Home » How the demise of the F-111B led to the development of the legendary F-14 Tomcat

How the demise of the F-111B led to the development of the legendary F-14 Tomcat

by Till Daisd
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F 111B TFX

The F-14 was shown to be much better than the F-111B and a few other aircraft in a comparison study between the F-14 (at the time, Grumman’s design of a new fighter), the F-111B, and other aircraft

The General Dynamics F-111B, for which Grumman served as the prime contractor, failed to satisfy the U.S. Navy’s demand for a long-range carrier-based interceptor aircraft, giving birth to the Grumman F-14, one of the best fighters ever constructed.

However, it is necessary to discuss how the F-111B was created and why it failed to fulfill the service requirement to understand why the Tomcat was created.

Robert McNamara, who was the secretary of defense at the time, believed that the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the U.S. Navy should have worked together to create a multi-role combat aircraft in the 1960s. The Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program came next, and it planned to provide the two services with two variations of the General Dynamics F-111’s variable swing-wing aircraft. For the U.S. Air Force, the F-111A was a land-based low-level bomber, while for the U.S. Navy, the F-111B was an interceptor outfitted with six AIM-54A Phoenix missiles.

On May 18, 1966, the F-111B made its maiden flight. Right away, there were issues, with weight being the main one. The desired weight for the F-111B, according to the Navy, was roughly 60,000 pounds; nevertheless, the actual weight of the aircraft was more than 70,000 pounds. Due to the angle of attack and reflection generated by the angled windshield, pilots also complained about poor visibility during carrier approaches.

The F-111B was also so underpowered that it was unable to approach the ship with the specified military power acceleration. McNamara decided that the top executives of the companies involved should meet twice a month to discuss the flaws of the machine. Vice-Admiral Tom Connolly, one of the Navy representatives, understood that the F-111B project should have been abandoned, but the Secretary of Defense insisted on moving forward with it.

Connolly flew the F-111B with an Air Force pilot in Fort Worth to better understand the issues with the aircraft. They both concluded that while the F-111A was the ideal bomber for the USAF, the F-111B could never be a fighter, and it could not operate off an aircraft carrier. In addition, a comparison study between the F-14 (at the time, Grumman’s concept for a new fighter), the F-111B, and a few other aircraft revealed that the F-14 was a far superior aircraft than any of the others. At this point, Admiral Tom Moorer, who was the Chief of Naval Operations, started to push for the cancellation of the program. However, McNamara persisted in pushing for the F-111B.

To find out why he shouldn’t be required to authorize the $200 million for the F-111B, a Senate Hearing was called at this point, as is detailed in Terry Treadwell’s book The Ironworks: Grumman’s Fighting Aeroplanes. Additionally, Admiral Tom Moorer, Vice Admiral Tom Connolly, and the new Secretary of the Navy, Paul Ignatius, were introduced to them. After a six-hour hearing, Stennis questioned Connolly about whether he would have contributed the extra funds to the program. Connolly responded, “No, Sir, I would not.”

When Stennis followed up by asking Connolly if he would have changed his mind if the plane had new engines, Connolly responded with a statement that would remain in aviation history: “Mr. Chairman, there isn’t enough thrust in all Christendom to make a Navy fighter out of that airplane.”

That effectively put an end to the F-111B as well as Tom Connolly’s aspirations of becoming a four-star admiral.

Instead, the F-14 Tomcat was created on that day, making its first flight on December 21, 1970, and serving on US Navy aircraft carriers until 2006.

You can watch the F-111B carrier testing in the video below, which took place before the plane was replaced by the F-14 Tomcat.

However, according to what a user (gort8203) commented, “the lessons of the TFX program are commonly misinterpreted”.

“The idea that one basic airframe could fulfill two different roles was not a dumb idea at all. History is full of examples of aircraft that were versatile enough to fly for different services and even perform different missions. The original requirements presented by the Navy and USAF were not incompatible, but the requirements changed. Initially, the TFX program was reasonable because the USAF and USN were both asking for a large aircraft that could lift a heavy load of fuel and weapons, with long-range or long loiter, plus high-speed dash or intercept. Twin engines and an innovative variable geometry wing were called for, and DOD logically assessed that it would be wasteful to develop two very expensive advanced airframes when a single one with some variations could do both jobs. The reason one basic airframe could do both jobs was because the original USN specification was for a fleet defense fighter, not an air superiority fighter. It was not originally intended to be what later became the F-14, but to perform the role meant for the Douglas F6D Missileer, with the addition of supersonic dash interception capability. It was never meant to be a dogfighter. The biggest difference between the airframe requirements of the two services was that the USAF wanted a tandem cockpit and the USN wanted side-by-side seating. Boeing tried to make both services happy, but MacNamara’s DOD thought USAF could suck it up and have the crew sit side by side. This is ironic considering that when the Navy canceled its version, the USAF was stuck with the cockpit it didn’t want, which also ironically contributed to the airplane being too ungainly for a dogfighter. If the Navy had wanted a dogfighter, it would not have insisted on the side-by-side cockpit over the objection of the Air Force. The F-111 cockpit was suitable for a radar interceptor but not for an air superiority fighter. The original idea wasn’t dumb; what happened was that it needed to be changed. USN revised its specifications for the TFX as a result of combat experience in Vietnam and realized they also needed an air superiority fighter to replace the F-8 and F-4 but couldn’t afford that in addition to a dedicated fleet defense aircraft. Thus, the TFX would now have to be able to dogfight as well as be a missile interceptor. The F-111B could have worked as a missileer, but it was too fat and underpowered to compete as an air superiority fighter. It was proper for the Navy to recognize that its needs had evolved. This was perhaps the beginning of the Navy realizing that budgets and hangar decks did not have room for so many specialized aircraft. The USAF desperately needed the F-111 to replace the F-105, so they sucked it up and accepted the heavy airframe caused by the loveseat cockpit they never wanted.”

Photo by U.S. Navy

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