In the 1970s, the United States had three revolutionary fighters enter service in the F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle, and F-16 Fighting Falcon. Today, two of these platforms remain not only in service, but in production, with only the Top Gun F-14 relegated to museum duty.
Today, plenty of airplane nerds (like this author) still count the F-14 Tomcat among their favorite aircraft of all time… so what gives? Why was Maverick’s ride not only retired early by very literally being fed into the industrial shredder while the Eagle and Viper continue to roll off assembly lines to this day?
The truth is, the F-14 Tomcat was a highly advanced fighter that was really purpose-built for a world-ending nuclear conflict. When you look back on the program, its challenges, and subsequent solutions, the image becomes a bit clearer. The F-14 made sense when we were on the verge of World War III… but without a Soviet boogeyman to keep Uncle Sam’s pocketbook upturned and shaking, it became an incredibly expensive and sometimes problematic solution to a problem nobody had anymore. And to make matters worse, only a portion of the F-14 fleet was ever as capable as most of the world believed.
But to be completely clear, it was still one hell of a jet.
The F-14 Tomcat’s target was Soviet bombers
The Grumman F-14 Tomcat was an incredibly capable aircraft, and with good reason. In an era before Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) had matured into the go-to nuclear weapon delivery vehicle they would become, the Tomcat was designed in large part to neuter the Soviet Union’s most potent means of putting nukes on American soil; their fleet of strategic bombers.
In the present tense, the idea of a foreign power flying bombers over the continental United States seems practically impossible, thanks is no small part to America’s broad military footprint, advanced detection technology, and today’s geopolitical climate. That wasn’t the case at the peak of the Cold War. The threat posed by Soviet long-range bombers was so dire, in fact, that before air-to-air missiles had become prevalent in the 1960s, the U.S. actually developed a rocket-propelled air-to-air nuclear weapon that would wipe out entire formations with a single launch.
With the threat of Soviet bombers armed with nuclear weapons or anti-ship missiles at the forefront of their minds, Grumman designed the largest and heaviest carrier fighter in history, with a fair amount of that weight dedicated to the new Phoenix missile and the onboard systems required to leverage it. When fueled up and ready to go, the F-14 weighed in at 61,000 pounds, which is almost twice that of the future F/A-18 and quite a bit more than twice the weight of a fully-fueled F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Despite all of that heft, the Tomcat still needed to be fast, so Grumman paired the F-14 with Pratt & Whitney’s TF30 engines originally fitted to the F-111B they had failed to sell the Navy on. Each engine could produce 14,560 pounds of thrust under military power, with the afterburner kicking output up to 25,100 pounds. All told, the F-14 could use that combined 50,000+ pounds of thrust to push the aircraft to an astonishing Mach 2.3, and its variable-sweep wing design gave it excellent handling at both the low speeds required for carrier landings and the high speeds needed to intercept Ivan before he could deploy his anti-ship missiles toward an American carrier.
Thanks to that variable-sweep wing design, the F-14 could turn tighter than most of its capable 4th generation competition, including the small and nimble F-16 under the right circumstances. That meant it could not only cover ground quickly to engage Soviet bombers, the Tomcat really could dogfight and win if called upon to do so.
“A nice aircraft powered by two pieces of junk.”
For all its capability, the Tomcat could also be troublesome. The TF30 engines were indeed powerful, but they were also arguably too sensitive for the job. They’d been designed for an even heavier application in the 80,000 pound F-111B, but that platform was more bomber than fighter. Bombers need powerful engines to carry their payloads at combat speeds, but they also have very different flight envelopes than fighters.
When operated at high angles of attack, or when the pilot adjusted the throttle position quickly (both common facets of the air combat the jet was built for but uncommon in bomber missions), the engines were prone to compressor stalls. This issue led some to call the Tomcat, “a nice aircraft powered by two pieces of junk.”
“From the very start you essentially teach the pilots to fly the engine as a priority over flying the airplane,” Capt. Lee Tillotson, the Navy’s F14 program coordinator, told the Washington Post in 1984.
“The pilot has to be very aware of what he does with the throttle at all times.”
More troubling still, with the engines mounted a vast nine feet apart to allow for greater lift and more weapons carriage space, a stall in one engine could throw the aircraft into an often unrecoverable flat spin. These issues led to the loss of a whopping 40 F-14s in all.
But it wasn’t just the stall issue plaguing the engine’s in Maverick’s ride. The turbine blades inside the engine were also prone to failure long before their anticipated service life expired, causing catastrophic damage to the engine and putting pilots’ lives at risk.
Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. went on to say the TF30 engine “in the F-14 is probably the worst engine-airplane mismatch we have had in many years. The TF30 engine is just a terrible engine and has accounted for 28.2 percent of all F14 crashes.”
Today, we may look back on the F-14 with wistful awe, remembering how it was the only fighter that could stand toe-to-toe with the (fictional) MiG-28. But when it was in service, not everybody loved the Tomcat.
“The sooner we are out of it, the happier I will be,” Lehman told Congress in 1984. “I guess the good news is that all the Iranian F-14s have the TF30, too.”
In 1987, F-14s began receiving new engines in the General Electric F110, which offered more thrust and eliminated many of the reliability problems associated with the TF30. These improved F-14Bs and the subsequent F-14Ds were very much the Tomcat of Top Gun fame, and as a result, you’ll often find Tomcat fans dismissing the TF30’s woes as a problem specific to the F-14A in the early days of operation.
The truth is, a yoyoing budget made the transition from the TF30 to the F110 slow going. By 1996, nine years after the F110 entered service in the F-14, the Navy F-14 fleet included just 126 Tomcats with the new GE engines, while the other 212 were still flying on the troublesome TF30. In fact, F-14A’s running the TF30 were still flying for the Navy until as late as 2004.
The problem with a variable-sweep wing design
The F-14’s variable-sweep wing design is one of the aircraft’s most striking visual characteristics, and there’s no denying that the premise behind it makes sense. The wings could vary from 20° to 68° while airborne to allow for the best possible flight characteristics at both low and high speeds. Wing positioning was controlled automatically by the Central Air Data Computer onboard, ensuring the wings were positioned for the best possible lift-to-drag ratio for each situation, but they could also be controlled manually by the pilot.
As you can imagine, a system that capable and advanced was not only complicated and heavy, it also required quite a bit of upkeep. Depending on the Navy estimate, the F-14 Tomcat required between 30 and 60 hours of maintenance for every one hour it spent in the air. The high prices associated with maintaining the complicated sweep-wing systems is often cited as one of the most pressing reasons for the Tomcat’s early retirement when compared to its American fighter peers.
But while maintenance costs may have been the biggest issue with the F-14’s wings, price wasn’t the only thing people complained about.
While adjustments to wing position were rapid and automatic, pilots training against Tomcats in F-15s and F-16s soon began reporting that the shifts in wing position helped them quickly assess the F-14’s energy state and momentum during maneuvers. Like a boxer telegraphing his punch, the F-14 Tomcat telegraphed its maneuvers, making them easier for skilled and experienced opponents to read and predict.
The Phoenix missile wasn’t much use against fighters
Had the Navy been forced to put their F-14s in to combat, it’s likely the branch would have lost more aircraft to engine failures than it would have to enemy fire, and even its incredible Phoenix missile was unlikely to change that fact.
While later F-14 iterations like the F-14B and F-14D came with better engines, a digital cockpit, and improved avionics, a good portion of the fleet operated sub-standard TF30 engines for the majority of the fighter’s service life. These jets were limited to just 6.5G maneuvers in order to alleviate concerns about the compressor stalls in the engines, but that put the Tomcat at a distinct disadvantage against modern fighters like the F-15, which were rated to exceed 9 Gs. Some, however, still contended that the F-14 Tomcat didn’t need to be acrobatic thanks to it’s amazing new weapon system: the Phoenix missile.
The famed AIM-54 Phoenix missile and AN/AWG-9 radar developed specifically to leverage it really does deserve the respect its gained over the years. The AN/AWG-9 radar could identify and track up to six targets from 100 miles out, and when armed with six AIM-54 Pheonix missiles, the F-14 could deploy all of its weapons in just 38 seconds. It was an air-to-air weapon without equal in its day, but it just wasn’t really intended for use against enemy fighters.
The AIM-54 Phoenix was 13 feet long, 15 inches in diameter, and technically had a maximum range of 125 miles (though targeting was limited to 100). It was dropped like a bomb before igniting its massive engine, which would immediately propel the missile up to 80,000 feet where it would close with its target and use its kinetic energy to guide it down into its intended target. This approach to long-range engagements would work against large, slow moving, prop-driven bombers like those employed by the Soviet Union, but weren’t much use against faster and more nimble fighters. Covering such long distances just gave enemy fighters too much opportunity to recognize that they were targetted and take sufficient evasive action.
In January of 1999, two F-14s each fired one Phoenix missile at two Iraqi MiG-25s, only to have both miss. Later that same year, another F-14 fired a Phoenix at a MiG-23, only to miss once again. No F-14 ever shot down an enemy aircraft with the missile it was designed to carry.
The F-14 made the F-35 seem like a bargain
When we hear discussion about the F-14 being an expensive aircraft, it almost rings hallow in this era of trillion-dollar fighter programs like Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but just like it’s hard to compare box office returns for movies released decades apart, inflation has a way of robbing the shock value from dated figures. So, in the interest of context, let’s convert these F-14 price points to 2021 figures.
The Navy’s first batch of F-14As rang in at $38 million per aircraft in 1973. That sounds pretty cheap compared to around $88 million for a new F-15EX these days, but when you adjust that number to reflect nearly five decades of inflation, you get a downright shocking figure of more than $234 million per F-14 Tomcat.
The F-35’s initial production run per-unit cost was also quite high, but still more than $10 million less than the Tomcat, at $221 million per fighter. By 1988, 13 years later, the F-14D cost $74 million per airframe, which adjusted for inflation brings the Tomcat’s price down to $171 million per aircraft in today’s dollars. Last year marked 13 years since the F-35’s first production batch, with per-unit prices of the F-35A now at around $78 million per airframe–$93 million less than the F-14 per jet.
When you see these numbers for what they really are, you begin to appreciate just how potent a threat the United States saw Soviet bombers to be. These prices were considered justifiable as a means of staving off the end of the world, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, the apocalypse seemed to be on hold for the foreseeable future.
The F-14 Tomcat was anything but junk
If you started reading this article with a special place in your heart reserved for the F-14, you may be grinding your teeth by now–but it’s important to remember that being expensive and problematic doesn’t mean the Tomcat wasn’t also a mind-boggling performer with no real peer in its era. Again, it pays to draw comparisons between Maverick’s fighter and the modern F-35.
Today, you don’t have to go far to find people calling the F-35 a failure because of cost over-runs, production delays, and some early reports of the fighter’s poor performance against older jets. The people you won’t find calling the F-35 a failure, however, are the men and women who fly the 5th-generation power house in combat. The F-35 is just too different to grade using the same metrics we use for fighters like the F-15. It relies on technology, not brute force, to win fights–and effective as that approach may be, it doesn’t make for exciting press releases.
The F-14 Tomcat also had a troubled development run and sometimes got beat up by America’s other fighters in wargames, but like the F-35… it was built to do things no other fighter was capable of doing at the time.
When the F-14 first took to the skies, it was bigger, heavier, and could carry more ordnance than any carrier fighter in history. It could track and engage enemy bombers from triple-digit ranges in a time when many national Air Forces were still focused on guns and cannons for air-to-air fighting. Through subsequent upgrades, it was on the cutting edge of avionic systems and eventually even picked up respectable air-to-ground capabilities like its multi-role peers.
But reaching so far ahead is expensive… and ultimately, it’s dollars and cents that dictate the makeup of America’s fighter fleets. Could the F-14 have been modernized, upgraded, and improved to still be flying today? Of course it could. But like the bringing the F-22 Raptor back from the dead… sometimes it would cost more to keep a really good older fighter than it would cost to design and build a great new one. The F-14 may have had a short shelf-life compared to some of its sister jets of the 70s, but there’s no denying… the mighty Tomcat’s presence had lasting effects on Naval aviation and even on foreign relations around the world.
The F-15 and F-16 may have gotten to stick around longer, but the F-14 will always be the Top Gun for some of us.