Andy Evans mourns the imminent passing of a feline friend...All pictures courtesy US Navy
It seems incredible that the symbol of the US Navy’s power projection over the last three decades is on the verge of retirement.
It was the perfect combination, a powerful aircraft - the AWG-9 Radar, capable of tracking multiple targets, and the unrivalled AIM-54 Phoenix missile. It could be none other than the Grumman F-14 Tomcat! From its beginnings during the desperate days of the Vietnam War, the F-14 remains an icon of naval airpower. The 1986 blockbuster ‘Top Gun’ brought the F-14 into the public spotlight, and for a while, every boy and girl wanted to be a Naval Aviator flying the Tomcat. Anyone who hasn't seen the movie has missed what are probably the best opening minutes of any aviation film made before, or since. The 'Top Gun' anthem echoes through the steam and mist of a carrier in the morning...the aircraft start up, and the deck crews begin their dance.
From then, it captured hearts and minds, the F-14 carried the legacy of being the best interceptor in the history of the United States Navy, competing with the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. Sadly though the Tomcat will soon be added to the retirement list that already carries the names of the of the F-4 Phantom, A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair and A-4 Skyhawk, leaving a gap in the Carrier Battle Groups that is going to be very hard to fill. The F-14D was the definitive Tomcat version - its F-110 engines could be accelerated at high angles of attack, and it was the only version of the Tomcat that didn't have to use afterburner during cat launches. The F-14D was also the first that was fitted with an under-nose sensor package that allowed it to track and kill targets more efficiently.
The Grumman F-14 excelled at long range, carrier borne interception. Designing a fighter with the high speeds necessary and still have acceptable slow-speed characteristics meant that the wing had to be relatively straight, or variable geometry. The full-span single slotted flaps and leading edge slats reduced carrier landing speed to 125 knots, compared to the 145 knots of the F-4. One major gripe that carrier pilots noted about the aircraft was the fact that the engines had quite a long lag time for the compressors to spool up. Grumman solved this problem by placing a thumb-operated switch on the stick, which operated the spoilers on the wings. This way, the pilot could approach with higher power settings and maintain the 'ball' by using the spoiler system. This eased pilot workload on the approach many times over.
What will replace the Tomcat? The answer of course is the ubiquitous F/A-18F Hornet. Although this is a great aircraft in its own right, it is no match for the abilities of the F-14 - for a start there is no long range Phoenix, which itself has now been retired from Navy service. The F-14 and the F/A-18F were born from different philosophies, and their performance shows that. Losing the Tomcat means losing the abilities of two excellent aircraft, the fighting capabilities of the F-14, and the all-weather bombing ability of the A-6E Intruder, which the F-14D was slated to pick up the slack from. With the loss of the Grumman Tomcat, there will no longer be a Grumman fighter on America's carrier decks, something that has not happened since the 1930s! The legend of the ‘Grumman Iron Works’ carried on by the Wildcat, Hellcat, Tigercat, Bearcat, Panther, Cougar, Tiger and now the Tomcat will finally end.