December 21, 1970 probably played out like it usually does for most: four days before Christmas for the folks at home usually means last minute shopping for presents, growing resentment of eggnog, and awesome knit sweaters.

For the men and women in the United States Navy and aviation enthusiasts the world over, that particular Monday would be significantly different. This was the day Grumman Design 303E, the F-14A Tomcat, would spread her wings for the first time in a tremendous career of service that spanned just shy of 36 years.

There are two things that come to mind when thinking about The Big Fighter. First would be the variable-sweep wings. These provide form and function in service aboard aircraft carriers, allowing for improved performance at high and low speeds, as well as saving parking space on the boat. Secondly, the last of the Grumman ‘cats was the only aircraft to ever carry the radar-guided, long-range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile.

Two Grumman F-14D Tomcats conduct a formation takeoff at NAS Oceana. Note the LANTIRN targeting pod on both jets. Photo by Jonathan Derden

Here are some other important dates in her history:

  • 19 August 1981 is the date of the first Gulf of Sidra incident. This occurred when two Libyan Su-22s engaged two Tomcats from VF-41. One of the Libyan aircraft fired an AA-2 unsuccessfully at one the ‘Black Aces’, and Tomcats subsequently engaged and downed both Libyan Aircraft.
  • March 1987 was a great time for the F-14. This was when she would begin to shed her underpowered TF30 engines for an upgrade in thrust and reliability. This came in the form of the GE F110-400, an increase of 10,000 pounds of thrust per engine.
  • 4 January 1989 is when the second Gulf of Sidra incident took place. This time the players were two Tomcats from VF-32 and two Libyan MiG-23’s. In short, the F-14’s made multiple maneuvers to show their intentions were not hostile. Each turn away from the Floggers was met with a corresponding turn to intercept. After the fifth intentional turn the ‘Swordsmen’ successfully engaged and shot down the MiG-23s.
  • May 1990 saw delivery of the first F-14D to VX-4. The F-14D had quite a few upgrades that included the AN/APG-71 radar, JTIDS, digital avionics, and digital avionics, and TARPS.
  • 4 October 2006 is a date admirers of the mighty Tomcat weren’t looking forward to. This date was the final operational flight of the F-14. A Tomcat from VF-31 was flown to Republic Airport on Long Island, New York, for display at Grumman Memorial Park.
The CAG jet from VF-31 tickles the Mach at NAS Oceana during an air show.
The “CAG” jet from VF-31 “Tomcatters” tickles the Mach on a high-speed pass at NAS Oceana, both G.E. F-110-400 engines in full afterburner. Photo by Jonathan Derden

I almost made it through the entire article without mentioning Top Gun, but anybody can nitpick inaccuracies with almost everything produced in Hollywood. It wouldn’t be fair to pay tribute to the F-14 without at least a small mention of a movie that probably planted a seed in the hearts and minds of children all over the world who have gone on to careers in aviation. Whether on the tip of the sword in the cockpit, or at a desk moving parts for an AOG, the real star of Top Gun gave birth to a love of aviation for me and many others who contribute to this great industry every single day.

Gone but not forgotten, baby!