Grumman F-14 Tomcat Swing-Wing Carrierborne Fleet Defense Fighter
Born from the aborted F-111B naval initiative, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat proved itself the naval interceptor-of-choice during the latter stages of the Cold War.
Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
The Grumman F-14 "Tomcat" was the quintessential United States Navy (USN) fleet defense interceptor of the latter Cold War years. Its existence was brought about largely due to the demise of the failed F-111B initiative, a carrier-based version of the large General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" swing-wing fighter-bomber. The B-model was intended to succeed the storied (though aging) McDonnell Douglas F-4 "Phantom II" line but the ballooning endeavor fell to naught, leaving the USN without a suitable replacement. Grumman, already having worked under the General Dynamics banner on the F-111B project, took on a private venture role in developing a future fleet defense fighter for possible sale to the USN. One of the resulting designs became company model "G-303" and, when presented to the USN, beat out a competing submission from McDonnell Douglas. The aircraft fell under the new project acronym of "VFX" ("Naval Fighter Experimental").
VFX called for an aircraft platform with enhanced agility (when compared to the outgoing fleet of F-4 Phantoms). Additionally, it was to serve beyond the interception role and provide its crew with air combat capabilities that the F-111B was never going to match for it proved an overweight, underperforming system at its core. The aircraft would utilize a crew of two (as in the F-111) to help spread the workload and operate the powerful onboard radar, weapons, and general missions systems. The radar of choice became the AWG-9 X-band pulse Doppler radar system for very-long-range search and tracking functionality for engagement of aerial targets - aircraft or cruise missiles. The system offered a range out to 170 nautical miles which provided the aircraft a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) attack capability. In this way, the crew could fire on targets before the enemy ever registered the aircraft on radar. The radar itself was an in-development solution for the proposed, though ultimately abandoned, F-111B. The radar-guided Hughes AIM-54 "Phoenix" - the "Million Dollar Missile" - provided a new, long-range air-to-air missile threat and become the aircraft's primary weapon. It was also initially developed for the F-111B program. Power to the airframe would be served from a twin-engine, side-by-side arrangement through Pratt & Whitney TF30 afterburning turbofans - engines also slated for the failed F-111B. The Grumman product was granted the USN designation of "F-14" continuing the storied relationship between the service branch and the carrier-based fighter concern that stretched back to the days of World War 2 and the F4F "Wildcat" fighter.
Doing away with a typical prototype phase, the F-14 was placed into direct development as soon as possible to help avoid bureaucratic interference and stall eventual production. The United States Marine Corps (USMC) also took an interest in the program as they too showcased a fleet of aging F-4s that would also need replacement in the near-future. An initial flyable airframe recorded its first flight on December 21st, 1970.
The F-14 was designed from the outset as a carrier-based fighter - unlike the F-111B which was born from a land-based fighter-bomber airframe. The F-14 did, however, retain many of the qualities and components inherent in the F-111B such as the "swing-wing", variable geometry wing assemblies, radar system with long-range missile support, two-man crew, and twin-engine layout.
Externally, the aircraft proved one of the more elegant designs of the latter Cold War years with smooth contours and a highly identifiable profile from any angle. The radar system sat under a traditional nose cone at front with the tandem, two-seat cockpit fitted just aft. The cockpit sat under a single-piece, rear-hinged canopy which provided excellent all-around vision. The pilot was seated in front with the radar operator (RIO - Radar Intercept Officer) at rear (flight control systems - namely the stick and throttle - were not duplicated in the rear cockpit). A broad fuselage surface shrouded the complex swing-wing control systems seated above the twin intake ducts. The ductwork aspirated the well-spaced twin-engine configuration which saw a pair of vertical fins fitted to each engine nacelle at rear ahead of the jet pipes. The swing-wings could be fully extended for low-speed, low-altitude flight and "tucked in" when high-speed flight was the order of the day. Standard horizontal tail-planes (all-moving) were fitted at each engine housing side. The undercarriage was of a reinforced design for the rigors of carrier operations and included two single-wheeled main legs and a dual-wheeled nose leg. A tail hook allowed the aircraft to snag a deck cable to shorten its landing run.
Variable geometry wings have been used in several notable designs throughout modern military aviation history and were being actively researched as far back as World War 2. Primary examples became the aforementioned F-111, the European consortium Panavia Tornado strike platform, and the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23/27 "Flogger" fighter-bomber. This feature would allow an in-flight aircraft to adjust its wing angle on-the-fly to suit the desired action. The F-14 adopted a swing-wing feature that gave it sweeps of 20-degrees to 68-degrees and primarily managed by an onboard computer (with manual override possible). The wing design made the F-14 an iconic fighter of the Cold War years - further popularized by its featured role in the Tom Cruise motion picture "Top Gun" which also served as a great USN recruiting tool.
Initial Tomcat production models became the F-14A, first flying on December 21st, 1970. The line formally began to replace F-4s on September 22nd, 1974 though the initial dozen aircraft were classified as pre-production models more akin to prototypes than production quality forms. USN squadrons VF-1 and VF-2 were the first F-14 operators and served on USS Enterprise (CVN-65). In all, 557 F-14As were delivered with 478 to USN ownership. The remaining seventy-nine were shipped to then-ally Iran at a time when the two nations maintained something of a working relationship.
Power to these early aircraft was from 2 x Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-412 turbofan engines providing for a maximum speed of Mach 2.4, a rate-of-climb of 30,000 feet per minute, a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, and a combat radius of 665 nautical miles with full missile load. The last 102 F-14A models were instead fitted with the newer TF30-P-414A model engines.