Sunday, January 28, 2007

The 'Cats Have Retired, Long Live The 'Cats!

In September 2006, after being operational for more than 30 years, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat has flown its last operational deployment with VF-213 'Black Lions' and (appropriately) VF-31 'Tomcatters' squadrons on board USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). The Tomcat is considered to be one of the most ‘complete’ fighter/interceptor ever built, being able to engage targets at long range using the 180km-range AIM-54 Phoenix to very short range (a few hundred yards) using the internal 20mm M61A1 cannon.

The Tomcat was developed as a fleet defence interceptor to replace the classic F-4 Phantom II and the aborted F-111B project. It was designed around the AWG-9 weapon system and the associated Phoenix missile and also the TF30 engines inherited from the F-111B. The Tomcat is required to intercept and destroy long-range, anti-ship missile-armed (and nuclear capable) Soviet bombers such as the Tu-16, Tu-22, Tu-26 and Tu-95/142 as far as possible from their missile launch range. The F-14 was nicknamed ‘Tomcat’ in honour of Vice Admiral Tom ‘Tomcat’ Connolly, the man who pushed for the creation of the new fighter aircraft. It also coincides nicely with the US Navy tradition of giving feline names to Grumman-built fighters since the late 1930s (such as F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, F7F Tigercat, F9F Panther, F9F Cougar, F11F Tiger and XF10F Jaguar). The Tomcat is also one of the few combat aircraft with variable-geometry (‘swing’) wings.

The Tomcat first flew in December 1970 and became operational in September 1974 with squadrons VF-1 'Wolfpack' and VF-2 'Bounty Hunters' on board USS Enterprise (CVN-65). The first ‘combat’ cruise of the Tomcat was in April 1975 when the Enterprise covered the withdrawal from Saigon, South Vietnam although no combat took place between American and North Vietnamese forces. In the the 1980s, in what was known as the 'Gulf of Sidra Incident', a pair of VF-41 ‘Black Aces’ Tomcats from USS Nimitz shot down two Libyan Su-22 Fitters on 19 August 1981. A similar incident took place again on 4 January 1989 when a pair of VF-32 ‘Swordsmen’ Tomcats from USS John F. Kennedy shot down two Libyan MiG-23 Floggers. Also, during the 1980s, Iranian F-14s (the only export customer for the F-14) were engaged in combat against the Iraqi Air Force during the Iran-Iraq War. Apart from functioning in its intended role, Iranian Tomcats are also used as mini-AWACS, using their superior radar system to direct other Iranian fighter planes (such as the F-4 and the F-5) against Iraqi aircraft. The final kill by the US Navy Tomcat is an Iraqi Mi-8 helicopter, shot down by an F-14 from VF-1 using a Sidewinder AAM on 7 February 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. These five kills are the only ones scored by the US Navy. The IRIAF Tomcats is much more successful, shooting down fairly large numbers of Iraqi warplanes using all the weapons systems available.

With the retirement of RF-8G Crusaders and RA-5C Vigilantes in the late 1970s, the Tomcat is selected to be the (interim) US Navy reconnaissance aircraft using the TARPS (Tactical Airborne Reconaissance Pod System) pod pending the introduction of the F/A-18R (which was eventually cancelled). The end of the Cold War and the budgetary cuts which followed brought a new role for the F-14, especially when the A-6 Intruder was withdrawn from service. The Tomcats are now equipped with LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigational and Targeting Infra Red for Night) pods and are able to carry precision weapons such as the Paveway series of laser-guided bombs and also GPS-guided munitions. This final guise of the Tomcat is known as the ‘Bombcat’. The Tomcat also has its anaemic TF30 engines replaced with the more powerful and reliable F110s and the AWG-9 system replaced with APG-71.

For some reason, the Tomcat is immensely popular. One possible reason is that the shape of the plane itself, which have ‘fighter’ written all over it. It also looks like it can break Mach 2 just by sitting still on the deck. Another reason may be because of that iconic movie of the 80s – Top Gun. That movie is responsible for an increase in US Navy recruitment in the mid-80s. However, I personally believe that the true stars of that movie are neither Tom Cruise nor Val Kilmer, it’s the Tomcat. The Tomcat is also featured in the 1980 movie The Final Countdown – a sci-fi-ish movie where the carrier USS Nimitz travelled back in time and where spanking-new Tomcats fought with spanking new A6M2 Zero fighters! VF-84 Jolly Rogers (who were deployed on board Nimitz during the 80s and was featured in The Final Countdown), along with their mount is the inspiration for the VF-1 Valkyrie/Veritech Fighters of the Macross/Robotech cartoon series, especially Commander Roy Fokker’s (later Rick Hunter’s) Skull One. The Tomcat is also featured in a number of video games especially G-LOC and Afterburner. On a personal note, I once used almost RM15 to complete the Afterburner game…so obsessed was I with the F-14 at that time! On the modelling front, models of the F-14 are among the best-selling products with almost all manufacturers, from Airfix to Zhengdefu, have at least one kit of the Tomcat in their catalogue. Again, some modelers prefer to finish their models in the markings of the Jolly Rogers, whether VF-84 or (later) VF-103. (I guess that the combination of the F-14 looks and the skull-and-crossbones insignia creates an aura of grace and invincibilty…not to mention cool). Another ‘cool’ marking is of the VF-111 'Sundowners' with Rising (Setting?) Sun motif on the vertical tails and sharkmouth design on the nose.

Despite is recent retirement, the Tomcat still lives on. Ironically, the only current user of the Tomcat is the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. The IRIAF still operates maintained a number of Tomcats out of the 79 delivered in the 1970s; testament to the Iranians’ ingenuity and resourcefulness and also the the excellence of the airframes. I wonder if IRIAF Tomcat pilots wear patches that read ‘Anytime, Baby’ or ‘Persian Cats’? IRIAF's Tomcats have also been tested (and probably operating) Russian missiles such as R-73 (AA-11 Archer) AAM and also modified HAWK SAM.

* A special thanks to Sevven for his entry in his blog on the same subject. His jottings reminds me that I haven’t written any tribute to this great fighter aircraft, which is my favourite! (What a shame!)
Photos : US Navy


sevven said...

Anytime, Backstabber!

Anonymous said...

Thanx for d article Pha, enjoy reading thru it


faizul2110 said...

ingat crita tom cruise blakon...

apa-apa pun syabas kepada Malaysia kerana perolehan pertahanan makin bertambah, macam sukhoi 30MKM, scorpene submarine,vamtac s3 DLL...

aku ada dengar desas desus mengatakan Malaysia akan beli lagi satu jenis MRCA untuk satu lagi skuadron... taktau sama ada

~MIG 35
~F/A-18F super hornet
~Eurofighter Typhoon
~Sukhoi 35
~Dassault Rafale
~Saab Gripen NG

mana satu agak agak MRCA baru Malaysia???