for concern was the sheer size of the missile, which caused a fair amount of drag. Tomcats would often carry six AIM-54s, each weighing well over 400kg while being almost four metres long and a metre wide (control fin span).
Tomcats arrived at Vietnam in 1974, too late to have a significant impact on the war. However, F-14s have been involved in practically every major American military operation since then. During the Cold War, Tomcats regularly scrambled to intercept Soviet bombers and maritime reconnaissance aircraft that came too close to their main carrier battle group. Tomcats would then escort these aircraft away from the carrier group, while taking pictures of the bombers and their equipment. The first kills achieved by Tomcats only came in 1981, when two F-14As from the USS Nimitz shot down two Libyan Su-22s, after being fired at by them. Later, in 1989, two MiG-23s from Libya were shot down by F-14As from the USS John F. Kennedy.
In both these cases the Tomcats were armed with Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles. These short and medium range missiles, along with Phoenix missiles, usually made up the Tomcat’s standard loadout.
The US Navy wasn’t the only Tomcat operator. In 1973, the Shah of Iran ordered 80 F-14As (along with Sidewinder, Sparrow and Phoenix missiles) for the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF). Iran conducted several tests involving Tomcats shooting down high altitude drones with Phoenix missiles. The Soviet Union saw this as a clear message to stop MiG-25 spy plane operations over Iran. Diplomatic relations between the USA and Iran took a turn for the worse with the fall of the Shah, a US ally. The IIAF now became known as the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF), with the US imposing an arms embargo against Iran, meaning that no more Tomcat spares or missiles would be supplied. It became increasingly difficult for the IRIAF to maintain their F-14s, especially during the Iran-Iraq War, during which Iran used up most of their Phoenix missiles and started to cannibalise some Tomcats to keep others airworthy. Despite these factors Tomcats were used very effectively in that war, shooting down more than 50 Iraqi aircraft with their missiles and internal Vulcan Canons. However, there were some Tomcat losses to Iraqi fighters. As the Phoenix missiles were being used up, Tomcats – with their advanced radars - were used more and more as airborne warning aircraft, while escorted by other Iranian fighters.
This article was written by Divan Muller and was first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2005 - www.africanpilot.co.za
Photographs via the US DOD.