Long-range fighter interceptor developed by the Grumman Corporation for the United States Navy carrier-based operations.
The F-14 entered development following the failure of the ill-conceived General Dynamics F-111, which had been built at the urging of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as a compromise weapon to fit the needs of both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air, Admiral Tom Connolly, was instrumental in the development of the F-14 aircraft, and it was after him that the Tomcat (“Tom’s Cat”) was named.
The F-14 Tomcat fighter entered operational use in September, 1974, and quickly distinguished itself as a formidable carrier-based long-range interceptor capable of extraordinary maneuverability at both subsonic and supersonic speeds. The aircraft is equipped with a variable-geometry wing that scissor-folds into a triangular delta shape to optimize handling and performance at supersonic speeds, then expands to maximal surface area at slower airspeeds to maintain the aircraft’s extraordinary level of performance and control. The operation of the wings is controlled automatically by an onboard computer that senses true airspeed and hydraulically adjusts the wings’ angle through as much as 40 degrees. Interestingly enough, the idea of a variable-geometry wing had been suggested near the end of World War II by German engineers and, later, by British designer Sir Barnes Wallis, but the idea remained an obscure possibility of aerodynamic engineering until a working model could be made feasible through the use of modern computerized control systems.
The F-14 carries two crew members in tandem seating. Behind the pilot sits a specialist weapons systems officer (WSO), electronic warfare officer (EWO), or a radar intercept officer (RIO). This distribution of labor between the pilot and his electronic systems specialist, coupled with the F-14’s advanced avionics and its capability of launching BVR (beyond visual range) radar-guided weapons, makes the Tomcat a formidable opponent.
The size of the F-14 is likewise impressive. With a fuselage length of almost 63 feet and a maximal ground wingspan of just over 64 feet, the Tomcat is nearly the size of a small World War II Lancaster bomber. When fully loaded with fuel, crewmembers, and weapons, the aircraft’s takeoff weight can exceed 74,000 pounds. In fact, the original F-14A design variant, incorporating twin Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines designed for the defunct F-111, was soon found to be underpowered. Other reliability problems with the TF30 engines manifested themselves, most notably turbofan-blade failures, earning F-14A pilots the unenviable nickname of “turkey drivers” from their aviator colleagues. These problems, however, were resolved by the retrofitting of the A-variant aircraft with more powerful F110-GE 400 turbofan afterburning engines in the model F-14A-plus (later called the F-14B) and in the later new breed F-14D. The top speed of the F-14D, with afterburners engaged, exceeds Mach 2.
The Tomcat’s role can be succinctly summarized as that of protecting its carrier against hostile aircraft. To achieve this objective, the F-14 has been outfitted with the Hughes AWG-9 computerized radar control system, capable of attacking six targets simultaneously while tracking eighteen more out to a distance of 115 miles. Tomcat armament configurations include various combinations of AIM-7F Sparrow, AIM-54A Phoenix, and AIM-120A AMRAAM long-range radar-guided missiles for BVR interceptions and AIM-9 (standard) or AIM-9L (all-aspect) Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles for visual and medium-range targets. The F-14 is also equipped with a single 20-millimeter Vulcan M61 Gatling cannon capable of firing one thousand 20-millimeter rounds per minute. When fired, the M61 produces a ripping sound, like thick canvas being torn.
Tomcat combat tactics generally seek to optimize the probability of a long-range radar-guided interception at maximal distance using air-to-air Sparrow or Phoenix missiles, designated as a “fox one” kill. When a target has closed to visual range, the Tomcat can also be equipped for a close-range interception, or “fox two,” using infrared heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles whose “L-” or “Lima” variant (AIM-9L) has the ability to sense the heat signature of an enemy aircraft from all aspect angles, obviating the need for a Tomcat pilot to maneuver his aircraft into his opponent’s hot “6-o’clock,” or tail, position. The Vulcan M61 cannon wields more than three times the lethal destructive potential of the .50 caliber guns of World War II aircraft, yet the M61 is seldom fired due to the inherent difficulties involved in hitting an evasive target from a moving platform. The M61 cannon is best employed when the target is too close for missile interception. The term “fox four” (used tongue-in-cheek) indicates a deliberate midair collision with an enemy aircraft.
During combat in Libya (1981 and 1989) and in the Gulf War (1991) the F-14 proved itself to be an effective air-to-air weapons platform despite some notable disadvantages: the heat from the afterburners when operating at or near supersonic speeds, in combination with a large radar return caused by the shape and radar reflectivity of its nonstealth fuselage, presents a conspicuous target for heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles. The development of increasingly specialized aircraft during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, most notably attack fighters, such as the McDonald Douglas carrier-based F/A-18 Hornet, and the subsonic Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack fighter, have enlarged upon some of the operational roles formerly exercised by the Tomcats. Despite this, the F-14’s have retained the “top gun” title among long-range interceptors and are expected to remain in active military service through the early decades of the twenty-first century.
Isby, David C. Jane’s Fighter Combat in the Jet Age. London: HarperCollins, 1997. Comprehensive illustrated survey of jet fighter development from the German experimental jet aircraft of World War II through the post-Cold War era. Shaw, Robert L. Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1985. A detailed manual of tactical principles addressing a comprehensive variety of combat situations. Sullivan, George. Military Aircraft: Modern Fighter Planes. New York: Facts on File, 1991. An illustrated comparative survey of the principal fighter planes currently in use by the United States and European powers.
Navy pilots, U.S.
The Tomcat is essentially a defensive plane, designed to protect its carrier from hostile aircraft.