10 years gone: The F-14’s last flight from NAS Oceana, VA to Republic Airport, Farmingdale NY on October 4, 2006. Check out exclusive photos and thoughts from those who flew and admired the F-14 Tomcat.
Can it really be 10 years since the world’s most famous and preeminent fighter left us?
While many remember the Tomcat Sunset ceremony on 22 September 2006 as the ceremonial last flight, the actual last flight of the F-14 Tomcat did not occur until October 4, 2006. This final flight was a simple ferry from NAS Oceana, Virginia up to Republic Airport in Farmingdale, New York.
But this flight was more than just a cross country. It was the end of an era for a jet that had 36 years of outstanding service, swagger, and cache. When F-14D BuNo. 164603—the next to last Tomcat manufactured by Grumman—finally touched down, the last chapter was closed on a plane that began its journey way back in 1970.
The Early Days of the Tomcat
December 21, 1970, was the Tomcat’s first flight. Bob Smyth along with fellow Grumman Test Pilot Bill Miller, were the first crew to fly the new F-14A Tomcat. They also hold the dubious distinction as the first crew to eject from an F-14 on December 30– just a little over a week from its first flight.
The Tomcat was known for leaking. In fact it became a joke that the only way you knew the jet was full of fluid is if it was dripping fluid from somewhere. Fractured hydraulic lines on the Tomcat’s second flight led to the first ejection as Bob Smyth recalled:
“At this point we were about a half-mile short of the runway, about 25 feet above the trees. Bill quickly initiated the ejection sequence using his face curtain. A sensitive accelerometer on the nose strut recorded and telemetered back to the ground the little blips showing the firing of the canopy and then the ejection guns on the two seats in turn. That all took 0.9 seconds as advertised; 0.4 seconds later the nosewheel hit a tree!
My Martin-Baker seat sent me staight up about 150 feet, but when Bill’s fired a split second later, it sent him forward, only gaining about 10 feet vertically. Both chutes deployed nicely, and neither of us was injured. Thirty minutes later, when the fire caused by 10,000 pounds of fuel was put out, the ground crew found two fractured 5/16th-inch-inner-diameter titanium hydraulic lines, one in each wheel well.”–Bob Smyth, Chief Test Pilot Grumman
The Cold War Era
Big motors, lots of range, swept wings with lots of speed, the AIM-54 Phoenix missile along with the AWG-9 radar system. Those were the Tomcat’s first characteristics that set it apart from other fighters of the same era. The threat was the USSR and the mission was being able to fend off the hordes of over the horizon bombers.
The Cold War with the Soviet Union required a long range interceptor and the Tomcat delivered. The combination of Phoenix missile and the AWG-9 guidance radar was the first aerial weapons system that could simultaneously engage multiple targets. 6 Phoenix missiles could be carried at one time and up to 24 targets could be tracked at once–effectively “sanitizing” airspace. While that load out was not particularly practical, the deterrence it promoted was an eye opener. The range of the radar system and missile expanded the BVR (beyond visual range) envelope and completely changed air to air tactics.
“The legacy of this aircraft is not the ‘Top Gun’ movie. The legacy is found in America’s commitment to win the Cold War.”–Admiral John Nathman, former Tomcat pilot.
Adaptability from a Fighter to a Bomber
While the Tomcat’s dogfighting and long range intercept capabilities were glamorized in the 1986 film “Top Gun”, one of its lasting legacies was its mission adaptability. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Navy set about transforming the F-14 into a ground attack jet. The addition of the LANTIRN infrared targeting pod, JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) and the FAC(A) (Forward Air Controller–Airborne) crew capability turned a once proud fighter into a darn good attack plane. The Tomcat dropped bombs over Bosnia and Kosovo in the late 1990’s and continued to do so in Iraq even on its last operational cruise in 2006.
“We had this great 8-inch by 8-inch display in the back seat. With that and the (Lightning) pod, the F-14 could carry a 2,000-pound weapon. It became the number one choice for fleet missions…We implemented the Lightning pod, laser-guided and GPS guided weapons very quickly. We went from turning on the pod to implementing it in the fleet in six months…The best way to do something ‘lean’ is to gather a tight group of people, give them very little money, and very little time.”–Bob Klein, vice president of logistics and technology at Northrop Grumman, and the company’s last chief engineer of the F-14 program
Maybe modern fighter designers can learn a lesson from the those who developed the Tomcat.
A Beloved Fighter Jet with Swagger
While adaptability was key to the Tomcat’s success, there has been no other modern fighter that has been able to replicate the sheer excitement and sense of camaraderie that the F-14 Tomcat generated.
“She was loved like no other aircraft. This became evident to me during the F-14’s final at-sea period in July 2006. It was only a quick, 14-day cyclic operations refresher for Air Wing Eight, but over 40 reporters from around the world showed up to document the occasion.
It was only then that I recognized the allure and significance this jet had maintained for so long. So many wonderful people came from around the world not only to record the moment, but to pay tribute as well. I talked to many of those people and was fascinated to hear how the Tomcat had touched their lives too. It was a bond we all shared, and will always share. I can’t imagine that connection forming over any other aircraft.”–CDR Jim “Puck” Howe, Last Tomcat Squadron Commanding Officer, Fighter Squadron 31.
Final Days on Long Island
In the days and weeks following the last flight, BuNo. 164603 was prepped for static display in Bethpage, New York. This included the removal of the ejection seats, instruments from the cockpit, both F110 engines, avionics and the M61 Vulcan Gatling gun. Additionally, anything uniquely Tomcat was removed to prevent those items from falling into the hands of Iran, the only other user of the F-14. But even as a shell of its former self, the Tomcat still had meaning to those who never even flew it.
“What upset me was that they never gave it a water salute, never paid tribute except for the American airpower museum who stood in a perfect line and saluted the airplane upon arrival. I was not happy with this and wanted to give her a proper salute, so one night me and operations got together and we gave her a water cannon salute.”–Fred Miller, photographer and owner of LongIslandWallpapers.com
Toward the end of the Tomcat’s life, a few souls were not so nostalgic about the Big Fighter–but that’s ok. We understand that there are two types of people in this world–those who were a part of it, and those who wish they were.
“Old military guy waxes poetic about the cold-war days, thinks all this new fangled technology can never be as good as the good old gear we used to fly, and supports McCain. I’m also going to assume Tom Clancy fetishist and Corvette owner.”–Anonymous
But perhaps the best recollection comes from one of the world’s best known actors who turned the F-14 Tomcat into a star. His simple statement reflects how all of those who flew, maintained, or even just admired the Tomcat still feel today about those 36 years.
“It was better than I expected….It was fantastic.”–Actor Tom Cruise following one of his three flights while filming for the movie Top Gun.
Below are exclusive photos of that last day from photographer Fred Miller. Additionally, there are never before seen shots of the milling process and final Tomcat salute that can be seen at Long Island Wallpapers.
Much thanks to Fred and be sure to check his website out!
You can read more about recollections of the F-14 here.
Top Photo credit: Fred Miller
Youtube F-14 crash video from Gnyoug channel