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F-14 Tomcat: Why Was This Navy Legend Retired?

F-14 Tomcat History
Image: Creative Commons.

Yes, she was the plane featured in Tom Cruise’s Top Gun in 1986. Was she retired before her time? The Grumman F-14 Tomcat was known to be a supersonic, twin-engine, two-seat, twin-tail, variable-sweep wing fighter aircraft that was without equal among Cold War Free World fighters.

Its specs were indeed highly impressive, as it was armed with a General Electric Vulcan M61A-1 20mm gun with nearly seven hundred rounds of ammunition and possessed eight hardpoints for carrying ordnance—four on the fuselage and two each side under the wings. It also carried short, medium, and long-range air-to-air missiles AIM-9, AIM-7 and AIM-54, and air-to-ground ordnance that included CBU cluster bombs.

Despite these high-end capabilities and firepower, the F-14 Tomcat was retired in 2006, while contemporaries F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon remain in both production and service.

F-14: Dollars and Cents

According to Marine veteran Alex Hollings at Sandboxx, “the truth is, the F-14 Tomcat was a highly advanced fighter that was really purpose-built for a world-ending nuclear conflict. When you look back on the program, its challenges, and subsequent solutions, the image becomes a bit clearer. The F-14 made sense when we were on the verge of World War III … but without a Soviet boogeyman to keep Uncle Sam’s pocketbook upturned and shaking, it became an incredibly expensive and sometimes problematic solution to a problem nobody had anymore. And to make matters worse, only a portion of the F-14 fleet was ever as capable as most of the world believed. But to be completely clear, it was still one hell of a jet.”

Hollings delved further into the financial details. “The Navy’s first batch of F-14As rang in at $38 million per aircraft in 1973. That sounds pretty cheap compared to around $88 million for a new F-15EX these days, but when you adjust that number to reflect nearly five decades of inflation, you get a downright shocking figure of more than $234 million per F-14 Tomcat,” he said.

“The F-35’s initial production run per-unit cost was also quite high, but still more than $10 million less than the Tomcat, at $221 million per fighter. By 1988, thirteen years later, the F-14D cost $74 million per airframe, which adjusted for inflation brings the Tomcat’s price down to $171 million per aircraft in today’s dollars. Last year marked thirteen years since the F-35’s first production batch, with per-unit prices of the F-35A now at around $78 million per airframe—$93 million less than the F-14 per jet,” he added.

‘Powered by Two Pieces of Junk’

The F-14 was indeed known for its amazing dogfighting capabilities, but Hollings also noted that the plane could be “troublesome.”

“The TF30 engines were indeed powerful, but they were also arguably too sensitive for the job. They’d been designed for an even heavier application in the 80,000-pound F-111B, but that platform was more bomber than fighter. … When operated at high angles of attack, or when the pilot adjusted the throttle position quickly (both common facets of the air combat the jet was built for but uncommon in bomber missions), the engines were prone to compressor stalls. This issue led some to call the Tomcat, ‘a nice aircraft powered by two pieces of junk,’” he wrote.

F-14 Tomcat

Image: Creative Commons.

F-14 Tomcat

Image: Creative Commons.

The Tomcat also needed hours upon hours of maintenance. “Depending on the Navy estimate, the F-14 Tomcat required between thirty and sixty hours of maintenance for every one hour it spent in the air. The high prices associated with maintaining the complicated sweep-wing systems is often cited as one of the most pressing reasons for the Tomcat’s early retirement when compared to its American fighter peers,” Hollings concluded.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

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