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The F-14 Tomcat: From Air Force to Hollywood

by Till Daisd
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VF 211 F 14B Tomcat Six Phoenix

Even though the F-14 Tomcat was designed for the U.S. Navy, it became one of the most popular fighters in Hollywood history. With its sleek design and impressive maneuverability, it’s not hard to see why this fighter jet was used in many high-octane action films throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The F-14 Tomcat, from its first flight in 1970 to its retirement in 2006, spent more than 3 and a half decades making history. Many who witnessed it will never forget the aircraft’s debut in 1972 on the USS Enterprise. Others have watched it on film or television and been impressed by the plane’s sleekness, size, and agility. It is one of the Navy’s most beloved jets ever commissioned—and for good reason.

The F-14 Tomcat was designed as a replacement for another legendary Navy jet: the F4 Phantom II. Like its predecessor, the Tomcat is multirole—able to do many things well-meaning that pilots can engage targets at long range as well as short-range (when equipped with heat-seeking missiles). The plane has two modes of operation: air superiority mode (for air combat) and strike mode (for ground attack).

F4 Phantom II

A Navy F-14 was shot down during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 when it accidentally crossed over Iranian airspace while flying a mission in Iraq. The crew ejected safely and were rescued by an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter.

HH-3E Jolly Green Giant

In 1972, the U.S. Air Force took a look at the F-14, but it was too pricey to maintain if they were going to keep the F-15 and F-16. The plane was not in service with the USAF and would never be. The aircraft had been designed for carrier landings and takeoffs, but could only land at specific airfields due to its landing gear that couldn’t handle crosswinds, a problem that wouldn’t be resolved until 1982 with the release of the Grumman F-14D Super Tomcat.

Grumman F-14D Super Tomcat

The F-14 Tomcat soon found itself in action during Operation Desert Storm, the United States military operation to end Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. In support of Operation Southern Watch, which enforced a no-fly zone in southern Iraq, two squadrons were deployed to the Gulf to fly combat air patrols over Iraq. There were several notable actions against the Iraqi air force on January 17 and February 4, 1993 (Operation Southern Watch). During one strike, an F-14 shot down three MiG-21s with a single missile while another scored two kills with its cannon.

During Operation Desert Storm itself, F-14Bs from VF-2 and VF-31 flew escort for strike missions over Baghdad and then directed strikes against ground targets using their LANTIRN pods. They also flew long-range deep strike missions into southern Iraq using their Phoenix missiles to destroy radar sites that supported Iraqi air defenses.

Grumman F-14B Tomcat
Grumman F-14B Tomcat

The F-14 also had several known issues, but most of them could be resolved. One of Tomcat’s more serious problems was its engine. The engines were known to suffer catastrophic failures and fire right off the factory floor, and that didn’t get any better once they were put into service. The hydraulic system was unreliable and also prone to failure. These two factors combined to cause maintenance costs and downtime to skyrocket, with the cost of each hour of flight time exceeding $10,000 per hour—a full order of magnitude higher than other aircraft in service at the time.

As you can imagine, this was a big problem for an air superiority fighter that needed to be up in the air as much as possible to remain relevant on the battlefield. Luckily for Navy aviators, Grumman made some key improvements over time such as building a much-improved version (the F-14B) and increasing reliability by overhauling its hydraulics with new parts that eliminated these problems.

The Grumman F-14 Tomcat was designed to attack Soviet bombers over the Pacific in case of nuclear war. Thankfully, this scary scenario never came to fruition, but the Tomcat’s abilities were put on full display during the Iran hostage crisis by protecting U.S. naval vessels from Iranian Air Force fighter jets. Its rugged looks and powerful engines made it a natural fit for one of the most memorable movie moments in history (i.e., flying closer than 18 inches from an adversary aircraft and yelling “You’re dead!”). And its popularity forced Congress to continue funding the production of new F-14s long after production lines had been shut down.

This jet is best known for its starring role in the movie Top Gun, but it was also an important part of naval history. While it did get some upgrades throughout its two decades of service, this jet remained more or less unchanged. Over 800 were made during that period, which included desert operations and other wartime missions. The F-14 Tomcat was truly a powerful fighter jet that remains beloved today.

Top Gun

The plane also appeared in several television shows and video games, as well as countless comic books—so much so that it became better known as a movie plane than an actual plane. Because so many people remember seeing Tomcats blasting across their televisions and theater screens all those years ago, they still tend to think of it as a modern weapon of war. But its popularity with Hollywood’s elite didn’t keep the F-14 in service much longer.
The F-14 Tomcat, the signature fighter jet of the United States Navy’s Fleet Carrier Air Wings in the late 20th century, is considered a classic “Alpha” jet. The model used in the movie Top Gun is on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

In conclusion, the F-14 Tomcat has cemented itself in history as one of the air force’s most beloved jets. While it’s no longer in use, the jet is still a favorite among military personnel and continues to be revered by aviation enthusiasts and those interested in military history.

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