A Brief History
On December 21, 1970, one of the great naval fighter jets made its debut flight when an F-14 Tomcat first took to the air. The US Navy had been considering a long range fleet defense fighter since the 1950’s, and had considered the Air Force General Dynamics F-111 swing wing fighter/bomber as a candidate, but problems trying to adapt that airplane for aircraft carrier use mandated a different plan. The results gave us one of the greatest fighter planes, land or sea, ever made.
Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation had a great history with the US Navy, producing rugged and lethal carrier aircraft such as the F4F Wildcat, the F6F Hellcat, the TBF Avenger, the F7F Tigercat, the F8F Bearcat, F9F Panther, F-9 Cougar and the F-11 Tiger. They also produced other aircraft for the Navy, such as the FF1, F2F and F3F, as well as some auxiliary type planes. Not surprisingly, when the Department of Defense was looking for commonality between Air Force and Navy aircraft, Grumman was chosen to team up with General Dynamics to adapt the F-111.
When the F-111 idea did not pan out, Grumman went full throttle on development of what became the F-14 Tomcat, a large, powerful twin-engine swing-wing fighter with long range and an immensely powerful radar and electronics suite. By “large,” we mean 62 feet long, 64 feet wide, and an empty weight of over 43,000 pounds. (Compared to a World War II F6F Hellcat, then a large carrier fighter plane at a length of 33 feet and a wingspan of 42 feet, and with an empty weight of 9238 pounds.) Manned by a pilot and an air intercept officer, and equipped with an internal 20mm Gatling type gun, the main armament of the Tomcat was its Phoenix missile system, 6 long range anti-aircraft missiles that could be launched at 6 different targets at the same time, a revolutionary approach to aerial warfare. Complementing the Phoenix missiles (AIM-54) would be 2 Sidewinder AIM-9 short range heat seeking missiles. Because of the size and weight of the Phoenix missiles, actual load outs usually replaced some of those types with other types of air intercept missiles (AIM). With a maximum speed of Mach 2.34 (1544 mph) and a ceiling of well over 50,000, the Tomcat was expected to quickly acquire enemy planes and missiles sent to attack our fleet and destroy them well away from our ships. Combat range was at least 500 miles and ferry range more than triple that.
Originally built for fleet defense, the Tomcat was later adapted to also carry ground attack weapons such as rockets, bombs and guided missiles. Introduced in 1974, the mighty Tomcat served well until 2006, both in the US Navy and in the Iranian Air Force, the only foreign entity to field the Tomcat. (Obviously sold to Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.) Some Tomcats may remain in service with Iran, though without the benefit of factory parts and support from the US. Built from 1969 to 1991, 721 Tomcats were completed.
Combat use of F-14 Tomcats was not extensive, though no American versions were ever shot down by an enemy aircraft and the jets enjoyed great success. The US did lose only 1 Tomcat in 1991, the victim of a surface to air missile during Operation Desert Storm. Iranian combat reports are hard to verify during their war with Iraq. Aside from stellar performance in the air superiority role and adaptation for ground attack, the Tomcat also served as an excellent reconnaissance aircraft, using its high speed and capabilities to perform its mission and escape unharmed.
Grumman later became the Grumman Aerospace Corporation and in 1994 merged with Northrup to become Northrup Grumman. The company is a major defense contractor that produces a wide variety of hardware and electronics, for aerial and electronic warfare as well as space applications and weapons systems.
Aircraft designed or adapted for use on aircraft carriers are by necessity more robust and rugged than their land based counterparts, due to the high stresses involved in catapult launches and arrested recovery. While adding weight to these seaborne airplanes, such construction also offers incredible strength to the airframe and most of these planes are legendary as far as their durability goes, especially those aircraft produced by Grumman. The F-14 takes its place in the annals of Naval Aviation as one of the best.
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For more information, please see…
Brown, David. F-14 Tomcat: Grumman’s “Top Gun” from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Schiffer Military History, 2019.
Guardia, Mike. Tomcat Fury: A Combat History of the F-14. Amazon Digital Services, 2019.
Polmar, Norman. Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events, Volume II: 1946-2006. University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
The featured image in this article, U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photograph No. 2011.003.301.003, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.