The F-14 Tomcat: A Fighter Made For Top Gun Pilots

Photo Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

The Grumman F-14 Tomcat was an American carrier-capable supersonic two-seat, twin-tail, variable-sweep wing fighter aircraft. It served more than 34 years of fleet service and was developed for the US Navy’s Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX) program.

From its first flight in 1970 to its retirement in 2006, the F-14 Tomcat transformed from an analog fighter into a digital precision attack platform that became the Navy’s primary maritime air superiority fighter, fleet defense interceptor, and tactical aerial reconnaissance platform.

Photo of 6 F-14 Tomcat planes on carrier
F-14A Tomcat planes on nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo Credit: Jacques Haillot/Sygma / Getty Images

The F-14 Tomcat Was A Big Fighter

From wing-tip to wing-tip, the F-14 Tomcat measured nearly 70 feet. Its engines were spaced nine feet apart to allow room for missile carriage and to create a large lifting surface that made up 25 percent of the aircraft’s lift. This area was often called the “tennis court” or the “pancake.”

An F-14A Tomcat aircraft flies over the Red Sea
An F-14A Tomcat aircraft flies over the Red Sea, 1991. Photo Credit: © CORBIS/Corbis / Getty Images

The sheer size of the aircraft required pilots to be extremely precise when they crossed the carrier’s ramp.

The John Wayne loadout

An F-14 Tomcat takes off from the USS Independence.
An F-14 Tomcat takes off from the USS Independence. Photo Credit: Alberto Pizzoli/Sygma/Sygma / Getty Images

The F-14 Tomcat could hold six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles that could be all released within 38 seconds. The aircraft used the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) pod system which turned the F-14 Tomcat into a smart bomber.

It was also equipped with an AWG-9 planar-array Hughes radar dish that was capable of tracking 24 targets simultaneously and then firing those Phoenix missiles at six of them.

Having six Phoenix missiles equipped on the F-14 Tomcat was known as the “John Wayne loadout“, and although real-world threats never demanded this amount of missiles, it still sounded badass.

Upgrades

As awesome as it was, the original F-14A needed some serious upgrades. It needed to support high-speed multiplex digital data busses, multifunction cockpit displays, and head-up displays. Subsequent F-14B and F-14D models were created to include these new upgrades. In the latter model, pilots were spoiled with a new glass cockpit, digital avionics, and enhanced datalink to increase the crew’s situational awareness.

Two F-14A Tomcat aircraft as seen from the cockpit of another F-14.
Two F-14A Tomcat aircraft as seen from the cockpit of another F-14. Photo Credit: © CORBIS/Corbis / Getty Images

The original F-14A model had an overall less powerful and less reliable Pratt and Whitney TF-30 engine and required the pilot to select an afterburner when launching from the carrier. The F-14B and F-14D models improved on this with two General Electric F-110 engines that allowed the aircraft to linger a lot longer over the battlefield. They also included a fully digital APG-71 radar system and with these two updates, the new F-14 Tomcats were capable of making supersonic passes.

The F-14B and F-14D also allowed pilots to launch from the carrier without selecting an afterburner. This didn’t look as cool as the previous model but it was significantly safer.

Tomcat Fighter Use in Iran

During the later part of the century, the Shah of Iran was one of the few American allies in the Mideast and purchased an armada of F-14 Tomcats for $2 billion in 1974. In order to follow through with production, the Shah gave Grumman a $75 million loan to build the order. Iran was the only foreign country to operate the F-14 Tomcat and is the only one to continue to do so today.

3 F-14A Tomcats flying over Saudi desert
Three F-14A Tomcat aircraft pass over the Saudi desert January 1991. Photo Credit: © CORBIS/Corbis / Getty Images

During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian Air Force used the Phoenix missiles to shoot down Iraqi enemies. Iranian ace Jalil Zandi is the most successful F-14 Tomcat pilot so far, having shot down 11 Iraqi aircraft during that time.

 F-14 Tomcat Use In The Movie ‘Top Gun’

Photo still of Tom Cruise on set for Top Gun
Tom Cruise on set on Top Gun. Photo Credit: MovieStillsDB

The film Top Gun was a massive hit following its release in 1986. Actor Tom Cruise starred as young naval aviator Lieutenant Pete Mitchell, stationed on the USS Enterprise and assigned to fly the F-14 Tomcat. This fast-paced film quickly became one of the highest-grossing films in 1986 and Navy recruitment saw a jump of nearly 500 percent that year. Aspiring pilots dreamed of being the next Pete Mitchell flying the supersonic F-14 Tomcat.