Origin of Grumman F-14 Tomcat

Last revised February 13, 2000

The Grumman F-14 Tomcat carrier-based interceptor fighter is a relatively elderly design by contemporary world standards, but continual developments and improvements have maintained its capabilities to the extent that it is still a potent threat and an effective deterrent to any hostile air force unwise enough to threaten US Navy carrier battle groups. Its mix of air-to-air weapons is unmatched by any other interceptor type, and its radar is the most capable long-range airborne interception radar carried by any fighter today. With its mix of weapons, it can attack any target at any altitude from ranges between only a few hundred feet to over 100 miles away. It is also capable of carrying and delivering a wide variety of air-to-ground ordnance, although the Tomcat was not originally designed for this mission.

A total of 556 F-14As were procured for the US Navy, while 80 roughly similar machines were purchased by the Iranian government before the downfall of the Shah. The improved F-14B and F-14D have been built and deployed by the Navy in modest numbers.

The Grumman Aircraft Corporation of Bethpage, Long Island had dominated the market for US Navy carrier-based fighters ever since the early 1930s, creating one successful design after another. The FF, F2F and F3F biplane fighters, the F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat monoplane fighters of the Second World War, and the postwar F8F Bearcat and the jet-powered F9F Panther and Cougar fighters had dominated the decks of Navy carriers for nearly three decades. However, by the mid-1950s the Grumman company seemed to be running out of gas and was beginning to lose its edge over its competitors. In 1953, the company's Design 97 proposal, a single-seat fighter powered by a single Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet, lost out to the Vought F8U Crusader. The Design 118 project, a two-seat missile-armed interceptor powered by a pair of General Electric J79 turbojets, had initially been ordered by the Navy as the F12F-1, but was cancelled in favor of the McDonnell XF4H-1 Phantom in 1955 before any aircraft could be built. Even the successful Design 98 (F11F Tiger) had its production career cut short in favor of more Crusaders for the Fleet.

In the early 1960s, in search of more business, Grumman had collaborated with General Dynamics in the development of a carrier-based escort fighter version of the TFX, the F-111B. The F-111B had the same swing-wing geometry as did the F-111A Air Force tactical fighter version, but was equipped with a Hughes AN/AWG-9 long range search radar and was armed with a battery of six Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missiles. It was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney TF30 turbofans. However, as the 1960s wore on, the F-111B began to encounter some severe difficulties, especially with an ever-increasing weight. In spite of herculean efforts on the part of Grumman, the weight problems ultimately proved to be incurable, and the axe finally fell in May of 1968, when the US Congress refused to fund F-111B production, officially terminating the program.

Even before the final cancellation took place, Grumman management had seen the handwriting on the wall and concluded that they had better have some sort of alternative project in mind, lest the successful Grumman line of Navy fighters come to an end. Consequently, even before the F-111B project was officially terminated, Grumman began work on a company-funded project known as Design 303. The basic goals of Design 303 were to combine the particular aptitudes of the F-111B with capabilities that would be superior to those of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom, particularly in the air superiority, escort fighter, and deck-launched interception role. At an early stage, Grumman decided on a tandem rather than a side-by-side seating arrangement for the two crew members. The armament was to consist of a mix of Sparrow semi-active radar homing missiles, Sidewinder infrared homing missiles, and Phoenix long-range missiles. A built-in 20-mm rotary cannon was to be included as standard equipment.

On June 18, 1968, only a month after the F-111B project was cancelled, the Navy issued a request for Contract Definition Phase proposals in search of an alternative. The RFP issued to the industry a month later specifically mentioned a requirement for a fleet defense fighter with tandem two-seat crew accommodations, a mix of short, medium, and long-range missiles, an internal cannon, two TF-30 turbofans, and track-while-scan long-range radar. The new fighter was to be capable of patrolling at a distance of 100-200 miles from its carrier, remaining on station for up to two hours. A secondary close support role was also envisaged for the aircraft, and the plane was to be capable of carrying up to 14,500 pounds of bombs. Maximum speed was to be Mach 2.2

Grumman, General Dynamics, Ling-Temco-Vought, McDonnell Douglas, and North American Rockwell submitted bids. Four out of five of the submissions were for variable-geometry designs. In December 1968, Grumman and McDonnell Douglas were selected as finalists. Grumman had the inside track in this particular contest, and was announced as the winner on January 14, 1969. The designation F-14 was assigned. Grumman was awarded a research, development, test, and evaluation contract on February 3, 1969. During fiscal year 1971, contracts were signed for 12 prototypes and 26 production aircraft.

The first F-14A was finally ready for rollout in late 1970. Taxi trials of the first F-14A Tomcat (BuNo 157980) began at Calverton on December 14, 1970. On December 21, project test pilot William (Bob) Millar and company chief test pilot Robert Smythe made the first flight, which was a short hop with the wings kept in the fully-forward position. This flight was uneventful.

Disaster struck on the second test flight on December 30. During this flight, the aircraft suffered a primary hydraulic system failure and began to trail smoke. Millar and Smythe immediately turned the plane back to the Calverton field, and used the emergency nitrogen bottle to blow down the landing gear in preparation for an emergency landing. However, just before reaching the end of the runway, the secondary hydraulic system also failed and both crewmen were forced to eject. Both Millar and Smythe survived with only minor injuries, but the aircraft was destroyed.

The second Tomcat (157981) went aloft for the first time on May 24, 1971, piloted by Robert Smythe. Thereafter, tests proceeded at a rapid pace.

Twenty Tomcats were built in the initial run for flight trials. Tomcat #2 (157981) was assigned the job of the exploration of the low-speed flight regime and also was to carry out the stall/spin trials. It had its wings locked in the 20-degree (fully-open) position and the air intakes locked in the fully-open configuration. Tomcat #3 (157982) was to explore the outer reaches of the performance envelope and flew trials with steadily increasing loads and speeds. Tomcats Nos. 4, 5, and 6 (157983, 157984, and 157985) went to NAS Point Mugu, California for weapons system integration work. No. 7 (157986) later became the test ship for the F-14B with F401 engines. Nos. 9 and 11 (157988 and 157991) went to Point Mugu for radar evaluation and auxiliary weapons trials, respectively.

Tomcat #10 (157989) was delivered to the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland for structural trials and carrier compatibility work. On June 30, 1972, it crashed into the water while preparing for an airshow at Patuxent, killing test pilot Bob Millar, who had survived the crash of the first F-14. 157989 was replaced on carrier-compatibility tests by No. 17. No. 12 replaced the lost No. 1 on high speed flight trials. Completing the trials fleet were No. 8 (aerodynamic trials and production configuration), No. 13 (anechoic chamber work for compatibility of the electromagnetic systems), No. 14 (maintenance and reliability work), No. 20 (climatic trials at Point Mugu), and Nos. 15, 16, 18, and 19 (initial pilot conversion).

Tomcat #13 (158613) was used for initial carrier trials aboard the USS Forrestal (CVA 59) in June of 1972.

157984, Tomcat #5 assigned to Point Mugu for armament trials, had the rather dubious honor of shooting itself down on June 20, 1973. A AIM-7E-2 Sparrow missile pitched up moments after being launched, striking the Tomcat. The crew ejected safely.


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