“Once when at a bar with the other Navy guys wearing our leather jackets, someone joked ‘so you think you’re some kind of Tom Cruise?’… I shot back with ‘Well, I’ve been to Topgun so technically Tom Cruise thinks he’s me.’”
Commander Richard “Corky” Erie flew the F-14 Tomcat with the US Navy. Here he describes the strengths and weaknesses of this massive and iconic carrier fighter aircraft.
Describe the Tomcat in three words
Big. Fast. Loud.
What was the best thing about the F-14?
The range/payload combination was truly remarkable. And the amount of fuel (20,000 lbs with tanks) sometimes seemed to last forever. Either bugging out of a fight in full afterburner, or accelerating inbound on a ground target, you could get a big bag of knots in a hurry and keep it for quite a while. The large fuel load, simply put, gave you lots of options.
And the worst?
In general, the high altitude performance was a big limitation. Much above 28K and into the low 30s, the TF30 motor was very sensitive to compressor stalls and she just didn’t perform well up there. As a RAG instructor, I finally got some F-14B time with the GE-110s and that was absolutely night and day. The GE motors gave you an entirely new operating area (30K’+) that I’d never experienced.
What is the highest and fastest you took an F-14?
Highest: 54,500 feet during a JO contest who could get the highest. The winner got to 61,300: this was a great lesson about why the service ceiling was 55K, and how you can snuff both motors up there and have almost 15 minutes to figure it out on the way downhill.
Fastest: Took an F-14B on a maintenance flight with a close buddy. We got her up to 1.7 Mach and thought we were kings for a day. Got back and the maintenance Chief said “how fast were you going?” to which we diplomatically replied “not that fast, just normal maintenance flight stuff.” He disbelieving said “uh huh” – and pointed to all the missing paint on the nose cone.
How good were the engines?
The TF30s in the F-14A were very prone to engine stall in several regimes (high alpha, high yaw rates, high altitude). Anyone that flew the straight A had to continuously factor engine limitations into your decision-making tactically and around the boat. The F-14B/GE-110 combination brought an entirely new airplane to the fight. No altitude was too high; you could finally be “up in the ionosphere” with Vipers, Eagles, and everyone else and bring the fight to them pretty well. You could dominate in a slow fight with that much power, or literally fight “uphill” because you could add energy so easily. Remarkable.
Which potential threat or scenario made you most nervous?
I generally flew F-14s in peacetime (I did get to drop a couple Mk-84s in Iraq pre-9/11), so the only thing you really worried about was a coupled departure leading to a flat spin. A squadron mate of mine got into an inverted flat spin over the Gulf and had to shell out (“get wet”) so that was kind of on your mind and you were on guard for it. Tactically, after going through Topgun in 1994-5 and seeing Vipers simulate a Flanker threat, that was a bit of an eye-opener on true CAT V threats.
How would you rate the Tomcat in the following categories:
A. Instantaneous turn – decent turn rate if you sold the farm on knots; tough to recover but if you know what to do with the initial angles you generate, it may be an advantage.
B. Sustained Turn – average sustained turn; key was knowing when to sell a few knots for angles, when to fight downhill if needed to get a few more degrees, and when transition into the vertical based on opponents knots.
C. Performance – overall performance envelope was very good and outcomes in an engagement hinged largely on “the man in the box” and his particular skill sets. Former bogey drivers could make the Tomcat dance (same as they did with the A-4.) It took a while for most to really get good at fighting the Tomcat and playing to its strengths.
D. Climb rate – in the F-14A, pretty decent until you got into the high 20s/low 30s. The F-14B was a rocket ship by comparison.
E. Agility – I wouldn’t use the word “agile”, but in the right hands and with a good use of classic stick and rudder skills you could maneuver really well in a fight.
F. Endurance – unmatched endurance; you could carry a lot of shit for really long way with 20,000 pounds of gas.
G. Sensors – the old AWG 9 on the F-14A was at times brilliant, and at others not so much. Range on that radar was unparalleled when it was working good (got contact on a B-52 on the deck at 100+ miles once) to the point that often your opponent didn’t even see you yet and you were launching simulated Phoenix.
H. Reliability – towards the end of her life, the F-14 (A/B/D) was VERY maintenance intensive, particularly on the structural side (hydraulics, etc.). F-14A avionics were always a challenge. One learned how to troubleshoot what you could and just go without some stuff sometimes. On a bad day it might take you an hour to get out of the chocks. But it was the heart and effort of the maintainers that worked so hard to get us airborne that really carried the day.
I. Man-machine interface – Designed in the 50s-60s and introduced in the ’70s, the Tomcat was built in that brute-force Grumman way. In modern fighters (F-16 and later), you “strap them on”; in the Tomcat, you definitely “strapped in”. The interface with the aircraft and weapons system worked well enough for me and the shared workload between pilot and RIO created the conditions for outstanding crew coordination. Pilot/RIO had to form a solid team and that teamwork was elemental to fighting the jet.
J. Ease of take-off and landing – takeoff and Cat Launch were fairly low stress. Landing was a different story. You had to be “involved in the process” and “all in”, unlike aided systems and magic HUDs today. I never used ACLS as it was unreliable. ILS/needles were a great aide to get you to “the start”, but from then on in it was pure stick/throttle ball flying. Lots to say about landing the Tomcat as that element made for great stories. Study in contrasts: if a Hornet had a HUD failure it was an emergency; when I landed I turned my HUD down to near invisible because I didn’t want all that clutter getting in the way of me and the ship/meatball.
This incredible book features previously an extremely exciting Tomcat pilot interview.
Do you get tired of mentions of the Top Gun movie? Nah, it is what it is. Personally, the movie had no influence on me. And it did put the Tomcat on the map culturally, likely contributing to its iconic status. Once when at a bar with the other Navy guys wearing our leather jackets, someone joked “so you think you’re some kind of Tom Cruise?” I shot back with “Well, I’ve been to Topgun so technically Tom Cruise thinks he’s me.” No shitter.
What are your thoughts on F-15 versus F-14 1V1? Interesting fight. We face many as Red Air at Red Flag in Nevada. There’d be 2 divisions in the mid-30s with like 8 AMRAAM apiece raining death upon us hapless bogies from long range. Fair enough. Then we’d continue to the merge, but intentionally drag them down into the thicker air (low 20s and below). They’re optimized for the high-altitude fight, our big swing wing can put the turn on pretty good in thicker air so we’d do well against them. I’ve got several Red Flag stories (one about getting into trouble for shining our radar/TCS into Area 51 and picking something up), but favorite was merging with a Eagle. With a left-to-left a couple seconds away, I threw the wing up (showed left turn, but didn’t pull) with stick and a boot full of rudder (increases the roll rate) and the second we passed 3-9 line cranked on the g’s. Pure intimidation move that made him pause for a couple potatoes while I gained an angle advantage and eventually bagged him. In the debrief he remarked “I’ve never seen a plane that big move so fast.”
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Tell me something I don’t know about the F-14 Uhhh, the iconic shape was because the engines needed to be 9 feet apart to accommodate two Phoenix missiles side by side? She was designed around the Phoenix.
What is the biggest myth about the F-14? I guess it would be the variable geometry wings; folks think a pilot would spend time controlling them. Honestly, you just left them in auto all day until it was time to land then you swept them back manually. Although on occasion you might hit the merge with the wings manually all the way back to make your opponent think you’re going 500+ knots, the switch auto after the merge and surprise them with you quick turn rate. Might buy you a couple seconds.
What should I have asked you? What are two of your favorite stories about the men that maintained the F-14? I have two.
While In VF-24, we had a Sailor named “Charlie” Brown. Really tall dude (6’5”) that had a tough time when deployed (had to duck a LOT while walking around the boat). At any rate, he was a Hydraulic Technician that was like a wizard and Yoda put together. If you had a hydraulic actuator issue on the jet (there were a lot of them), he could hook up a jenny (energizes the hydraulics without starting the jet) and nine times out of ten identify the faulty actuator BY SOUND AND FEEL. He’d walk around the jet, zero in, lay hands on the area and declare “Yup, number 4 spoiler actuator on the left wing.” Amazing. He eventually made Master Chief.
In VF-154 I was the Maintenance Officer and had the honor of working with some of the best maintainers in the Navy. On one occasion, a new Sailor was checking in at the Maintenance Desk (after traveling for about 16 hours) and overheard me talking to the Maintenance Master Chief about a specific problem with a jet that was being worked on in the hangar; the right shoulder station wouldn’t properly interface with a Phoenix when one was on the station. Our guys had been working on it for months on occasion and no one could figure it out. He walked over (in civilian clothes still) and said he’d had a similar gripe on a jet at VX-9 in Pt. Mugu and asked if he could take a look. I told him to take a couple days to rest up after travel and we can check it out then. He said “I’m fine, Sir. Had plenty of sleep on the plane. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a look.” 30 minutes later he’s on top of the jet (still in civilian clothes, mind you), literally upside down and diving into the area over the station with his legs sticking out. Turns out the same gripe involved a little-known (and impossible to see) cannon plug that had to be found “blind” (by feel). Sure enough, he fixed it. Remarkable motivation.
What was your most memorable mission?
Jiminy Christmas that’s a tough one. 2000 hours, 650 traps…lots of stories to consider, but I guess the one that comes to mind is “The Day I Almost Died.” Yeah, most guys have one or two or 3 dozen of those. Here’s my “favorite”.
I was a VF-101 RAG instructor taking a young RIO out on a Tactics flight (advanced syllabus in the RAG, ACM) that was a 1 v 2 scenario (we’re the one); training points are how to manage radar intercept versus two bogies, then how to survive a dogfight with them (both F-14 squadron mates). On the first ingress (about a 40-mile set to get the RIO some radar time), we’re approaching the 2 bogies who are in combat spread (1 mile apart, co-altitude). I explain to RIO that our goal is to NOT get bracketed (fly down the middle of their formation) because that’s the kiss of death (one goes high, one goes low, you go in the water). RIO calls contact and we put our nose on their formation (35 miles). I opt to lean right to put both bogies to the left of us. We simulate a Phoenix shot, crank right, then put our nose back on the formation (20 miles). They’re basically boresighting us (keeping nose on) to honor the scenario/training points. Take a quick Sparrow shot (standard shot timeline stuff), take nose off to the right, then put nose back on (10 miles), still planning on being outside their formation to the right at the merge. At this time, the RIO (per the standard shot timeline) locks up the right bogey. Or so I thought. The AWG 9 would sweep a pulse lock back and forth and even though you had the right bogey in the radar lock gates on the pulse scope, it might sweep past and lock the left guy. In actuality, he’d locked up the left guy. I have a diamond in my HUD left of center indicating where in the sky the bogey is and that diamond tracks slowly left, which makes sense geometrically since I think the RIGHT guy is locked (5 miles; about 30 seconds to the merge). At what I think is the proper moment geometrically, I start a left-hand turn to put my nose on what I think is the RIGHT bogey. Graphically, here’s the problem: Yes, I’m turning in front of another Tomcat, co-altitude, at 800+ knots closure. The pilot on the right sees me do this and at the last possible micro-second jerks his stick back to avoid. This is where it gets weird. I saw the flash of a shadow, and felt a thump. As I’m leveling my wings, the image I just saw is processing, like a picture loading slowly from the internet, line-by-line starting to fill the screen (my brain). It was a Tomcat. A very CLOSE Tomcat. Mentally processing the image further I realize that I can literally see the black stains around the rivets and fasteners of the panels on the belly. Rivets and fasteners. Black stains. You need to be about 30-40 feet away to really see that kind of detail. 30-40 feet. Traveling in opposite directions. With 800 knots of closure. After that rapid analysis (a couple seconds?), I called a knock it off and we headed home. Bogies rogered up on the radio “Uhhh, yeah. Concur. See you on deck.” The RIO didn’t understand why until we talked about it in the debrief (he was heads-down, naturally). I suppose the good news there is that if we’d collided, I’d never have known about it. I can still see that image.
- Which types have you flown DACT against, which were the most challenging opponents and why? Hornets, Eagles, Vipers, a Harrier once, A-4s, the VX-9 Bunny Jet once, Qatari Alpha Jets, Mirage 2000s. The Viper is God’s Jet (if God could fly, he’d fly a Viper) and in the hands of a competent aviator is really hard to beat. In the hands of a professional bogey driver, you’re screwed. A-4 is kind of the same but if you kept your knots up you could outlast them into the vertical. First engagement with a Viper is in the RAG on your first DACT hop in late tactics. The setup is you saddle in for a gun solution on the Viper and THEN it’s “fights on”. He does a 9g bat turn, flies past your right shoulder, and saddles in to gun you in 30 seconds. “Welcome to Fighters, Kid!”
- Today, many aircraft types in Europe, Russia and Asia have an ultra-long-range missile capability whereas when the Tomcat started it was unique in this respect. What are your thoughts on long-range a2a missiles? I think our departure from that capability was a mistake when viewed over time. Folks don’t realize that the F-14/Phoenix combination was a key in winning the Cold War. The Soviets knew that the Fleet Defender Tomcat could take down 6 of their long-range Bears/Backfires, etc. each so they had no choice but to build many more than they wanted in hopes of getting enough through to hit the Carrier Battle Group throughout the 70s and 80s. Eventually, this contributed to the Soviets basically running out of money and eventually collapsing. Similarly now, we find ourselves facing peer military forces with air-to-air missiles that don’t have an especially long range. Wouldn’t it be nice to engage a hostile bomber or fighter at 90+ miles? Sure would. Too bad we can’t.
- Thoughts on Iran’s F-14s? Truly surprised they’re still flying! The Iranian air force can rot in hell, but sort of a “good on ‘em” for keeping them airborne. Maybe they can sell one to Elon Musk to take on the air show circuit!
Years and units served?
1983-1988: San Diego State University NROTC
1988: Pensacola (AI), VT-2 Doer Birds, Whiting Field; VT-23 Professionals, Kingsville, TX
1989: VT-22 Golden Eagles, Kingsville, TX
1990-1993: VF-124 Gunslingers RAG Student, NAS Miramar
1993-1996: VF-24 Renegades/CAG 9/Nimitz
1996-1998: VF-101 Grim Reapers RAG Instructor, NAS Oceana
1998-2000: VF-154 Black Knights/CAG 5/Kitty Hawk
2000-2004: Fighter Wing Atlantic*, NAS Oceana
2004-2008: NAS Oceana Air Operations
*In January, 2000 I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and could no longer fly
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