Chair Force Engineer

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Cat's Last Prowl

Thirty-six years after its first flight, the F-14 Tomcat has completed its last combat cruise prior to retirement. It's truly a sad day for naval aviation, and it marks the end of the "Top Gun" era, when macho "Mavericks" punched holes in the sky.

The Tomcat was born in the 1960's, after the "TFX" concept for a multirole, multi-service aircraft led to the disastrous F-111B "Sea Pig." While the Sea Pig was a failure from the instant it was conceived by Robert McNamara, the Tomcat mated the Sea Pig's Phoenix missile system and radar (perhaps the only good system in the Sea Pig) with a competent, Mach 2 airframe.

Testament to the Tomcat's design was the fact that it was the only fighter plane that was truly feared by Soviet pilots. With its ability to engage six enemy aircraft from long range, it's no wonder why they felt that way. Prior to the Phoenix's retirement in 2004, it could kill any aircraft before it was spotted by the enemy's radar.

While Tomcats would shoot down four Libyan fighters during freedom of navigation exercises in the 80's, it was the F-15 Eagle that ruled the skies of the 90's due to its sophisticated friend-or-foe ID systems which prevented many friendly fire incidents. However, the Tomcat was redefined as a precision strike plane which carried the fight to the Taliban in the dark days after 9/11, while its little brother, the F/A-18 Hornet, suffered from a shorter range and the need for more refuelings during the Afghan missions. Up until the very end, Tomcat pilots were performing close air support for American forces in Iraq.

Unfortunately, naval aviation has been irreparably damaged by poor planning over the last 30 years. The F/A-18 Hornet replaced the venerable A-7, even though it lacked the A-7's range. The long-range A-6E Intruder was retired with no real replacement--the A-6F upgrade was prematurely killed, and the pie-in-the-sky A-12 fell victim to an unrealistic schedule, weight growth, and excessive secrecy surrounding stealth technologies. The Tomcat has been all-but-replaced with the Super Hornet, a slower airplane whose only real virtue is the ability to bring unused weapons back to the carrier.

While the mystique of the Tomcat came from a Hollywood movie and crazy Tom Cruise, the heritage of the Tomcat is a proud testimony to the old Grumman Aerospace. It was the Grumman "Iron Works" that introduced folding wings on the F4F Wildcat (the best naval fighter we had when WWII started,) brought Japan's air forces to its knees with the F6F Hellcat, brought naval aviation into the jet age with the F9F Panther, and provided the Navy with its heavy hitter, the A-6 Intruder. The Tomcat was every bit as tough as its predecessors and served ably in defense of this great nation. The Tomcat was also the last hurrah for a once-great company that now (as Northrop Grumman) is a hollow shell of its former self, and doesn't even assemble manned airplanes anymore.

Grumman and the Tomcat will both be missed.