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F-14 Tomcat: A Nice Aircraft Powered By Two Pieces of Junk?

F-14 Tomcat History
Image: Creative Commons.

F-14 Tomcat is loved by many but had a nearly fatal flaw: some really touchy engines that needed a lot of help over the years that were eventually replaced: When the F-14 Tomcat first entered service, it was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines that had been designed for the F-111B, which was more multi-role bomber than fighter.

These engines were powerful, but incredibly problematic, ultimately leading to the loss of as many as 40 Tomcats over the years. Eventually, the TF30 engines were replaced by General Electric F110-GE-400s that effectively solved all of the TF30’s problems, but many F-14s continued running the old engines well into the 2000s.

Today, plenty of airplane nerds (like this author) still count the F-14 Tomcat among their favorite aircraft of all time… so why was it retired so long before its peers like the F-15 and F-16?

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.

There’s more to the story of the F-14 Tomcat’s retirement than its troublesome TF30 engines. You can read our full feature explaining what happened to the Tomcat here, or you can read about the incredible plans to update the F-14 for the 21st Century that never made it to fruition here.

The Tomcat and the TF30: “A nice aircraft powered by two pieces of junk.”

For all its capability, the Tomcat could also 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. Bombers need powerful engines to carry their payloads at combat speeds, but they also have very different flight envelopes than fighters.

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.”

“From the very start you essentially teach the pilots to fly the engine as a priority over flying the airplane,” Capt. Lee Tillotson, the Navy’s F14 program coordinator, told the Washington Post in 1984.

“The pilot has to be very aware of what he does with the throttle at all times.”

More troubling still, with the engines mounted a vast nine feet apart to allow for greater lift and more weapons carriage space, a stall in one engine could throw the aircraft into an often unrecoverable flat spin. These issues led to the loss of a whopping 40 F-14s in all.

But it wasn’t just the stall issue plaguing the engine’s in Maverick’s ride. The turbine blades inside the engine were also prone to failure long before their anticipated service life expired, causing catastrophic damage to the engine and putting pilots’ lives at risk. https://www.youtube.com/embed/prEFjYrAJuw?feature=oembed (Both the pilot and RIO ejected and survived)

Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. went on to say the TF30 engine “in the F-14 is probably the worst engine-airplane mismatch we have had in many years. The TF30 engine is just a terrible engine and has accounted for 28.2 percent of all F14 crashes.”

Today, we may look back on the F-14 with wistful awe, remembering how it was the only fighter that could stand toe-to-toe with the (fictional) MiG-28. But when it was in service, not everybody loved the Tomcat.

“The sooner we are out of it, the happier I will be,” Lehman told Congress in 1984. “I guess the good news is that all the Iranian F-14s have the TF30, too.”

and eliminated many of the reliability problems associated with the TF30. These improved F-14Bs and the subsequent F-14Ds were very much the Tomcat of Top Gun fame, and as a result, you’ll often find Tomcat fans dismissing the TF30’s woes as a problem specific to the F-14A in the early days of operation.

The truth is, a yoyoing budget made the transition from the TF30 to the F110 slow going. By 1996, nine years after the F110 entered service in the F-14, the Navy F-14 fleet included just 126 Tomcats with the new GE engines, while the other 212 were still flying on the troublesome TF30. In fact, F-14A’s running the TF30 were still flying for the Navy until as late as 2004.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.

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14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. douglas lamoureaux

    June 21, 2022 at 10:38 pm

    Navy always prioritizes ships over aircraft. Plenty of money spent on their failure littoral ships. Plenty of money to buy new but less capable F-18E/Fs. Military always likes new shiney projects.

  2. Mark Ingraham

    June 21, 2022 at 11:04 pm

    The f110 had the same dry thrust as the tf30. It was the same engine as the A-7. There was no issue with thrust.

    The only difference was the B was a older model and turned less, thus never stalled. In 1995 a tomcat exploded in a 6g climb.

    • Adam

      June 23, 2022 at 7:34 am

      VF213 and the HPT separated punching the blades into fuel tank 5. It was a freak occurrence. Tomcat is a 13G airframe. I’ve seen 9+G overstresses that simply shifted the engine mount. The bird was amazing this article downplays it. Yes Pratts are shit engines but they had there ways about them.

    • Jake

      June 26, 2022 at 10:17 pm

      Adam pull your head out of your ass. the air force was screaming for an engine for the Tomcat. none was available at the time as takes 4 years to develop a New engine from scratch at that time. So They OKed to go with the TF30 in there call fora hurry up engine. They decided on the F 111s TF30 engine. a push by the air force.
      They knew then it wasn’t the right engine at the time but did it anyway. The big thing with the TF 30 in the tomcat was its prone to compressor stalls.
      Because of there attitude as yours the right engine should have been the Pratt F100 P 229 which the Israelis had over the heavier F110 a slug of an engine compared to Pratts thrust to weight ratio of 8 to 1. With a phenomenal maintenance record over desert sand.. Both F22 raptor and F 35 now are powered by Pratt even before the other competitor was still doodling on paper trying to get something to work. Both engines with the same core have thrust to weight ratio,Joe growth potential, and maintenance that is second to none.
      More then having there ways.

  3. Thuận

    June 22, 2022 at 12:40 am

    No joebiden,f14 tomcat

  4. Alireza

    June 23, 2022 at 11:56 am

    They are still flying in Iran

    • Everett

      June 25, 2022 at 4:25 pm

      Barely. They don’t even get flown 20 hours a year.

  5. Steven Jones

    June 23, 2022 at 9:56 pm

    In 82 when I graduated High Schoolthe first place I went to with a letter of recommendation from my uncle who was a 4 star General in my hand. I went to the USAF recruiting office and as soon as they heard I had asthma they turned me down. I always wanted to fly the F14 I still love that plane. Every branch of the service turned me down,all because of asthma. Today they will take you with Asthma or anything. But to me next to the F15 Strike Eagle the F14 is still one of the best ever dule roll fighters.

  6. Mike Lindsey

    June 27, 2022 at 10:20 am

    Very cool in their day, but ridiculous to maintain once they aged. 150 man hours for one flight hour. F/A-18’s were/are the best replacement

    • Colin

      June 27, 2022 at 11:10 am

      The same problem with Australian F111, hours of maintenance per flight time had the same engine

    • Kerry Nye

      June 28, 2022 at 10:22 am

      As usual, a not very well-informed reporter dissing the Tomcat. Your rag about the TF30 pretty-well spot-on: P&W TF30 was a bomber engine. Meaning you set the power and don’t manipulate the PCL much during the mission, and moving the PCL only slowly, when necessary. NOT what is needed during ACM, or even landing at the boat. TF30s were only in the F-14A models, so I don’t know how so many (212?) non-reengined A’s were still around in 2004. F-14B+ and F-14D models all had GE F110 engines which were much more responsive to rapid and large power setting changes, just what is needed for ACM and those wild landings at the boat due to sea states and weather. In addition, many have forgotten why the Tomcat was built in the first place: its main purpose in life was to carry and launch the AGM-54 Phoenix Missile. The Phoenix Missile system’s sole purpose was to shoot down cruise missiles and the Soviet aircraft that carried and launched cruise missiles, hundreds of miles beyond the range of those cruise missles from the carrier. The Tomcat could carry up to I believe 6 Phoenix missles on its belly, between the engines. THAT’S why the engines were spaced so far apart! THAT’S why the takeoff weight of a Tomcat was usually between 60,000 to 80,000 pounds! The Phoenix Missile System included necessary electronics for hosting and controlling the missiles and for cooling the missile seeker heads. No stinking F/A-18 Hornet EVER carried such an incredibly complex and capable weapon system, a system that required maintenance hours to be performed beyond any required for the airframe, engines, or other weapons carried. Hell, the Hornet couldn’t even carry enough gas, even with external drops, such that we had to modify the cycle time at the boat from 1+45 down to 1+15, a full 30 minutes less time between launches and recoveries, putting more stress on Flight Deck and Hangar Deck aircraft handling crews and squadron maintenance crews to make all the required aircraft spots and perform the required maintenance on the birds before they could go flying. Don’t forget the added stress on the Aviation Fuels crews and Catapult Maintenance crews to get the birds fueled in a hurry, and quickly make the catapults and arresting gear ready for the next cycle. Hell, the Hornet couldn’t even CARRY IT’S OWN SPECIAL BUDDY STORE until the Super Hornet, so other aircraft in the Wing had to, like the S-3 Viking. So, yes, the Hornet takes much less of the Navy’s money to operate and maintain … but it is BY FAR a much-less capable aircraft than the ones it replaced: Tomcat, Intruder, Prowler. And I haven’t even talked about the last two here. As I recollect, it was the wings on the Tomcat that were going to need replacing, like it was for the Intruder. Why should Big Navy spend money on rewinging the Intruder and Tomcat, when they could buy Hornets instead? No problem, as long as Big Navy and the Nation understands it ends up with a less-capable Carrier Air Wing as a result.

  7. Scott W

    June 28, 2022 at 9:05 am

    When the F-14 hit the fleet they already had plans to upgrade the engine but delayed it because of budget changes. Lee was right, you had to fly the engine in many regimes.
    Happy fortunately the attack crowd (A-7 mostly) had more influence and the F-18 became the priority even though it was dramatically less capable. Range and payload being the most obvious.
    Although air-ground was always part of the design it wasn’t used until too late. But with all the upgrades, new motors, LANTIRN, etc, it was far better at any mission than anything else the Navy had.

    • Kerry Nye

      June 28, 2022 at 10:33 am

      Scott W, do you really believe that the Hornet is an All-Weather and Night Attack aircraft on the same level as was the Intruder? Is the Growler really a comparable Electronic Warfare aircraft with the Prowler? I don’t think so.

  8. Scott W

    June 28, 2022 at 9:10 am

    Previous comment was supposed to be “unfortunately “ not happy fortunately.

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