Home / Editors Picks / On the 50th Anniversary of First Flight, 14 Important Moments in the Life of the Tomcat
An air-to-air right side view of an F-14 Tomcat aircraft from Fighter Squadron 51 (VF-51) as it intercepts a Soviet Tu-95 Bear-A/B aircraft.

On the 50th Anniversary of First Flight, 14 Important Moments in the Life of the Tomcat

From Naval History and Heritage Command and National Naval Aviation Museum

An air-to-air right side view of two Fighter Squadron 124 (VF-124) F-14 Tomcat aircraft.

Advancements during the Cold War in Soviet long-range patrol and bomber aircraft dictated a requirement for a fleet defense fighter that could engage high-altitude bombers from well beyond visual range. The iconic F-14 was Grumman’s answer. Continuing the company’s tradition of naming aircraft after cats; the new “Tomcat” made its first flight in December 1970.

Perhaps the most widely recognized Navy fighter thanks to its starring role in Top Gun, the F-14 Tomcat served as an advanced interceptor and air superiority fighter. Equipped with long-range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, F-14s could engage multiple hostiles more than 90 miles away. Needing an interceptor’s high speed while carrying this heavy ordnance, Grumman produced the highly effective variable sweep wing of the F-14, enabling it to operate at a wide range of airspeeds.

An F-14 Tomcat aircraft prepares to land aboard the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV 60).

Deliveries to the Navy began in June 1972 with the deployment of operational carrier squadrons in 1975. The F-14 made a brief appearance during the evacuation of Vietnam, but the Middle East was destined to become the scene of the Tomcat’s combat initiation in encounters with Libyan fighters during the 1980s. Upgraded F-14A (plus) and F-14Ds came into service in the late 1980s and early 1990s, boasting enhanced avionics and more powerful F110-GE-400 turbofans. The aircraft also proved an outstanding air-to-ground platform employing a capability present from the initial design work, but rarely employed. At peak employment, thirty Navy squadrons operated F-14s. Tomcats flew combat missions during the Gulf War and in missions over Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 until the F-14’s retirement in 2006.

An F-14 Tomcat flies under a canopy of smoke from 600 burning oil wells on Liberation Day in Kuwait.

Below are 14 important moments in the service life of the venerable F-14 Tomcat.

21 DECEMBER 1970 • Grumman test pilots Robert Smyth and William Miller made the first flight of an F-14A Tomcat at Grumman’s Calverton, Long Island, N.Y., plant. The aircraft was produced under a contract awarded less than two years earlier on Feb. 3, 1969 that called for the development of high-performance, variable-sweep wing fighter aircraft for air-to-air combat and fleet defense to replace F-4 Phantom IIs

Taxiing for take-off, the Navy’s newest carrier-based air superiority fighter, F-14, prepares for its first flight at Grumman’s Calverton Air Facility, Long Island, New York, 21 December 1970. The sleek, twin-tailed aircraft has been dubbed the “Tomcat”.

2 DECEMBER 1971 • Cmdr. George W. White at NATC Patuxent River, Md., became the first Navy test pilot to fly an F-14A Tomcat. By the end of 1971, nine of the jets operated within various flight test programs. Purchase plans called for an eventual total of 313 aircraft—301 for operations and 12 for research and development.

1 OCTOBER 1972 • VF-1 and -2 at NAS Miramar, Calif., were established as the first two F-14A Tomcat squadrons.

An air-to-air right side view of an F-14 Tomcat aircraft from Fighter Squadron 51 (VF-51) as it intercepts a Soviet Tu-95 Bear-A/B aircraft.

17 SEPTEMBER 1974 • VF-1 and -2 began the initial deployment of F-14As Tomcats while embarked on board USS Enterprise (CVAN 65), when she sailed from NAS Alameda, Calif. this deployment included Tomcats flying combat air patrol for the evacuation of Saigon.

19 AUGUST 1981 • Cmdr. Henry M. Kleeman and Lt. David J. Venlet and Lts. Lawrence M. Muczynski and James Anderson of VF-41 manned two F-14As that shot down two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter-Js with AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missiles over international waters. The Tomcats were flying a reconnaissance mission for a missile-firing exercise during freedom of navigation operations from USS Nimitz (CVN 68), sailing with USS Forrestal (CV 59), when the Libyans opened fire.

An F-14 Tomcat aircraft is silhouetted against the sun during exercise GALLANT EAGLE ’88.

13 FEBRUARY 1982 • VF-84 returned from the Mediterranean on board USS Nimitz (CVN 68) to NS Norfolk, Va. The squadron completed the first operational deployment of the tactical air reconnaissance system fitted on F-14 Tomcats for low- to medium-altitude photoreconnaissance missions.

12 OCTOBER 1984 • VF-301’s acceptance of its first F-14 marked the introduction of Tomcats into the Naval Air Reserve Force as part of the service’s total force defense concept.

050714-N-5345W-093 Atlantic Ocean (July 14, 2005) – Landing Signal Officers watch as an F-14B Tomcat, assigned to the “Swordsmen” of Fighter Squadron Three Two (VF-32), catches an arresting wire with its tail hook aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). Truman is currently conducting carrier qualifications and operations off the East Coast and is also participating in a Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFEX) with USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). JTFEX is a key component in the training cycle of an aircraft carrier and carrier air wing in the U.S. Navy Fleet Response Plan. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Kristopher Wilson (RELEASED)

4 JANUARY 1989 • Two F-14As crewed by pilot Cmdr. Joseph B. Connelly and radar intercept officer (RIO) Cmdr. Leo F. Enwright Jr., and pilot Lt. Herman C. Cook III and RIO Lt. Cmdr. Steven P. Collins of VF-32, embarked with Carrier Air Wing 3 on board John F. Kennedy (CV 67), shot down two Libyan MiG-23s. The carrier sailed in routine training exercises off the northeastern tip of the Libyan coast when the two Floggers launched from a field at Al Bumbah and approached the carrier. After repeated attempts to intercept the aggressive Libyans peacefully, the Tomcats fired AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, downing the MiGs over international waters in the central Mediterranean north of Tobruk, Libya.

10 JULY 1992 • The Navy received the last production F-14D, marking the end of 22 years of Tomcat production.

An F-14 Tomcat engages and F-16N Viper adversary aircraft during a TOPGUN ACM flight in the 1980s.

16 DECEMBER 1998 • The coalition launches Operation Desert Fox against Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s failure to comply with UN resolutions to allow international inspections of sites suspected of housing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs. The operation included the first combat missions flown by female Naval Aviators and NFOs, including those from VF-32 flying F-14Bs.

15 NOVEMBER 2001 • Following Operation Desert Storm, the Navy pursued air-to-ground bombing capability for the F-14 with the development and addition of a Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) targeting system unique to the F-14. Tomcats equipped for air-to-ground combat were lovingly nicknamed “Bombcats.” Aboard such an aircraft, Lt. Andrew P. Hayes, of VF-102, spotted several bivouacs of Taliban armored vehicles in Afghanistan two miles from Army Special Forces. Despite antiaircraft and small arms fire, the fliers dropped three laser-guided bombs that hit two moving tanks and a revetted armored vehicle, and guided three GBU-12 bombs released by their wingman that destroyed two revetted tanks and a fuel truck. Secondary explosions forced more than 50 Taliban troops to flee their positions. Over the next six hours, Hayes guided 12 coalition aircraft until low fuel forced his disengagement. Aircraft dropped 20 laser-guided and 16 general-purpose bombs that resulted in the destruction of 33 vehicles including 27 armored. For his actions, Hayes received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The F-14D that flew the last combat mission in the storied history of the Tomcat pictured on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum on board NAS Pensacola, Fla.

8 FEBRUARY 2006 • Capt. William G. Sizemore II, of VF-213 and Lt. Bill Frank of VF-31 flew the last two F-14D Tomcat combat missions from Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). On April 13, Sizemore’s jet, BuNo 161159, arrived for historic preservation at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, NAS Pensacola, Fla.

A Navy F-14D Tomcat makes a near supersonic fly-by above the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during the final launch of Tomcats as the ship operates in the Atlantic Ocean on July 28, 2006. The F-14 will officially retire in September 2006 after 32 years of service to the fleet. This Tomcat is assigned to Fighter Squadron 31.

27 APRIL 2006 • The Navy disestablished the F-14 Tomcat program during a ceremony at NAS Patuxent River, Md. Grumman had received its initial contract for the aircraft on 3 February 1969, the plane made its first flight on 21 December 1970, and on 14 January 1973, the first squadron F-14As arrived at VF-1. From 17 September 1974 to 20 May 1975, VF-1 and -2 completed the first Tomcat deployment with Carrier Air Wing 14 on board USS Enterprise (CVN 65) to the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. Through 10 July 1992, the Navy accepted 679 Tomcats.

28 JULY 2006 • Pilot Lt. Blake C. Coleman and radar intercept officer Lt. Cmdr. David P. Lauderbaugh of VF-31 made the final operational carrier launch of an F-14 Tomcat, in BuNo 163147, from Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). A little less than two months later on Sept. 22, 2006, after 36 years of service, the Navy retired the F-14 Tomcat in a final flight ceremony at NAS Oceana, Va. Two weeks after that, on Oct. 4, an F-14D of VF-31, BuNo 164603, completed the last Tomcat flight from Oceana to Republic Airport, Farmingdale, N.Y. The jet spent just over a year on display at the American Airpower Museum at the airport, and was then assigned for display at Northrop Grumman, Bethpage, N.Y.

The F-14D that flew the last combat mission in the storied history of the Tomcat pictured on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum on board NAS Pensacola, Fla.