Russia wanted the plane Tom Cruise used in Top Gun: Considered to be one of the most beloved American jet fighters of all time, the F-14 Tomcat was a supersonic, twin-engine, two-seat, twin-tail, variable-sweep wing fighter aircraft that was armed with a General Electric Vulcan M61A-1 20mm gun with nearly seven hundred rounds of ammunition and featured eight hardpoints for carrying ordnance.
The feared fighter also possessed the capability of carrying short, medium, and long-range air-to-air missiles AIM-9, AIM-7 and AIM-54, and air-to-ground ordnance that included deadly CBU cluster bombs.
“Overall, the F-14 was without equal among today’s Free World fighters. Six long-range AIM-54A Phoenix missiles could be guided against six separate threat aircraft at long range by the F-14’s AWG-9 weapons control system,” the Aviation Geek Club wrote.
“For medium-range combat, Sparrow missiles were carried; Sidewinders and a 20mm were available for dogfighting. In the latter role, the Tomcat’s variable-sweep wings gave the F-14 a combat maneuvering capability that could not have been achieved with a ‘standard’ fixed planform wing. The Tomcat’s outstanding fighter capabilities posed a serious threat not only to Soviet fighters but also to Russian strategic bombers and cruise missiles that were tasked to attack US Navy’s carrier strike groups if the Cold War went hot,” it continued.
Just how severe was this threat? It was “so serious a threat, that the Soviets tried to go fishing for a VF-32 F-14 that fell off the USS John F. Kennedy on Sep. 14, 1976—after the plane’s control systems went haywire and the pilot/RIO had to eject,” aviation expert Aaron Outram wrote on Quora. “See, at the time, the John F. Kennedy was off Scapa Flow (in Scotland’s northern islands) … which wasn’t too far from the Soviet backyard, and this gave them plausible cover to attempt a recovery of the aircraft by posing as a fishing fleet conducting normal fishing operations.”
The expert tried to examine why the Soviets would put in such time and effort to get their hands on the fighter. “In 1976, the F-14 was still a brand-new plane—complete with its AIM-54 Phoenix missiles designed to kill Russian-made aircraft … and the AIM-54 alone was worth whatever effort it took to illicitly acquire,” he claimed.
“However, by the end of their operations in the area, the Soviet interlopers were unsuccessful—and they went back to Russian waters empty-handed. Once all the Ruskie hubbub calmed down, the U.S. Navy sent in their ace-in-the-hole: Admiral Rickover’s science toy, the NR-1… which was a nuclear research submarine suited to these kinds of mission. Being nuclear powered, the NR-1 … allowed the crew ample time to zero in on the F-14 and inspect what, if anything, the Soviets had accomplished,” he continued.
Reaching the Wreckage
Eventually, the “Tomcat wreckage was located … and the NR-1 crew observed that it had indeed been thoroughly harassed by Soviet efforts—with the fuselage roughed up quite a bit and entangled in fishing nets that had no business being there.”
The U.S. Navy also launched an operation to “lift the plane from its watery grave so that the Soviets wouldn’t be tempted to have another go at it.”
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.