Issue 13 - F-14 Tomcat: Anytime, baby!
By: Tim Callaway
Well, producing this magazine has been a real learning curve again, and this time one for which I am deeply grateful, as it has cleared up many questions I had often pondered regarding the programmes that led to the F-14. It also posed a particular problem. Let me try to explain...
There are some aircraft which are legends because of a particular piece of history. In this I am thinking about the Spitfire and the Battle of Britain. Completely unfair, of course, as everyone knows it was the Hawker Hurricane that won the battle, not the Spitfire. Or do they? Public perception is a difficult thing to break, and as time passes spectacles become rosier, facts become less distinct and romantic ideals replace cold hard facts.
That’s one of the reasons I hate writing this page, somehow I have to condense that kind of altered viewpoint into a few paragraphs. Not easy, especially in this case, as the Tomcat does not have one legend about it, it’s one of those rare aircraft with three.
The public perception of Grumman’s mighty fighter is one based on movies. Top Gun and The Final Countdown cemented the Tomcat in the public’s mind as the ultimate superfighter, sweeping all before it with ease and elan. Challenging that image is difficult, because it has become part of popular culture and therefore a “fact”.
The aviation “expert” perception of the aircraft is as different as it could be. “Overweight and underpowered” and “turkey” are just two of the epithets slung at the Tomcat by detractors or people who don’t really know or understand the aircraft.
Quotes from influential politicians and high ranking officers are used as ammunition to support their view that the Tomcat was a poor performer and an expensive mistake. Oddly, on reading further, the quotes thus used seem to be either out of context or incomplete in many cases.
Then there is the third legend. This one is matter of fact, not loud or showy, it just states things with a quiet smile and a rueful nod to the fallibilities of both man and machine. But the statements, quietly made, by the men and women who hold this legend dear are astounding.
“Yeah, we managed to get a solid lock and fired, the missile came off clean and climbed sharply. The drone was just over 120 miles away at the time.” Please note that carefully. 120 miles.
“Funny, for all talk and stories, I can’t remember ever having a problem with the (TF-30) engine, I don’t recall it getting in the way much, if at all.” A much maligned turbofan, suddenly, not that big a deal.
“We were covering two operations from the Mediterranean station, up north to Bosnia, and down south to Southern Watch over Iraq. Had a good long loiter time for the FACs, too.” Missions flown at very long range, yet able to stay and provide friendly cover.
This last legend is the one I have learned from producing this magazine. Of course, it is the legend owned by those privileged to maintain and operate the Tomcat. If you chose to listen to it, it is a very calm and matter of fact voice, stating the real achievements and capabilities of this machine with quiet pride and gentle good humour. “Yes there were problems, but what complex combat aircraft doesn’t have those? Anyway, difficulty is to be overcome, right?” And didn’t they just!
The real story that led to the Tomcat is one of cancelled plans, political ineptitude and inter-service incompatibilities. The story from the point Grumman started working on its 303E design is one of vision, skill, and genius. Once the aircraft was accepted into service it is a story of overcoming limits, finding solutions and developing them. Once the F-14 reached the squadrons, it is a story of dedication, pride, courage and performance.
That is the story I wanted to tell, the legend I have learned about and wanted to encapsulate in these pages. Only you will be able to tell if I have succeeded, and I sincerely hope I have. This aircraft deserves its story fairly told, because aside from being an astoundingly capable machine, it is also an extraordinarily beautiful one.