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U.S. Navy aircrews and recruiters loved it, but its record suggests the Top Gun mount wasn’t all it was cranked up to be.

In 1961, when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposed the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark as a Swiss army knife suitable for all three major flying services, that included a Navy version, the F-111B. The B turned out to be too complex, underpowered and heavy for carrier ops, however. It was also a bomber, and the Navy needed a fighter.

In the career-ending words of Vice Adm. Tom Connolly, in response to a senator’s question as to whether more powerful engines might make the F-111B acceptable, “Mister Chairman, all the thrust in Christendom couldn’t make a fighter out of that airplane.” Some claim that the Tomcat’s name is a tribute to Connolly’s falling-on-his-sword honesty.

The Navy was seeking a replacement for the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, which no longer had the range or weapons needed to protect carrier battle groups. Soviet advances in bombers and anti-ship cruise missiles required an inter­ceptor that could fly far and fast, with long loiter time, powerful radar and brutish missiles that could strike far beyond the range of Sidewinders and Sparrows.

Grumman, which had worked with General Dynamics on the F-111’s variable-geometry wing, had already begun work on a fighter, the G-303, that became the Tomcat. It utilized the 111’s swing-wing concept as well as its Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines—unique in being the world’s first afterburning fighter turbofans.

Grumman, a swing-wing pioneer, had built the rotund and underpowered XF10F Jaguar to test the concept of a wing that could be unswept for carrier landings and takeoffs, and swept for inflight speed. Grumman test pilot Corky Meyer was the only person to fly the sole XF10F and he pronounced it fun “because there was so much wrong with it.” His work nonetheless carried over to the F-111 and the F-14.

The father of the Tomcat, Grumman engineer Mike Pelehach, saw his first MiG-21 at a 1960s Paris Air Show and knew the U.S. would need a fighter that could defeat it. Pelehach paced off the dimensions of the MiG and went back to the company’s Beth­page headquarters to begin work on a MiG-beater. Ultimately, he drew together all the concepts and options that resulted in the Tomcat.

Mike Pelehach (left), the father of the Tomcat, and fellow Grumman engineers look over the first F-14 during
its construction. (Cradle of Aviation Museum)

A highly regarded engineer, Pelehach once had dinner with a group of his Chinese counterparts, who asked if it would be possible to modernize their own MiG-21s. Pelehach quickly sketched a design and some details on the tablecloth. At the end of the evening, the Chinese engineers stripped the silverware and took the tablecloth with them.

The variable-geometry wing, however, was not one of Pelehach’s best ideas. In practice the swing wing has been called a major aeronautical engineering blunder. On the Tomcat, it was complex and heavy, and though its movement was automatic and rapid, some Air Force F-15 and F-16 pilots who flew against the F-14 claimed the wings’ position telegraphed the airplane’s energy state as it lost momentum during air combat maneuvers. The main reason for that lost momentum during ACM was the dismal .68-to-1 thrust ratio of the early TF30 engine.

The fuel-efficient engines (plus swing wings that could be unswept at max-loiter airspeeds) allowed the Tomcat to linger longer over the battlefield, with a bigger ordnance load than any fighter in the world, but they had a failing that had already cropped up during the F-111’s career. F-111s weren’t expected to fly as extreme a flight envelope as were Tomcats, so the problem was not a major consideration. But the fact remained that TF30s were never intended to be fighter engines; they were not meant to deal with the constant and rapid throttle movements and high angle-of-attack situations that modern combat involved.

The second F-14 prototype takes off from Grumman’s Calverton, Long Island, airfield in August 1971. The first prototype crashed on its second flight. (Cradle of Aviation Museum)

The TF30 was prone to compressor stalls and surges when operated at high angles of attack or yaw if the power levers were moved too aggressively—common during air combat maneuvering. The Tomcat’s engines were mounted about nine feet apart, to allow room between them for missile carriage and to create a large lifting surface. (More than half of an F-14’s total lift comes from what Grumman called the pancake—the surface area between the engine nacelles.) So when one of the engines lost power from a compressor stall, the resultant yaw could be sudden and scary, sometimes resulting in an unrecoverable flat spin. Compressor stalls led to the loss of more than 40 F-14s. Had the early Tomcats ever gone into serious combat, more of them might have been lost to compressor stalls than to enemy action.

Some Tomcat crews described their mount as “a nice aircraft powered by two pieces of junk.” For the sake of airframe longevity, the Tomcat was in practical terms limited to 6.5 Gs, while an F-15 could pull 9 Gs. (So could a Tomcat, at high enough speeds, but the airplane then had to undergo a complex over-G inspection.) The difference was also attributed to TF30 engine limitations.

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