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

Photo Credit: Nathan Laird / U.S. Navy / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Nathan Laird / U.S. Navy / Getty Images

The Grumman F-14 Tomcat is one of the most iconic aircraft to ever be operated by the US Navy, with it serving as the primary aircraft for the service’s TOPGUN School. From its first flight in 1970 to its retirement in 2006, the supersonic aircraft served as the Navy’s primary maritime air superiority fighter, tactical aerial reconnaissance platform and fleet defense interceptor – and it all started with the Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX) program.

Naval Fighter Experiment (VFX) program

General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B in flight
General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B, 1965. (Photo Credit: USN / Naval Aviation News / U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The F-14 Tomcat’s origin story dates back to the middle of the Cold War, when the US Navy was in the market for an interceptor aircraft capable of protecting carrier battle groups against Soviet anti-ship missiles. This initially resulted in the development of the Douglas F6D Missileer, but its inability to adequately defend itself led to the aircraft’s cancellation in late 1961. This was then followed by the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B, which also never entered production.

These failed attempts at developing the necessary aircraft led to the Naval Fighter Experiment program, which called for the following requirements:

  • Tandem two-seater, twin-engine aircraft capable of air-to-air combat.
  • Ability to reach speeds of Mach 2.2.
  • Built-in M61 Vulcan cannon.
  • Capable of firing either six AIM-54 Phoenix or a combination of four AIM-9 Sidewinder and six AIM-7 Sparrow missiles.

Developing the Grumman F-14 Tomcat

Sailor checking an AIM-9 Sidewinder on the underside of the wing of a Grumman F-14 Tomcat
AIM-9 Sidewinder missile equipped by a Grumman F-14 Tomcat, 2002. (Photo Credit: LEILA GORCHEV / AFP / Getty Images)

While a number of companies submitted designs, Grumman was the one to win the bid. Given how quickly the US Navy needed the aircraft in the air, the prototype phase was skipped, with the first test flight taking place on December 21, 1970. Just under two years later, missile tests began with the AIM-54 Phoenix. By September 1974, the F-14 Tomcat had officially entered service.

Throughout the design and production process, upgrades and changes were done, with the F-14 becoming the most expensive fighter aircraft of its time. Between 1969-91, 721 units were manufactured.

Grumman F-14 Tomcat specs

Grumman F-14A Tomcat parked on the tarmac
Grumman F-14A Tomcat with Fighter Squadron 126 (VF-126), 1993. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

As aforementioned, the F-14 Tomcat was designed to perform more than one task, with the US Navy wanting both a fighter and an interceptor. As such, its design needed to provide the aircraft with these capabilities.

From wing-tip to wing-tip, the F-14 measured 64 feet, with an empty weight of nearly 44,000 pounds and a loaded one of 61,000. Following the “A” variant, it was powered by two General Electric F110-GE-400 afterburning turbofans, which were spaced nine feet apart to allow room for the missile carriage and create a large lifting surface. These engines allowed the aircraft to hit speeds of Mach 2.34 and a range of 1,840 miles.

In accordance with the armament requirements laid out by the Naval Fighter Experiment program, the F-14 was equipped with an M61 Vulcan capable of firing 675 rounds. It also had four undercarriage points and two hardpoints, which allowed it to carry the necessary missiles, which could be fired within 38 seconds.

A later iteration of the aircraft, the F-14B, also featured the ability to conduct ground attacks. This was accomplished through the use of Lockheed Martin’s Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN), as well as the addition of bomb-dropping capabilities.

Later upgrades included multifunction cockpit displays, highspeed multiplex digital data busses and head-up displays, as well as a new glass cockpit, digital avionics and enhanced datalink to increase the crew’s situational awareness.

Operational history with the US Navy

Grumman F-14 Tomcat taking off from the flight deck of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65)
Grumman F-14 Tomcat taking off from the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) during the early stages of the War in Afghanistan, 2001. (Photo Credit: RABIH MOGHRABI / AFP / Getty Images)

Upon being equipped by the US Navy in 1974, the F-14 Tomcat served as a replacement for the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and began its combat service as a photo reconnaissance platform. It participated in Operation Frequent Wind in 1975 and was thrust onto the world stage following the Gulf of Sidra Incident, when two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 Fitters fired upon the American aircraft in 1981.

Throughout Operation Desert Storm, the F-14 was stationed primarily over the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, where it served in both reconnaissance and strike escort roles. Fast forward to the start of the War in Afghanistan in 2001, the aircraft was among the first to launch strikes against enemy targets in the Middle East.

The F-14’s final combat mission occurred in early 2006, when a pair, launched from the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) dropped a single bomb over Iraq. A few months later, it was officially retired from service.

Adopted by the Imperial Iranian Air Force

Three Grumman F-14 Tomcats in flight
Grumman F-14 Tomcats operated by Iran, 2014. (Photo Credit: ATTA KENARE / AFP / Getty Images)

The sole foreign operator of the F-14 Tomcat was the Imperial Iranian Air Force, which adopted the aircraft into service in 1976. However, following the Iranian Revolution, all Western orders were canceled, including those for American aircraft. That being said, the F-14s that had already been delivered were still flown.

Throughout the Iran-Iraq War, the aircraft was manned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, with pilots scoring 50 air-to-air kills in the first six months of the conflict. Iran claimed that, overall, the F-14 shot down at least 160 Iraqi aircraft.

Top Gun (1986)

Tom Cruise as Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in 'Top Gun'
Top Gun, 1986. (Photo Credit: Zayne / Paramount Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

As aforementioned, the F-14 Tomcat was among the aircraft operated by the US Navy’s TOPGUN School, which means it came as no surprise when it made an appearance in the 1986 film, Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise. The actor stars as naval aviator Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who’s initially stationed aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and sent to TOPGUN School, where he flies F-14s.

More from us: North American B-25 Mitchell: The Most Produced American Medium Bomber of World War II

Top Gun quickly became one of the highest-grossing films of 1986, and its theatrical success saw Navy recruitment jump nearly 500 percent; aspiring pilots dreamed of becoming the real-life Maverick.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!