They're coming one after the other now. Each day seems to bring another heartache – articles in professional journals, invitations for “the last of” events, order forms for coffee table books. I'm beginning to realize that there's no putting off the fact that one of the most revolutionary, capable, and elegant airplanes ever to dominate the skies is going away.
I refer, of course, to the F-14 Tomcat. Over the next number of months the grand old boy will take his leave. With the F-14 goes the notion of swing wings, variable geometry intakes, radar intercept officers, and 1.8 indicated Mach number on the airspeed gauge. And with the F-14 also goes a big part of what made my life noteworthy, dare I say, the stuff of novels.
The Tomcat had an amazing run: thirty-plus years, three wars, dozens of brushfires and contingencies, and one popular – albeit hokey– movie called “Top Gun.” Few airplanes in the history of aviation have adapted as well to the tactical landscape over their years in the inventory. The F-14 was designed around the AWG-9/Phoenix missile system, a long-range air superiority fighter that pushed out the boundaries of fleet defense. The early portion of my flying career was about launching on the Alert 5 and escorting Soviet bombers and transports. Those were the days of the 1+45 cycle, the days when the Tomcat was the fuel critical jet in the air wing. The thought of dropping bombs was anathema to us then.
But the threat changed as the post-Cold War defense budgets shrunk, and the F-14 morphed into an attack platform. A few years after that the LANTIRN pod was strapped onto a wing station and strike planning doors that had once been shut to the Tomcat community came flying open. Suddenly the Tomcat, with its two-man crew and newly received high-resolution displays, was the platform of choice for culturally sensitive or hard-to-find targets. System by system (including the flight controls), an analog airplane turned digital.
And none too soon. Precision bomb delivery along with the refinement of the photo reconnaissance mission and the addition of roles such as FAC(A) came just in time to serve in the wake of 9/11. Six-hour missions to Masir-e-Sharif? No problem. Same goes for the way the airplane was employed during the opening months of the Iraqi War. A flexible, capable platform combined with resourceful aviators is a great pairing in the face of a dynamic battlefield. Ironically, perhaps, as the Tomcat got older, it got better. In sum, it's safe to say that the American taxpayer was well served by this asset.
But now the F-14's time is nearly over. Emotions stir in the face of this reality. Thousands of hours of my adult life were spent strapped into the back seat of the “Big Fighter.” It was there that challenges were met, friendships were forged, and the nation's will was carried out. From that lofty perch I looked up at the heavens and down on hostile lands. I didn't always realize it then – youth, of course, is lost on the young – but each sortie was a gift.
So, too, was the time spent in the company of greats. I think back on chain-laden plane captains who loved the airplanes as much as we did, those who kept the aviators going with their enthusiasm in the face of long days that promised nothing but more hard work. I remember the maintenance master chiefs who taught me not just how the Tomcat works but how to be an officer and a man. And for their caring they asked for nothing in return. In their countenances I saw my responsibilities.
Anyone familiar with my Punk series of books knows that the years I spent riding in the back gave me a de facto doctorate in pilot personality types. Any RIO with 1,000 hours or more in the airplane possesses a similar degree. And as I flip through the pages of my weathered logbooks and read the names – Orr, West, Davison, Owens, Daill, Alwine, and hundreds more – I think of their skill, skill that boggles the mind even now, and the teamwork between cockpits that made flying the F-14 rewarding. I know few things as surely as I know that U.S. Navy carrier-based pilots are the best in the world.
And what of the down times between sorties? In my mind's eye I conjure up a gathering in the eight-man stateroom where problems are broached, dissected, and solved. This is where I learned about trust. This is where I realized I could survive the trial that was life at sea – hell, life period.
Now I close my eyes and hear the clack, clack, clack of the shuttle as it moves aft for the next launch. The exhaust from the powerful and reliable F-110 engines fills my nostrils until we drop the canopy and bring our jet to life. Air roars through the ECS. Systems power up. Soon we're parked behind the cat, waiting our turn. I roger the weight board – 68,000 pounds, buddy, 68,000 pounds. Grasp that, if you can. The jet blast deflector comes down and we taxi into place, my pilot deftly splitting the cat track with the twin nose tires. And then – even after decades of doing the same thing – the adrenaline starts to flow as we go through the deck dance unique to the Tomcat: The nose strut compresses, giving the fighter the look of a rail dragster; the launch bar comes down. Wings spread. Flaps lower. Outboard spoiler module circuit breaker goes in (a RIO gotcha). Our hands go up as the ordies arm the missiles, bombs, and gun.
There's the signal from the catapult officer. My pilot puts the throttles to military power and wipes out the controls – stick forward, aft, left, and right; rudder left and right.
“You ready, Mooch?” he asks. I run the fingers of my right hand across the top of the lower ejection handle (for orientation purposes) and answer, “Ready.”
He salutes. We both lean forward slightly. (No self-respecting Tomcat crew would take a cat shot with their heads against the headrest, not to mention that would be a good way to get your bell rung because of the way the airplane surges down before it starts moving forward.) A couple of potatoes later we're off. Airborne.
And for the next hours we stand ready to bring this machine, this manifestation of American know-how, to bear however it might be required. Or maybe today isn't our day to save the world, so we accommodate one of the small boy's requests for a fly-by or break the sound barrier just because we can (and we're far enough above our fuel ladder to get away with it).
We're flying a Tomcat. And we're getting paid to do it. Alas, I speak of days gone by. What remains of what once gave my working life purpose will soon only be found in front of main gates, aviation museums, and VFW halls around the country. In the blink of an eye I have become the guy with the ill-fitting ball cap and the weathered flight jacket who bores young ensigns (and anyone else who happens to make eye contact) with his tales of derring-do. “VF, dang it!” I rail. “Those were real fighter squadrons.” And they were. Swordsmen, Pukin' Dogs, Grim Reapers, Diamondbacks – mascots of an adventure. At the center of it all was the airplane itself, and when an airplane has so much heart, personality, and character it ceases to be inanimate to those who climb into it on a regular basis.
So it's goodbye, dear friend. Forgive my depression. I've heard the promises of a brighter future, but my time in the arena was with you. I watch you zorch into the sunset and wonder how it all could have passed so quickly. It doesn't seem like that long ago when we were together, inextricably linked, one defining the other. Ours was a world of unlimited possibilities and missions accomplished. Ours was a world of victory.
So goodbye, Big Fighter, blessed protector of the American way and our hides. We who knew you well will miss your class, your swagger, your raw power. Even in the face of technological advances you bowed to no other. Thanks for the memories. They are indeed the stuff of novels.
About the Author: Ward Carroll served in four different F-14 squadrons based at NAS Oceana and was the operations officer for Carrier Air Wing One. He was editor of Approach magazine and is currently a contributing editor for Naval Aviation News. His three books about a Tomcat pilot -- Punk's War, Punk's Wing, and Punk's Fight -- have been widely praised for their realistic portrayals of a Naval Aviator's life. His latest novel, The Aide, was recently published by Signet.