Saturday, September 23, 2006

F-14 Tomcat is Retired: Resting a Cold War Fighter

Yesterday's USA Today reported that the U.S. Navy has retired the F-14 Tomcat, the venerable Cold-War era fighther jet popularized in the 1986 film Top Gun:

In a ceremony today that reminded guests of why it was retired, the Navy holstered the F-14 Tomcat, the top gun in its Cold War arsenal and one of the most recognizable warplanes in history.

Maintenance costs for the F-14 have soared, and its replacement, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, is more versatile and cheaper to maintain. The maintenance issue appeared again at the plane's retirement ceremony.

Pilot Lt. Cmdr. David Faehnle and radar intercept officer Lt. Cmdr. Robert Gentry gave a final salute from inside their cockpit before aircraft 102 taxied down the runway and out of sight at Oceana Naval Air Station. The plane that actually took off as thousands applauded and whistled, however, was aircraft 107, with Lt. Cmdr. Chris Richard at the controls and intercept officer Lt. Mike Petronis in the back seat.

The first jet had mechanical problems — "a common occurrence with the F-14," said Mike Maus, a Navy spokesman. The second jet had been on standby just in case.

The Super Hornet is unlikely to surpass the F-14's following. Furiously fast, deafeningly loud and lethal to enemy aircraft, the Tomcat had attained legendary status by the 1980s. The 1986 film Top Gun, in which Tom Cruise portrayed an F-14 pilot in training, cemented the supersonic warplane's reputation in the popular culture.

"There's something about the way an F-14 looks, something about the way it carries itself," says Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations, the Navy's top officer. "It screams toughness. Look down on a carrier flight deck and see one of them sitting there, and you just know, there's a fighter plane. I really believe the Tomcat will be remembered in much the same way as other legendary aircraft, like the Corsair, the Mustang and the Spitfire."

About 3,000 guests — mainly former aviators, mechanics, suppliers and builders — were on hand for the jet's official retirement. The last F-14s will be mothballed in the Arizona desert or go to aviation museums.

The Tomcat was designed in the late 1960s with one enemy in mind: the Soviet Union. The jet was typically launched from an aircraft carrier, and its twin engines could propel it at twice the speed of sound. Its armaments deterred Soviet bombers designed to fire missiles at U.S. Navy ships.

"It was intended to do one thing really well," says John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity, a think tank based in Alexandria, Va. "The Soviets evidently respected it. Their answer was to build bigger and faster bombers."
The article notes that after the Cold War, the F-14 lost its chief mission, and became something of a "stray cat."

In time, though, the use of the Tomcat evolved, and as the article's sidebar notes, the fighter saw action in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and the Iraq War in 2003:

Five squadrons of F-14s from the USS Abraham Lincoln took part in the early action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Interestingly, I toured the USS Abraham Lincoln in 1999, which was opened to the public when, on its way back from the Persian Gulf, it stopped in Santa Barbara for a shore leave.

It's an incomparable feeling being atop an aircraft carrier. When I stood on the bow of that ship -- feeling the Lincoln's stout sturdiness -- I felt a sense of pride and security. Just over two years later, the U.S. would be attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. I appreciate the crew of the Abraham Lincoln, including the pilots of the F-14, -- and the rest of the U.S. military personnel -- who have put their lives on the line so that other Americans may continue to feel that same pride and security.

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