Tomcat Tribute

The Navy’s fearsome fighter retires.

Feathers ruffled, a "Turkey" rests on the deck of the Harry S. Truman while a Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawk hoists in supplies for the carrier population. PHA Gregory A. Pierot, USN

Was it the size? The F-14 was big. At 65,000 fully loaded pounds, it was the heaviest fighter ever to be catapulted from an aircraft carrier. Or was it the fluid maneuverability of an aircraft that large, or its Mach 2-plus speed, or the chest-thrumming roar of two powerful engines? Maybe it was simply the fact that in a movie with one of Hollywood's biggest stars, the Grumman F-14 stole the show. Probably all of those factors account for the Tomcat phenomenon: Though it rarely got the chance to prove its air superiority, the F-14 is wildly popular with aviation enthusiasts around the world.

They have the Soviets to thank. Were it not for the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bomber and increasingly capable anti-ship weapons, there would have been no need for a supersonic fleet protector. With a radar and missile suite powerful enough to destroy a threat from 100 miles away, the F-14 was built to whup the Bear and its formidable fighter escorts. In its 34-year career, however, the F-14 shot down only five enemy aircraft, four of them Libyan fighters opposing in 1981 and 1989 the U.S. presidents' carrier-backed contention that the Gulf of Sidra was international, not Libyan, waters.>>> The Editors

Some statements were compiled for the book Grumman F-14 Tomcat: Bye-bye Baby by Dave Parsons, George Hall, and Bob Lawson (Zenith Press, 2006) and are used with permission.


[Carrier Operations]



You are on the Landing Signal Officer platform of the USS Kitty Hawk, off the coast of California. It's a warm December night in 1993. Out of the starry black sky comes an ungodly roar followed by an enormous slab of a wing and huge vertical stabilizers. Thirty tons of Tomcat hurtles by, eclipsing the stars, trailing fire, feeling for the 3 wire. The beast slams onto the deck and instantly goes to full power (in case the hook misses), which rattles your very bones and literally takes your breath away. The airplane has just conveyed the message, "I am the biggest, baddest Grumman cat ever to fly off a carrier. YOU GOT THAT, you miserable civilian scum?">>> Patricia Trenner, Air & Space


How the Tomcat Got Its Name

By now the story of Vice Admiral Thomas Connolly and his support for the Grumman F-14 has become a Navy legend. As the deputy chief of naval operations, Connolly famously testified against the General Dynamics F-111B, countering a powerful Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who believed an all-service airplane would reduce cost. The F-111B was canceled, and Grumman won a contract to replace it. Historians have written that Connolly's 1966 testimony was a career ender, but it won him immortality in the naming of the F-14. The aviator had flown Wildcats in World War II; his call sign: "Tomcat." Another influential Tom, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, was the chief of naval operations at the time, and his name may have helped the cause.


Don't Call Me Turkey

At first I didn't like it when I heard the nickname "turkey." I thought it was disrespectful, until one day I was in the ready room watching a recovery. When you're in the ready room, everything just stops when an airplane is recovered. Everybody's watching the TV screen to make sure it goes okay. So I'm watching the airplane come in, and it has so many moving surfaces-these huge horizontal stabilators that are as big as an A-4's main wing and they move differentially, and the spoilers rise on the wing, and it's flapping and rocking. And I had to admit: It looked just like a turkey.>>> Dave "Hey Joe" Parsons, VF-102, -32, -101


Snakes in the Cockpit

BY THE TIME I SWITCHED to the F-14, I had over 1,000 hours and 300 traps in the F-4 Phantom. The F-4 was very stable in the landing configuration compared to the F-14. The Tomcat's swing wing allowed slower, safer approach speeds, but that required more and larger flight control deflections. It looked like we were beating snakes in the cockpit. Day traps were fun. Night traps were different. Some pilots couldn't get to sleep for hours afterward.

One of our first-cruise [radar intercept officers], after a night trap, asked his pilot why it took so long to get out of the cockpit after engine shutdown. The RIO would stand on the flight deck waiting and waiting. The pilot, an experienced combat veteran, explained that he needed time for his knees to stop shaking before he could safely climb down the ladder. The RIO told me he never looked at night traps the same way again- and never asked another pilot why it took so long to get out of the cockpit.>>> CJ "Heater" Heatley, VF-21


Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

I had good and bad days in the jet, but I think I was only terrified twice. In 1978, we were chained on the deck near the tower, and Marc "Tag" Ostertag and Tim "Spike" Prendergast were ready to launch. Suddenly, the release assembly fails and they start down the cat in slow motion. Supposedly never happened before or since. Don't you hate it when they say that? Tag lights the burners, but the jet limps off the bow and disappears. Just then the jet's nose raises above the waves, and all we see is the glow of the seat rockets and then two chutes. But wait a minute - there goes the Tomcat, straight up in full afterburner like the space shuttle. Pull that thousand pounds out of the nose and watch out. The thing climbs to about 2,000 feet, flops over on its back, and next thing ya know it's headed straight at us. We're strapped in and waiting to die. It hit the water right alongside the ship. I wasn't sure I was ready to try my luck on the bow cats after that, but we did. My God, the stuff we laugh about now.>>> Monroe "Hawk" Smith, CO, Topgun, VF-123


Second Shift to VP

For five years, I was going to school during the day at Brooklyn's Polytechnic University and working as a second-shift electrician at Grumman's Calverton plant. Being second shift, we didn't get to see the airplane fly that often, but we'd get a few glimpses now and then, and that's all it took to keep us pumped up about it.

I remember George Skurla coming onto the factory floor in 1973. [Skurla, later president of Grumman, headed a management shake-up of the F-14 assembly process.] He really wanted to get 54 airplanes out by the holidays, and he'd show up once or twice a week. At first it was intimidating, and I wondered, 'Am I doing something wrong?' But I ended up looking forward to his visits. I never forgot the factory floor.>>> Scott Seymour, President, Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems, and corporate vice President


[Radar Intercept Officers]

"Do You Have It?"


Coming out of the training command, where you learn self-reliance as a pilot, I struggled with this notion of the F-14 RIO. I especially disliked the idea that the RIO could fire both ejections seats when operating off a carrier. My plan was that if a RIO ever asked me "Do you have it?" I would either fly us out or eject us both.

That lasted until my first squadron tour with VF-32 in 1976. Launching from the USS John F. Kennedy, working on my cool clearing turn off the catapult (always a challenge in a 64-foot-wingspan, 30-ton jet): Rotate, gear up, snap right, change heading, snap left...uh oh. No snap left. No stick movement past center. We stay in our right turn, nose slowly falling through the horizon around 100 feet. There's lots of screaming help coming from the Air Boss over the radio, but his words aren't clear. What I do hear clearly is the voice coming from the back seat: "Do you have it?" To my surprise I answer, "No." The stick will just not go left. To his everlasting credit, while watching the water streak by just under our right wingtip and with his hands on the lower handle, Jerry "Mountain" Argenzio-West gave me a couple more seconds to get the airplane going where it was supposed to with rudder and afterburner. Despite jammed flight controls, we recovered and got the aircraft back aboard ship. With that test, and after 3,000 hours in the F-14, I am convinced it was the pilot-RIO team that made the Tomcat the great classic fighter it was.>>> Steve "Spoon" Weatherspoon, VF-32

Besides operating the radar, F-14 RIOs also operated the inertial navigation system; monitored the hundreds of circuit breakers surrounding the back seat that controlled the airplane's electronics, including control surfaces and avionics; did virtually all the talking on the radios; and commanded both ejection seats (in carrier operations). The RIO operated the mission systems and could fire both the Sparrow and Phoenix missiles. Only the RIO could set up and operate the cameras and targeting system.




The Real Top Gun

When Dale Snodgrass retired from the Navy in 1999 as the world's highest-time F-14 pilot, with more than 4,800 hours and 12 years as an F-14 demo pilot, he was famous for his finesse, his aggression, his relentless pursuit of the unexpected, and even, sometimes, the not-yet-approved-such as formation aerobatics on the wing of old Grumman fighters. But in 1985, at the Pratt & Whitney celebration in Hartford, Connecticut, he was a new demo pilot and few people had seen him fly.

That Saturday was the kind of day when nobody expected much. Cloud base was barely 1,000 feet, the visibility was a misty three miles, and a number of the pilots had already decided not to perform. Snodgrass said, "I'll fly." He was just back from the north Atlantic, where rain, fog, salt spray, and low clouds were the norm.

With the burners lit, the F-14 roared to life, accelerated down the pavement, and lifted just high enough for wing clearance. Then Snodgrass rolled the fighter into a turn so low, so steep, and so tight that anyone who expected minimum weather to produce minimum performance was instantly on alert.

The F-14, which is big, loud, fast, and powerful enough to climb straight up for 15,000 feet doing vertical rolls, is also agile and versatile enough to entertain a sophisticated audience on a minimum weather day, especially in the hands of a maestro. Snodgrass rolled past the crowd gear up, gear down, wings sweeping through a kaleidoscope of designs, from forward like a wide embrace to backward like a plummeting hawk, afterburners lit, speed brakes out, in knife-edge turns, and hard pulls. A tight, low, fast-paced F-14 would have been entertaining on any day, but in Hartford that day, under clouds the color of cardboard, in air dripping with moisture, the demo was something the crowd won't forget. Snodgrass says, "When we cranked around the corner, on the break and in the turns, the airplane would disappear in vapor, encased in a cloud. All you could see was flames coming out of one end and the nose at the other.">>> Debbie Gary, Aerobatic Pilot


A Crazed Little Kamikaze

I always thought of the Phoenix as a crazed little Kamikaze hanging under your belly. Send it at someone and it's like a mad dog: You are bound to see some bellies after it enters a fight.>>> Tom "Sobs" sobieck, VF-1

Two explosive charges push it away from the aircraft, so when you launch it, you hear "thump, thump." It drops away and you don't see it for a few seconds-but you're so excited, time has slowed and you wonder if something's wrong. Then you see this huge arcing contrail out in front of the airplane. It climbs to about 100,000 feet and you lose sight of it. You just watch for the explosion in the distance. A 1,000-pound missile coming down from 100,000 feet-that's an enormous amount of kinetic energy, never mind the warhead.>>> Dave "Hey Joe" Parsons, VF-102, -32, -101


LANTIRN: The Cat Is Back

After Desert Storm, things looked bad for the F-14 until the Navy fixed it up with a precision weapon delivery system. First built by Martin Marietta in the 1980s for the Air Force F-15E, the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night system allowed a pilot and RIO to detect a target on the ground in infrared, lock onto and track it, and drop laser-guided and GPS-aided weapons with deadly accuracy. Now F-14 pilots could fly close to the ground, at night, or in bad weather during precision-attack missions. Introduced in 1996, the Tomcat's version of LANTIRN not only included an infrared sensor and laser rangefinder but added inertial navigation and GPS equipment, improving accuracy. In some ways, the F-14's system was superior to that flown on the F-15E or F-16C; the F-14 RIO had a bigger cockpit display, which resulted in better target recognition. LANTIRN-equipped Tomcats saw action in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.>>> Paul Hoversten, Air & Space


Shock and Awe

I remember my first flight out of Pax River with a RIO. He fired up that radar, and I nearly fell out of the seat. It seemed like you could see the whole East Coast. I started to get the feeling for the power the Tomcat would bring to the fight.>>> Curt "Dozo" Dose, NAVAL AIR TEST CENTER

First time I actually saw the airplane was when I went up to Grumman [for Navy acceptance trials]. I had seen drawings, and we'd been keeping track of it. It looked beautiful. You were just counting the days until you could get the chance to fly it. Down low, going real fast, there was nothing that could keep up with it. And it was rock steady. Just rock steady.>>> Jay "Spook" Yakeley, Commander, CVW-14, CCG-3


The Achille Lauro Incident


In 1985, the U.S. Navy sent F-14s to intercept an Egyptian airliner carrying four Palestinians who had hijacked a passenger liner. After murdering one passenger, the hijackers sailed to Egypt and negotiated safe passage in return for the safety of the remaining passengers.

After the Saratoga got word from the Pentagon via the 6th Fleet to find the 737, the carrier's airwing and crew scrambled to fire Tomcats into the darkness. Once we intercepted the airliner, Ralph Zia in the E2 told the Egyptian pilot to proceed to Sigonella, Italy [a NATO base], not his intended destination, Libya. Ralph got your basic 'It's too hard, and who are you, anyway?' Steve "Spoon" Weatherspoon and his RIO Woody Widay got up close, flipped on their lights, and the pilot became much more cooperative. We all know how big the Tomcat looks up close, even to an airliner.

We headed east down the Med at about .88 Mach, cruise speed for the 737 but a gas burner for us. We were covering huge distances and out of direct comms with the ship. The E-2 was rattling and shaking as it drove past its speed limit to stay within radio contact with us. Things got more hectic as we reached Sigonella. The 737 was way too low on his first approach and almost bought it until we flew past him to make him go around. He finally put it down. Thanks to outstanding tanker pilots and the Saratoga's skipper, we hit a tanker on the way home and got safely back to the carrier 500 miles away.>>> Ken "Frog" Burgess, VF-74

One hijacker was jailed; two paroled. The last, captured in Iraq in 2003, died in custody.


[Summing Up]


"Great-Looking Jet"

I'm flying the Super Hornet now, and it's a very capable jet. The thing is new, and it's as dependable as a Japanese car. Everything works, all the time. But I'm sorry- it just ain't sexy. The Tomcat is sexy. I remember forming up after a fight or something, looking over, thinking, 'Damn, that's a great-looking jet.' The Tomcat is like your 20-year-old cherry Corvette, and the Hornet is like a nice new Accord.>>> Jim "Mouth" McCall, VFA-102


December 30, 1970: Second Flight

After a hydraulic system failure, two Grumman test pilots ejected from the first pre-production F-14. Neither was harmed.

We were about a half mile short of the runway and 25 feet above the trees. Bill [Miller] quickly initiated the ejection sequence. Firing of the canopy and the two seats took 0.9 seconds as advertised; 0.4 seconds later the nosewheel hit a tree. This episode could have been avoided. During a lab test before the first flight, we had to shut the engines down because the aircraft lost hydraulic fluid. We later found out that a report from the lab was working its way through the system over Christmas, telling us that the failure in the test was a fatigue fracture of titanium hydraulic lines, the same failure experienced during our flight.>>>Bob Smyth, test pilot


40 Miles of Wiring

Before becoming a U.S. Navy officer, Lieutenant Commander Walt Winters spent 12 years as an electrician assigned to F-14s. What made the Tomcat such a high-maintenance aircraft (40 hours of maintenance per flight hour), says Winters, is the "40 miles of wiring that was inside of it. Old and brittle, the wires would constantly break and snap" from the stress of launch and landing.

After almost every flight, a team of 12 to 15 maintainers, including at least two electricians, two airframe specialists, and two engine mechanics, would descend upon an F-14 after the pilot had parked it on the flight deck. During flight operations, the team had only 60 minutes to check the Tomcat and ready it for its next launch. Only if a fix would take hours, such as replacing an engine, was an F-14 taken to a lower deck.

To park an F-14, the pilot had to put the wings into "oversweep," a setting five or six feet beyond the swept-back position they could assume during flight. The wiring needed to command the wings into oversweep broke-a lot. "Sometimes you would have to jury-rig it," says Winters. "And you're doing this while you're on top of the airplane. It's still running, the engines are hot, and the [flight crew] are still in there. You've got panels open, and the boss is yelling over the loudspeaker, 'Get the wings back!' Jets are landing right beside you at 150 miles an hour. And taking off. And sometimes it's raining.">>>Diane Tedeschi, Air & Space


Engine Trouble

That business about flying the engines instead of the wing, that was really true with the TF30 [the F-14's original engine]. Any aggressive move you wanted to make, you had to worry about how the engines would like it. Like you had to ask their permission.>>> Hank "Butch" Thompson, VF-11


Parade Rest

We've flown airplanes to museums all over the country. People are going to be able to eyeball these beauties for a long time. We had one going to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to a VFW display there. I spent two full days talking to permit people. I could not get them to believe the size of the jet, that you can't fold the thing up any less than 33 feet across. The main gear was wider than some of the roads we needed to use. Then they insisted we move it from the airport at 10 a.m. We told them we always do this after midnight because of traffic. Nope-10 or nothing. We shut down Allentown cold. Everyone got into it, made a parade out of it. And the display is magnificent-up on a cliff over the city, all lit up, lots of flags flying. Go see it.>>> Bill "Taco" Bell, VF-14, -101, -102, -41