Service of F-14 Tomcat with US Navy

Last revised March 10, 2014


Three early F-14As were delivered in the autumn of 1972 to VX-4 at NAS Point Mugu, California for operational evaluation. The replacement squadron VF-124 at NAS Miramar received its first Tomcats in October of 1972. The job of VF-124 was to train Tomcat crews for duty with operational carrier-based squadrons. The first two operational Tomcat squadrons were VF-1 "Wolfpack" and VF-2 "Bounty Hunters", both based at NAS Miramar. These units were first comissioned in October of 1972, but , but it was not until the spring of 1974 that carrier qualification trials had been carried out. The Tomcats of VF-1 and VF-2 deployed aboard the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) in September of 1974, marking the first operational cruise of the Tomcat.

The first East Coast squadron to become operational with the Tomcat was VF-14 "Tophatters", joined shortly thereafter by VF-32 "Swordsmen". They underwent their first carrier qualifications during December 1974 and February-March of 1975 aboard the Kitty Hawk and the John F. Kennedy. These units put to sea in June of 1975 aboard the USS John F. Kennedy (CVA-67) and deployed to the Mediterranean.

Over the next nine years, almost all Navy deployable fighter squadrons exchanged their Phantoms for Tomcats. The last to do so were VF-21 and VF-154, which traded in their F-4Ns for F-14As in September of 1983. Two new squadrons, VF-191 and VF-194, were formed with F-14As in 1986, but were both disbanded in April 1988 when budget cuts led to a reduction in force.

F-14As began replacing F-4S Phantoms in the reserves in October of 1984. Tomcats currently equip four Reserve Fighter Squadrons, VF-201 and VF-202 at NAS Dallas and VF-301 and VF-302 at NAS Miramar.

As compared with the best existing USN fighters, the Tomcat offered a 21 percent increase in acceleration and sustained g-force, 20 percent increase in rate of climb, 27 percent increase in maneuvering capability, and a 40 percent improvement in turning radius. At a high throttle setting, the Tomcat can hold a steady angle of attack of about 77 degrees. Maximum design speed of the Tomcat is Mach 2.4, but the Navy sets a limit of about Mach 2.25 for service aircrews. The aircraft can execute an 180-degree 6.5-g turn of 1800 feet radius in 10 seconds without loss of speed. The Tomcat can hold 6.5 g at Mach 2.2, and can accelerate from loiter to Mach 1.8 in 75 seconds. Armed with four Phoenix, two Sparrows, two Sidewinders, and two external fuel tanks, the Tomcat can loiter on combat air patrol for 90 minutes 280 km from the carrier, or for an hour at a range of 470 km from the carrier. Tactical radius with the same load on a deck-launched interception mission is 317 km with a Mach 1.3 flyout.

The weak point of the Tomcat was in its engines, which were initially a pair of TF30-P-412 axial flow turbofans, rated at 12,350 lb.s.t. dry and 20,900 lb.s.t with afterburning. This engine was essentially similar to the TF30-P-12 that had been used for the F-111B. With this engine, the F-14A was decidedly underpowered. On several occasions, fan blades broke free from the shaft, damaging the surrounding airframe structure and systems and causing the loss of the aircraft. Very early in the flight test programs there were problems encountered with engine stalls at high angles of attack. These stalls would usually take place when coming either in or out of afterburner or at low power settings when at high angles of attack. These engine problems were exceedingly vexing and resulted in the loss of several aircraft.

Beginning with production block 65, the improved TF30-P-412A engine was fitted. During block 95, which appeared in January of 1977, the P-414 version of the TF30 became available. It incorporated certain modifications intended to prevent turbine blade cracking and to contain any blade failures that did occur. New compressor blades were made from a revised titanium alloy. The engine was provided with steel cases wrapped around the first three fan stages as a containment precaution in the event of blades being thrown by the turbine. This engine was first installed in BuNo 160396 (not the first aircraft in the block 95 batch, as had been originally planned). Existing Tomcats were retrofitted with the P-414, and the last TF30-P-412 powered F-14A was finally phased out of service in the summer of 1979.

The problems with the compressor stalls proved much more difficult to cure, and were not really solved until 1984 when a new and improved variant of the TF30 engine became available. The TF30 turbofan was an extremely fussy engine, and had to be treated with great care by the pilot if compressor stalls were to be avoided. Compressor stalls could occur at just about any altitude/airspeed combination, but most often they happened at high altitudes and low speeds, when lighting or unlighting the afterburners, or after firing the missiles. Sometimes the engine would immediately recover by itself, but more often than not the stall would "hang", and the engine rpm would begin to decrease and the turbine inlet temperature would start to rise. If not corrected immediately, the aircraft would begin to yaw rapidly back and forth and the aircraft could go into an uncontrollable spin from which the only escape was generally for the crew to eject.

If a low-speed compressor stall took place, the first move for the pilot was to quickly eliminate any g-loading on the aircraft to reduce the risk of an uncontrollable spin, then to retard the throttles to idle in order to reduce the asymmetric thrust, and then to turn the stalled engine completely off, extinguishing the combustor flame and reducing the turbine blade temperature so that the engine--now deprived of its normal airflow--could not overheat and be permanently damaged or perhaps even catch fire. If the stall took place at supersonic speed, the recovery procedure was similar, with the exception that it was not necessary to turn the engines completely off since at supersonic speeds the airflow through the engine is sufficient to cool the turbine. Once the stall is cleared, a windmill engine restart can be attempted if sufficient speed, altitude, and hydraulic pressure are available. Alternatively, a spool-down airstart can be carried out as soon as the turbine inlet temperature has cooled to acceptable levels. If none of these measures worked, the only alternative would be for the crew to eject. Of course, if any of this were to happen during the stress of combat, the crew would be dead meat.

An improved engine, the TF30-P-414A, became available in early 1981. It involved minor changes for improved reliability and durability, and was intended to eliminate restrictions on how the pilot used engine power, allowing Navy crews to fly their Tomcats through extreme angles of attack and maneuver without having to worry quite so much about compressor stalls. The first -414A engines were installed in the F-14A in 1984.

Even with the improved -414A engine, It was found that excessive yaw could blank off the outboard engine intake, leading to an engine flameout. At some airspeed/power setting combinations this can lead to a violent departure, which can lead into a non-recoverable flat spin if the appropriate recovery actions are not taken within a couple of seconds. Unlike many other interceptor aircraft, the Tomcat is not completely optimized for high-speed, high-altitude flight.

The Tomcat can be quite a handful during carrier landings. Unlike the F-4 Phantom, the F-14 aircraft is not stable nor smooth during the glideslope while coming in for a landing. It has relatively high pitch inertia and tends to float. Its high residual thrust enforces the use of relative low engine throttle settings during the approach, resulting in poor engine response which makes recovery difficult if something goes wrong. The poor lateral control makes precise heading control difficult.

The Tomcat initially carried APR-25 and APR-27 radar warning receivers. These have largely been replaced by the Magnavox ALR-50 which is designed to warn crews of SAM launches. A major upgrade updated this equipment to deal with the SA-6 Gainful missile and its associated Straight Flush radar, which were initially so successful against Israeli aircraft during the Yom Kippur War. The Tomcat is equipped with the Goodyear ALE-39 chaff and flare dispensing system, which has replaced the ALE-29 originally carried. The Tomcat initially entered service with the Sanders Associates ALQ-100 noise deception jammer, but this was later replaced with the Sanders AN/ALQ-126A.

The Tomcat was in service just in time to see the closing stages of the Vietnam war in 1975. It flew top cover during Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of US personnel from Saigon in April of 1975 just before that city fell to the North. The two squadrons involved were VF-1 and VF-2, and they flew off the USS Enterprise (CVN 65). The North Vietnamese air force did not interfere with the operation, but one Tomcat was slightly damaged by antiaircraft fire.

On September 14, 1976, during a cruise off the Orkney Islands, Tomcat BuNo 159588 went out of control while taxiing and rolled off the deck of the USS John F. Kennedy and fell into the sea. The crew safely ejected before the Tomcat went over the edge, but the plane ended up intact on the ocean floor. Fearful that the Soviets might recover the Tomcat and learn valuable secrets (especially about the Phoenix missile), the Navy mounted a recovery operation designed to fish the aircraft out of the water. After about two months, the lost Tomcat was finally hauled back to the surface.

In 1980, the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) was introduced. This was a reconnaissance pod that could be attached to the underside of the Tomcat on the left rear Phoenix missile station between the engines This system was first deployed in the second half of 1981, with VF-84 aboard the Nimitz and with VF-122 aboard the Constellation. With the retirement of the last RF-8G Crusaders in the spring of 1982, TARPS-equipped Tomcats became the Navy's primary tactical reconnaissance system. One of the tasks assigned to TARPS-equipped F-14As was to photograph Soviet long-rang surveillance aircraft, documenting and cataloging the different types of equipment carried by these aircraft. It is possible that TARPS-equipped F-14As were used in Central America to spy on the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

In August of 1981, the USS Forrestal and Nimitz entered the Gulf of Sidra in the southern Mediterranean to carry out routine training exercises. The Libyan government claimed the entire Gulf of Sidra as its own territorial waters, a claim which the US government did not accept and chose to contest. Libyan aircraft were sent out to monitor the operation. On August 19, two Libyan Su 22 Fitter J fighters were shot down by a pair of VF-41 Tomcats after one the Fitters fired a missile at the American fighters. Both kills were with AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles. This was the first air battle between variable-geometry fighters

In late 1983, Tomcats from the USS Eisenhower and Independence flew numerous missions over Lebanon in support of Marines stationed there. TARPS-equipped Tomcats flew reconnaissance missions while other F-14s flew top cover. The Tomcats were fired on by surface-to-air missiles on several occasions, but none were hit. Open conflict between Tomcats and Syrian fighters was avoided.

In April of 1983, two Tomcats operating from the carrier USS America were fired upon by Somali troops while flying over the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. These planes were on a prearranged mission, but the Somali forces apparently mistook the Tomcats for Ethiopian attackers. No Tomcats were hit.

In combat operations in Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in October of 1983, TARPS-equipped Tomcats provided intelligence on troop movements and gun emplacements for invading Marines and Army Rangers.

The Tomcat was instrumental in capturing the Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro and had murdered an American tourist. The hijackers had found refuge in Egypt, where arrangements had been made to fly them to sanctuary in Libya aboard an Egyptair Boeing 737 airliner. On October 19, 1985, seven Tomcats from VF-74 and VF-103 flying from the USS Saratoga (CV-60) intercepted the airliner and forced it to land at Sigonella in Italy. Unfortunately, the intervention of Italian guards prevented Delta Force commandos from snatching the terrorists away to American soil for trial, but the terrorists were prosecuted in Italy.

During operations in the Gulf of Sidra on March 24-26, 1986, numerous strikes were carried out by Navy carrier-based aircraft against Libyan targets, with Tomcats flying top cover, keeping Libyan fighters at bay and dodging SAMs.

On April 2, 1986, a bomb went off in a disco in West Berlin, and the incident was blamed on Libyan-sponsored terrorism. In retaliation, Operation El Dorado Canyon took place against Libya on April 15, 1986, with USAF F-111Fs attacking Tripoli while Navy strike aircraft went after Benghazi. The latter raid was top-covered by F-14s.

The last F-14A (162711) was delivered to the Navy on March 31, 1987. After that time, the plans were for production was to shift over to the more advanced F-14D version.

The first Navy squadron to receive the F-14A+ (later redesignated F-14B) was VF-101 at NAS Oceana, which received its first planes in April of 1988. The first F-14A+ carrier landing took place aboard the USS Independence on Paril 15, 1988. VF-24 and VF-211 converted to the F-14A+ in the spring of 1989, followed by VF-142 and VF-143 in the late spring of 1990, and by VF-74 and VF-103 in the summer of 1990.

In late December and early January of 1989, the US Navy again entered the Gulf of Sidra to demonstrate "freedom of navigation" in international waters in the face of Libyan hostility. On January 4, 1989, two F-14As (BuNos 159437 and 159610) from VF-32 flying off the John F. Kennedy (CV-67) shot down a pair of Libyan MiG-23 Floggers. This action was the source of much controversy, since the Libyan fighters did not this time actually fire on the Tomcats. However, the maneuvering pattern of the MiGs in which they repeatedly turned their noses toward the Tomcats even after the F-14s deliberately turned away several times was deemed to be indicative of hostile intent, and the Tomcats were given clearance to fire. Both MiG pilots ejected safely, but the Libyan Air Force was unable to recover them. The TCS provided valuable documentation of the incident, and video tape images of the MiGs demonstrated that they were indeed armed with air-to-air missiles, but the resolution was not sufficiently good to determine the exact type of missile.

There were some Sidewinder firings by Tomcats flown by VF-21 operating aboard the USS Independence (CV-62) during the 1988-1989 reflagged tanker escort operations in the Persian Gulf. At one point, there was an engagement between two VF-21 Tomcats and a pair of Iranian F-4s, with Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles actually being fired. However, these launches were all well out of parameters, and scored no kills. So far as is known, USN and Iranian F-14s have never challenged each other.

During Operation Desert Storm of January 1991, Tomcats flew mostly top cover operations in protection of the fleet's carriers and in the escort of strike packages, and did not participate in very much air-to-air combat. The Tomcats are credited with only one kill, which came on February 6 when a pair of F-14s of VF-1 shot down a Mil Mi-8 Hip helicopter with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. One F-14 Tomcat of VF-103 was lost in action on January 21 when it was shot down by an Iraqi SA-2 surface-to-air missile. This marked the first US Navy combat loss of an F-14. Fortunately, the crew ejected safely, with one crewman being picked up by helicopter and the other being taken prisoner. Although some initial tests had been made in which Tomcats dropped ordnance in a ground attack role, the Tomcat did not carry out any air-to-ground attacks during Desert Storm.

The F-14D entered fleet service in July 1992 (too late for the Gulf War). The F-14D was originally intended to have entered service with VF-51 and VF-111. However, this proposal was abandoned when VF-11 and VF-31 moved to Miramar from Oceana. These two units then converted to the F-14D in July of 1992, and VF-2 converted to the F-14D in early 1993. VF-51 and VF-11 reverted back to the F-14A. The conversion of VF-1 to the F-14D was abandoned when only half complete-the unit was disbanded in late 1993.

Tomcat production was abruptly halted in February of 1991 in an economy move. Originally, plans called for the conversion of 400 F-14As to F-14D standards. However, only 18 F-14As have been converted to F-14D(R) configuration, and 32 other have been converted to F-14A Plus (F-14B) configuration.

A total of 55 F-14D new-builds and conversions were produced. This was enough to equip only three front-line squadrons. These F-14D-equipped squadrons are VF-2 "Bounty Hunters", VF-11 "Red Rippers", and VF-31 "Tomcatters". In addition, part of the Pacific Fleet training unit VF-124 is equipped with F-14Ds. First to become operational with the F-14D was VF-11 in July of 1992. A few prototype and early test F-14Ds have been redesignated NF-14Ds and serve with some dedicated test units. The shortage of F-14Ds was so severe that VF-11 had to transition back to the F-14B in late 1996.

The F-14s of VF-1 and VF-2 aboard the USS Ranger took part in Operation Restore Hope in which the US Marines landed in Somalia in December of 1992 in an attempt to bring stability to that country.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there has been a severe downsizing of US military forces, with several facilities closing and several F-14 squadrons being disbanded. By the summer of 1995 nine Tomcat squadrons had been disestablished, with one more going out of business during FY'96 and another transitioning to F/A-18 Hornets.

In 1994, the Pacific Fleet squadrons at Miramar disbanded and prepared to move Eastward to NAS Oceana in Virginia. The VF-124 training unit disbanded in September of 1994, and VF-101 at Oceana took over sole responsibility for training F-14A crews. The F-14D was used exclusively by Pacific Fleet squadrons, and the Atlantic Fleet set up a new VF-101 detachment at Miramar for training F-14D crews. The VF-101 detachment and the five surviving front-line Pacific Fleet squadrons moved to Oceana by June of 1997. This left NAS Oceana as the sole Tomcat base, although VF-154 is based at NAS Atsugi in Japan while not deployed about the USS Independence.

Tomcats participated in cruises to the Persian Gulf in support of Oeration Southern Watch and to the Mediterranean in support of Operation Provide Promise and Operation Deny Flight . NASA had operated two F-14A Tomcats at its Dryden Research Facility at Edwards AFB. BuNo 157991 arrived at Dryden on August 8, 1979, and was used in an investigation of flight at low altitude and high angles of attack under asymmetric thrust flight conditions. While at Dryden, it was assigned the NASA number of 991. This plane was returned to the Navy on September of 1985. BuNo 158613 was delivered to Dryden on April 8, 1974 and was assigned the NASA number of 834. It was used for a variable-sweep flight transition experiment. It was returned to the Navy in September of 1987.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the Tomcat was replaced by the F/A-18E/F in its reconnaissance, fighter, and attack roles. The official final flight retirement of the F-14 from Navy servive took place on September 22, 2006 at NAS Oceana. Most of the remaining F-14s were stored at the AMARC facility in Arizona. However, most of them were scrapped to prevent any components from being aqquired by Iran.

The following Navy squadrons have operated the F-14 Tomcat:

Although a few Marine Corps crews did fly F-14s as part of deployments with Navy Squadrons, a proposal to add the Tomcat to the Marine Corps inventory was cancelled in July of 1975 in favor of an additional four squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets. The first Marine Corps Squadron was reportedly to have been VMFA-122.

NASA had operated two F-14A Tomcats at its Dryden Research Facility at Edwards AFB. BuNo 157991 arrived at Dryden on August 8, 1979, and was used in an investigation of flight at low altitude and high angles of attack under asymmetric thrust flight conditions. While at Dryden, it was assigned the NASA number of 991. This plane was returned to the Navy on September of 1985. BuNo 158613 was delivered to Dryden on April 8, 1974 and was assigned the NASA number of 834. It was used for a variable-sweep flight transition experiment. It was returned to the Navy in September of 1987.

Sources:


  1. Grumman Aircraft Since 1919, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1989.

  2. Grumman F-14 Tomcat, Doug Richardson, Osprey, 1987.

  3. F-14 Tomcat: Fleet Defender, Robert F. Dorr, World Airpower Journal, Vol 7, 1991.

  4. Grumman F-14 Tomcat Variant Briefing, World Airpower Journal, Vol. 19, 1994.

  5. Grumman F-14 Tomcat Variant Briefing Pt 2, World Airpower Journal, Vol. 20, 1995.

  6. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aircraft Armament, Bill Gunston Orion, 1988.

  7. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  8. Encyclopedia of World Military Aircraft, Volume 1, David Donald and Jon Lake, AirTime, 1994.

  9. The World's Great Interceptor Aircraft, Gallery Books, 1989.

  10. The Fury of Desert Storm: The Air Campaign, Bert Kinzey, McGraw-Hill, 1991.

  11. 25 Years of the Tomcat, Rene J. Francillon, Air Fan International, March 1996.

  12. Grumman F-14 Tomcat, Jon Lake, AirTime, 1998.

  13. E-mail from Dan Hemming on the Enterprise being CVAN at the time.