The F-14 Tomcat: A Legendary Fighter Jet

For many of us 80’s kids, no other fighter jet inspired more excitement than the F-14 Tomcat. That is thanks largely to the movie Topgun, but I think its awesomeness was prevalent in many 80’s artifacts – books, toys, models and playing cards. Finishing the Airfix model of the F-14A Tomcat was one of my proudest moments growing up.

 

History

The history of the F-14 is rather interesting. During the 1950’s the US Navy where faced with a dilemma – they needed a swept-wing plane that was capable of high speeds, able to challenge adversaries. But swept-wing planes had much higher landing speeds which was a problem when you were landing on the short runways of an aircraft carrier. Grumman started development on a variable-sweep plane called the XF10F. It was a hopelessly useless plane, but the one thing it did have going for it, was a reliable variable wing system. Check out this video for more on the XF10F.

 

Up until the 1960’s the F-4 Phantom had served the US Navy well, but now they needed a fighter with greater electronic and aerodynamic capabilities to defend against long-range Soviet aircraft and missiles.  There was hope that the F-111B would fit the bill, but it fell short because it was too heavy. They announced a design content termed the VFX program. The two leading aircraft manufacturers were Grumman and McDonnell Douglas. While McDonnell Douglas developed the F-15, Grumman worked on a variable-sweep two-seat, twin-engine design. 

With the experience Grumman had from the earlier XF10F, they created a new design called ‘Model 303’ which for all intents and purposes was a single vertical stabiliser version of the now well-known F-14. 

The F-14 made its first flight in 1970 and entered service with the Navy in 1974. It quickly became known for its powerful radar, long-range, and twin engines, which gave it excellent maneuverability and speed. 

Advanced Radar and Missile Systems

Equipped with the AWG-9 radar system combined with the AIM-54 Pheonix and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, the F-14 was the first fighter jet able to simultaneously engage multiple targets. The AIM-54 was also the longest-range missile at the time. With the radar antenna positioned in the nose of the jet and a full load of 6 Pheonix missiles, the F-14 was the largest and heaviest plane to take off from an aircraft carrier.

Design

The variable-geometry wing design is probably the F-14s most loved design feature. How many of us us F-14 toys with wings that could sweep? The wings were swept forward (outwards) for landing and backward to reduce drag, allowing the F-14 to reach its max speed of Mach 2.4.

Interestingly, the F-14 could still fly and land safely with only one wing swept forward in the event of a malfunction. The pivot points of the wings are spaced significantly far apart, allowing weapons to be fitted to the fixed-wing glove, removing the need to attach weapons to the wings which would create drag.

The wings don’t have ailerons but instead use spoilers to roll at low speed and at high speed the tailerons are used.

At the front of the wing gloves are two retractable triangle surfaces called glove vanes. Originally these were mounted to generate additional lift at supersonic speeds, but they were later disabled as they added weight and maintenance complexity. 

An F-14 flight alongside an F-16 with it’s glove vanes out

Initially fitted with two Pratt & Whitney TF30 turbofan engines, the aircraft could reach a max speed of Mach 2.34. Moveable ramps were fitted on the rectangular air intakes to meet the different airflow requirements during take-off vs supersonic speed. Variable nozzles were also fitted to the engine’s exhaust. The TF30 had a bad rep, attributing to 28% of all F-14 accidents.

Later versions of the F-14 (B and D) were fitted with the General Electric F110 which gave the aircraft a significant thrust boost. 

Conflicts

The F-14s of the US Navy was involved in a number of conflicts in the 1980’s, but very rarely opened fire on enemy aircraft. Most of these conflicts were around the Mediterranean, near Libya, Egypt and Sudan. The two occasions where a F-14 shot down an enemy fighter (1981 and 1989) were in the disputed Gulf of Sidra area. Both times were against the Libyan Air Force.

In 1981 Gulf of Sidra incident, F-14s were performing combat air patrols in support of the Freedom of Navigation operations. During these operations, two Libyan Su-22 ‘Fitters’ opened fire on two F-14s with AA-2 ‘Atoll’ missiles. They missed, and the F-14s retaliated by firing AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles, downing the Su-22s in the US Navy’s first combat victories since the Vietnam War, and the first kills for the Tomcat.

In the 1989 Gulf of Sidra incident, tensions between the US and Libya were high. Libya was trying to get their hands on nukes and the US also accused them of building a chemical weapons plant in 1988. Reagan indicated that they might destroy the plant, thus causing Libya to increase air defences around the plant and up their military readiness. Aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy was sailing in the Mediterranean and two F-14s were doing routine combat air patrols.

The two F-14s came up against two MiG-23s, downing them both in self-defence after a series of close aerial manoeuvres that the US claimed to be hostile. For more details, check out this article.

There were other incidents where F-14s intercepted enemy planes as well as conducting bombing operations. See here for more info on the F-14 operational history.

Wrap up 

So few fighter planes have captured the imagination like the F-14 Tomcat. I would say it’s up there with the Spitfire, even if it hardly saw any action while in service. It really is a feat of engineering and ingenuity of a bygone era, almost like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. It wasn’t sleek, it wasn’t stealthy, but it was damn aggressive and bad-ass. I read that it missed out on kills during the Gulf War because when Iraqi Mirages saw the F-14, they would turn and run only to fly into a squadron of allied fighters who landed up downing them. The Tomcat literally was the big cat of the skies, while the adversaries it came up against were mere mice. 

 

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