Flying & fighting in the F-14 Tomcat: Interview with an Iranian fighter ace
The F-14 fighter garnered global fame as the star of the extremely American Top Gun film, but in an unlikely twist of fate, the vast bulk of the Tomcat’s air combat experience actually took place in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. Col. Mostafa Roustaie (ret.) flew the formidable Tomcat in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) in which he shot down five Iraqi Mirages and MiGs. He spoke to Hush-Kit about flying and fighting in this awe-inspiring fighting machine.
What were your first impressions of the F-14A?
“I believe the first time I set my eyes on an F-14 was during my undergraduate pilot training (UPT) in the United States in the early ‘70s. There was a massive amount of hype about the F-14A and the F-15 Eagle at the time. Our gut feeling was that the then ruler of Iran, His Majesty the Shah, would eventually choose one of these two beautiful birds. The F-14 was on a US-wide test run and tour visiting all US military bases. It was then in Laughlin AFB that some of us Iranian cadets were allowed to see the F-14 for the first time. I got a chance to check the cockpit out. I was wholly impressed. Believe me, I fell in love right there and then with this beautiful jet, and even more so with its roomy cockpit. After completion of my UPT training in the United States, I went back to Iran to complete my fighter pilot training with the Imperial Iranian Air Force on the F-4E Phantom II (which was a brand new aircraft in our fleet of fighters). Believe it or not, even though I was a full-time F-4E pilot, I could not stop thinking about the Tomcat. I dreamed about it every night, hoping to be able to fly it some day. The requirement to fly and train in the Iranian F-14A demanded around 1000 hours of flight hour on the F-5, or about 1500 hours on the F-4 Phantom II. Those were amongst the most challenging years of my life as I worked hard to be chosen for the F-14 slot.”
Three words to describe the Tomcat?
“So hard to just choose three. Maybe those three words would not do it justice. Due to my intense interest in the F-14, I would devour anything that related to it. I would constantly speak with my old instructor pilots who had by then been assigned to F-14. The F-4 Phantom II in its time was one of the best fighter aircraft in the world. Flying it was definitely a privilege and a chance of a lifetime. Flying the F-4 made you proud. And I say this now as a former F-4 pilot, but Grumman’s Tomcat was a cut above. It was something else. F-14 was ‘the last word in the fighter business.’”
“I wanted to kill this guy by then. Adrenaline was pumping through me. I was full of rage, disappointment and excitement. I thought if it comes to it, I am gonna have to ram this guy. Maybe he read my mind, I don’t know. At this point, for reasons I will never understand this Iraqi pilot made a rookie mistake. Instead of climbing to clear a ridge, he turned and impacted the hillside at high speed as we flew over.”
What is the best thing about it?
“When (and if) you get to intimately know the F-14, you realise that it is a very forgiving and steady airframe. My honest experience tells me that majority of mishaps are due to pilot error. However, the F-14 was generously forgiving of one’s mistakes… so long as the envelope is not pushed beyond what the airframe and aircraft are designed for.”
What is the worst thing about it?
“I can only speak from my own experience, and in comparison to the aeroplanes I flew (such as the T-37, T-38, and F-4D/E). But I am willing to say that there are no or very few negative issues about it. The F-14 was the ultimate fighter aircraft. It was the result of years of research and combat experience. A generation of fighter design thinking that culminated in the production of Grumman’s Tomcat.
Maybe, since we were an air force and were used to backseat stick and control, the addition of a stick to the backseat would have been desirable (I am saying this only from a training perspective). Although this was not much of hinderance. Our superb US Navy, and IIAF training proved that the Tomcat was a flawless design. It was proven in combat. All in all, it seriously was excellent. Absolute perfection”
How do you rate the F-14 in the following categories?
Instantaneous turn: “I would give it an A+. If you paid attention and watched your angle of attack, stall indicators and whatnot then the instantaneous turn rate was better than great. Although as you know, every airframe has its own G-limits and we made sure not to stress the airframe beyond what was asked of it.”
Sustained turn: “Again I would give it the same rating if not better. 95 out of 100. If you observed the above notes (and I must add it put G pressure on the plane and the pilot which is an extra thing to worry about) then it had no problem. It was good at it. As I will shortly explain, I had an intense aerial duel with a MiG-21, and the F-14 proved more than capable in flying regimes that were not possible in any other fighter at that time. I personally can attest to the F-14’s amazing qualities in the proverbial ‘knife-fight in a phone-booth’.”
High alpha: “The AOA in Tomcat was easily controllable provided you made the right inputs and speed corrections. In fact, the F-14 was great at high alpha flying. I would give it an A+.”
Acceleration: “Never seen an aircraft accelerate this quick. Even with the notorious TF30 engines on our F-14s. Its powerful engines, and its five zones give an experienced fighter pilot a sense of superiority in the sky that is unmatched. I loved it. 100 out of 100 for this one.”
Climb rate: “I would refer you to what I said about acceleration. Same deal. I urge your readers to watch dozens and dozens of video clips out there showing F-14’s superior climb rate in the airshows and displays.”
Sensors: “We are talking about 1970s technology in 2020. For its time in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and well into the 1990s, it was superior to anything that was out there in the Eastern or Western bloc. We proved this in the war against numerous Iraqi Mirage F1 fighters, MiG-23, and in one instance a MiG-29. Its capable radar, jammers and receivers were a world ahead of its contemporaries. It felt like Tomcat designers had gone to war once before and knew what a fighter pilot needed (and desired to have) in combat. Compared to the F-4E, it was light years ahead. The AWG-9 radar and control system was a miracle. I could fly over the northern Persian gulf and could see the movement of Iraqi aircraft as far as Baghdad on my radar scope. This boggled my own mind every time. Its radar warning receiver was excellent. Night flying or flying in weather were a joy.”
Performance: “In general, the aircraft was unrivalled. It was well equipped, and in the hands of a decent fighter pilot who could use all that it offered, it was a great machine.”
“The switchology was excellent and thoughtful. I was pretty elated and shocked when I sat in the front seat of an F-14A for the first time. It felt like I was sitting on top or out of the aircraft. I mean it was like sitting atop the jet. It offered the pilot and RIO an unmatched view of the surroundings. I remember when I was an F-4 pilot, my helmet would bang the cockpit each time I wanted to look down and I would end up rolling the aircraft to get the desired view down low. The F-14 was totally different. Each switch was placed in its correct position, was accessible. The seat itself was easily adjustable, and the environmental control system was my favourite.”
“My take is that you have to be present in the cockpit to to know what is going on around you. By that, I mean you had to have your mind present and be focused. There are many systems in a fighter aircraft that constantly feed you all kinds of data to keep you alive. A fighter pilot that does not know what is going on around him/her, or isn’t aware of its systems will end up as a guest at Azrael’s (angel of death) evening party. A fighter pilot must have all his six senses tuned to his/her systems while engaging those very senses outside of the cockpit to survive combat. In essence, a fighter pilot has not gone to the park for a walk. He’s gone to war and that is his job. He has to do his job flawlessly to survive.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the F-14?
“I think a lot of ordinary people do not and can not fathom the awesome capabilities the F-14 brought with it. I was an F-4 pilot with hundreds of hours of flight time and despite my affection for the F-14, I really did not know much beyond what others told me and what I had read about it. It was only during training and then actual air combat when its true capabilities came to the fore. There was no peacetime limitations on what I could or could not do with this aircraft. I was told to defend the skies and I did what it took to do so.”
How good was the AIM-54A, what was your experience with the weapon system?
“As you know, the origins of AIM-54 dates back to the missile system that was envisioned for the A-12/YF-12 supersonic interceptor. And we all know the F-111B story. Then it morphs into, and gets finessed to what we now know as the AIM-54A and C variants of the original concept. So it began its journey as a powerful, heavy long-range missile that was to intercept Russian long range bombers threatening US Navy carrier strike groups. But what gave it the lethal punch was the combination of then the AWG-9 system with the missile itself. I personally believe the Iranian kill rate using the missile was above 90 percent. A handful malfunctioned on launch and dropped off the jet cold. Overall it was a reliable and effective weapon system.
Let me add an important note to this whole thing. Our air force’s maintenance squadrons with their highly capable weapons and armament shops (which I might add were all US-trained) provided us with reliable missiles and systems to use in combat. All this could not have been achieved without their dedication in eight years of conflict with Iraq. I personally launched four of those AIM-54A missiles at enemy aircraft. Three performed flawlessly and scored hits giving me three confirmed kills. But the fourth one is most likely a probable. I could not see what it did and so I can not take credit for it. Although after we had landed, our intelligence reported a heightened radio traffic on the enemy side and our SIGINT/ELINT units confirmed search & rescue activity in the area of the probable hit, but I could not visually confirm anything. In order to increase the chance of a hit, we were instructed to launch within 40 miles. It was a proven lethal long range platform. Our F-14A kill ratio is still jaw-dropping. A few Tomcats brought down by friendly fire but that is for another day. ”
What was your toughest opponent, and why?
“I had a few dogfights. I mean very close encounters with an enemy aeroplane. The ones that are known as ‘phone-booth knife fights’ in fighter pilot jargon. Twice against French -built Mirage F1, once against a MiG-23, and one time against a MiG-21 over the town of Ilam in western Iran near the Iraqi border. I had hurried his number 2 back to Iraq, but ended up in a breath-taking four to five minute-long flying duel against their flight lead. He was a superb and capable pilot. And if I may say so here, I still mourn his loss as a flier, an expert. Now more than 38 years after that day, I don’t see him as an enemy. Here is what actually happened. I struggle a lot inside with this one incident.
Hours earlier I had landed around 2030 local time and took a bit of time to debrief. As I was leaving the squadron building around 2230, I saw the next day flight schedule and my jaw dropped. They had set me with 1st Lt Reza Tahmasabi as my RIO for an early 0530 launch. When I got home, I passed out on the sofa while I was eating. And all I remember is the flight scheduler’s call shortly after to remind me that the squadron’s shuttle was en-route to pick me up. It was early morning of October 26th, 1982. The armed conflict that Iraq had commenced against Iran in September 1980 was still raging, and in its third year.
“Seconds ago, I wanted him dead. Now he was dead. But my heart broke for him. Maybe I even shed a tear. That pilot was incredible.”
Reza and I launched in an F-14A (serial No. 3-6078 BuNo 160376 callsign ‘Captain One‘) around 0530 AM local time and came under the control of Dezful air base’s Ground Control Radar in SW Iran. The area was calm and our radar scope clear. We would run to the vicinity of our border with Iraq under Dezful air base’s radar control and then would head back. This would go on a few times. One time we would turn right, and next we would turn left. In the middle of my last right turn, Reza my RIO strangely (and impatiently) asked me to halt my right bank and hold it. A second later, he called out a high velocity contact on radar fifty miles out. Radar calmly asked us to hang on a second, as it could be friendly aircraft. Seconds passed, and the radar operator calmly told us that there were no friendlies in the area and asked us to watch out. My senses were now in a state of heightened tension. I could tell something was up. Moments later Reza said “… don’t have whatever it was on my scope any more, but it was for real..” He had not finished his sentence when Dezful ground radar officer came back on and told us there were a pair of enemy aircraft 30 degrees to our left, low, with a heading of 180 probably on a bomb run against the Iranian towns of Ahwaz or Dezful. I pushed down low while talking to my trusted radar intercept Officer (the ‘back-seater’ or RIO).
The radar controller kept giving us the updated track, heading and speed of these ‘bandits’ closing on us. Reza was also urging me to keep a tight left turn as he warned me of the closure rate and distance. I reached out and flipped the switches for a heat-seeking AIM-9 missile launch. At first, I got a glimpse of the number 2 in trail, and moments later his number 1 came to view as well. It was hard to tell the type of the enemy aircraft but a guessing game ensued. Was it a MiG-21, or an Su-22 strike aircraft? Unsure, I pressed on, while Reza my good RIO kept an eye out for others. The Number 2 aircraft noticed us and banked so hard to the right I thought to myself that maybe its pilot had gone mad. Now the flight leader was mine. I was prepared to launch the Sidewinder (my guess is that we were about three miles out) but he noticed us either through his fleeing wingman or somehow managed to see us, dropped his ordnance plus fuel tanks as he dove down hard to the right. He entered into a valley and flew fast and furious over a riverbed towards Iraq. We gave chase about 200-300 feet above him and entered the valley. This pilot seemed to know the area quite well. He weaved and whirled so well it enraged me. It was really difficult for me to accept that a 1950s MiG-21 was giving me a run for my money in my modern F-14. A few instances he came close to within range of my heatseeking missile but each time he would turn so sharply and timely as though he could read my mind. This Iraqi pilot was for sure a miracle worker. I was in awe of his superior airmanship. In a nimble MiG-21 he flew brilliantly. I was chasing and admiring when my back-seater Reza called out our fuel level which made me come out of afterburner and give an audible sigh. I was like “Oh man we have come this far for a kill, and now we have to go back due to low fuel.” I wanted to kill this guy by then. Adrenaline was pumping through me, I was full of rage, disappointment and excitement. I thought if it comes to it, I am gonna have to ram this guy then. Maybe he read my mind. I don’t know.
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At this point, for reasons I will never understand, this Iraqi pilot made a rookie mistake. Instead of climbing to clear a ridge, he turned and impacted the hillside at high speed as we flew over. Seconds ago, I wanted him dead. Now he was dead. But my heart broke for him. Maybe I even shed a tear. That pilot was incredible. An exceptional airman. Even though I was unable to shoot him down, the kill was later credited to us as a manoeuvre kill. 38 years after and I am still sad that a good pilot had to pass-on that way. He did not deserve to perish like that. Our fuel level was now critical and finding the airborne tanker was a challenge. However the tanker pilot had heard our plea over the radio and had decided to abandon its track to meet us for a much needed air-to-air fuel transfer. We made contact with them and got home safe.”
What was life like in your unit during the war? What were the biggest highs and lows?
“At the onset of the war, we had very little combat experiences. Our peak adrenaline rush was mock basic fighter manoeuvre (BFM) sorties or air combat manoeuvring (ACM) sorties done under tight pre-determined rules by the air force brass. And then the war broke out. I had not seen a live AIM-54A Phoenix missile until the first night of the war. We had practiced with CATM-54A missiles and such, but never before had I seen an armed missile. On top of this, the stress of combat was felt across our families. My wife ran the family. While I acted like a trained military puppet, day and night roaming the base and preparing for what was then a fully-fledged war with a neighbouring country. Family life was on hold, and military orders were the priority. As there were not enough F-14 pilots available, so we had to fly long hours to cover the skies and provide combat air patrols (CAP) for the nation’s critical infrastructure including ports, major cities and oil facilities. Thankfully, the Shah’s foresight had prepared us for the day we would go to war and as a result the former Imperial Iranian Air Force had acquired several squadrons of aerial tankers. We were well trained in the art of air refuelling and our KC-747s, and KC-707 (Boeing 747-100, and 707-300s) could sustain us in long flights. There were occasions where I personally flew eight–nine hour long missions providing CAP to ocean-going oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. I know of a few pilots who flew even longer hours. The camaraderie was great. Despite all the sacrifices, our families were there for us and they’re the ones who should be thanked. The biggest highs were when there was no fatality or incident in our wing, and the lows were when we’d lose a friend or an aircraft.”
Tell us about your kills
“I have five kills under my name. One MiG-21 that I maneuvered to impact with the ground, or rather he impacted with the terrain as I was chasing him. Two Mirage F1 jets, and two MiG-23 Flogger strike jets.”
How did you feel going into combat in the F-14A?
“Certainly, the confidence I felt (and I think every one in our squadron surely felt) was very high. That we were in the world famous F-14 with its cutting-edge technology (combined with the training we received from our Iranian and US Navy instructors) made us feel invincible. Given all the challenges we felt as F-14 pilots in post-revolution Iran, I believe the aircraft and its crew overall performed marvellously.”
F-14 combat effectiveness and importance in the war
“Psychologically speaking it was always a boost to know I was in an F-14 facing hostile forces. Having an F-14 in the skies over friendly forces was also a morale booster. I must add that an interceptor is incomplete without its controllers. Some of our ground controllers were so good that we’d blindly go wherever they told us to. I can recall Captain Pezhman, or Major Asem. These two were my own favourites whom I trusted and could tell they had my best interests in mind.
And as a fighter pilot I definitely knew I had the best technology available to me and we were well trained. I had a great number of flying hours by then and my confidence level had risen drastically. All that was needed was a bit of luck to own the skies. I want to say thanks to the person who actually purchased the F-14 for the air force. He chose well.”
What is the biggest myth about the Iranian F-14 fleet?
“There are a few. The biggest lie, I suppose, is that given the chance Iran should have acquired the Eagle. I disagree. Many of my fellow pilots in the Iranian AF would agree with me on this, I am sure. Iran is a vast country with a unique geography. High mountain ranges, deserts and its proximity to the Soviet Union during the Cold War left us no choice but to go for a long range interceptor with a capable radar and deadly armament. The F-15 is a superb dogfighter and its current versions are significantly better than those of the mid 1970s. But looking back, the F-14 offered Iran what the F-15 could not: the ability to deter Russian overflights, and engage multiple targets from unbelievable distances while providing radar coverage for other friendly aircraft. This proved important as the Shah’s attempt to buy the E-3 AWACS never materialised due to the 1979 revolution. The F-15 matured a bit later.
Another myth is that F-14 is indestructible and invincible. I disagree with this assessment a little. The F-14 is like any other weapon system — and is prone to mishaps, human errors and technological advances that can defeat it.”
What else should I have asked you?
“I can’t think of anything at the moment. Everything that needs to be said about my experience with it has been said here, and there are hundreds of books and documentaries about this venerable aircraft. Maybe I should hint at the TF30 engines. Many comments have been said about these engines. Yes, it is not perfect and a lot has been said about its stall characteristics in certain flying regimes, but in the hands of a stable, well-trained and knowledgeable pilot, these engines are never a problem.
What was your most memorable mission and why?
“Two missions will always stand out in my mind. One was the dogfight with the MiG-21 in 1982, and the other one, a compressor stall incident which took place during a mission I undertook on May 5th, 1985 in central Iran over the city of Kazeroun while tanking after an exhausting CAP sortie.
We were at 24,500 ft performing our second aerial refuelling of the day. Once our aeroplane was full, I pulled the throttles back gently. Quite suddenly, there was frightening noise in the cabin and all went silent. Fog filled the cockpit and I could barely see. At first I thought it was smoke, but when it subsided I realised it was not. My ears were hurting with a kind of pain I’d never experienced before. The aircraft went nose down, and the front control panel blinking like a Christmas tree. Every warning light was on except the ones for ‘fire’. A quick glance at the engine gauges told me all I needed to know. We had two basic options: get the engines back, or ‘punch-out’ (eject).
My back-seater, that fateful day, was Captain G. Mardani. He started reading the emergency checklist as I was attempting an air start. It was so quiet I could hear my own breath. I told my RIO to be prepared to bail out once we reach 11,000 feet.
From then on, I focused on air start procedures, but then I quickly realised it can only be done under 13,000 feet. Perhaps three or four minutes must have passed but it seemed like three to four centuries to us. Passing 13,000 feet, the ‘Master Caution’ light came on. That meant electrical power was restored to the aircraft, meaning one of the engines was now back on line. Believe me, I could not bring myself to tell my RIO not to punch out. Words would not come out. I mustered all that was left in me and shouted— “Do not punch out!” repeatedly. And he quickly barked back — “Yeah I know. Calm down. I can feel one of the engines running.” It feels like you have hit the jackpot. The right engine came back up, but the left just did not budge, I declared an emergency and returned to Shiraz Air Base for a barrier arrested recovery using the F-14’s hook to catch the cable in order to slow and halt the stricken jet.”
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions.
“My pleasure. I should thank you for reaching out. Special thanks to Mr. Kash Rayan for conveying my sentiment and words to your esteemed readers. I should hereby say that the Iranian air force combat record is one that gets ignored by western observers for various reasons. It shouldn’t be. I hope more and more of your readers, aviation enthusiasts and academics study this conflict in depth away from the politics of today’s world. The Iranian Air Force used existing western military doctrine to fight a Soviet trained adversary in the air, on the ground and at sea. And a fair study of the war in the air, and at sea at least shows the (albeit slight) triumph of the Western doctrine. It is a great case study for Cold War historians.
Once again, many thanks for giving me an opportunity to speak about my experiences.”
Details of Colonel M. Roustaie’s aerial kills
Date: 15th January 1981
Aircraft: F-14A Serial No: 3-6027
Weapon: AIM-54A Mfg Serial No: 40215/8
RIO: Captain A. Jalal-Abadi
Callsign: Vulture 3
Location: Khuzestan province of Iran.
Target destroyed: MiG-23 Flogger
Date: 5th Oct 1981
Aircraft: F-14A Serial No: 3-6036
Weapon: AIM-54A Mfg Serial No: 6/40261
RIO: 1Lt. Ahmad R. Fereydouni
Call sign: Dragon 4
Location: SW Iran. Slightly west of the port city of Mashahr
Target: MiG-23 Flogger
Date: 26th Oct 1982**
Aircraft: F-14A Serial No: 3-6078
Weapon: None. Manoeuvring Kill
RIO: 1Lt. Reza Tahmasbi
Callsign: Captain 1
Location: West of town of Dezful
Target: MiG-21 Fishbed. (Aircraft wreckage and pilot’s body found).
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4 & 5:
Date: 7th August 1984
Aircraft: F-14A Serial No: 3-6055
Weapon: AIM-54A Mfg Serial No: 40230
RIO: Capt. Hossein Sayyari
Call sign: Khofash (Bat) / Scrambled flight / QRA
Location: 70 miles west of the island of Kharg in the Persian Gulf
Targets: 2 Mirage F-1EQ
One dead Iraqi pilot was snatched from the sea by Iranian Navy helicopters. The other one crashed inside Iraqi airspace. SIGINT reports combined with 6th air base radar data indicated a crash of a Mirage F-1EQ inside Iraqi territory. Later on, Iraqi air force POWs confirmed the loss of one such jet on that specific date to their Iranian debriefers.
**My own note on the third kill…
The logbook shows the date of that kill as October 26th 1982, but during the phone interview the interviewee mentions November 5th as the date. To ensure reliability and honesty, I have chosen to report the logbook date. I must note that the Persian calendar (solar calendar) is obviously different from the Gregorian (western) calendar. So discrepancies in the reports are expected.
I have verified his logbooks and corroborated with another fellow pilot from a different squadron and his account is verifiable..
Colonel M. Roustaie is also the only Iranian air force pilot known to have trapped aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier. He trapped aboard USS Midway in the backseat of a US Navy F-4. during Midlink-77 exercises involving Iranian military assets and US forces in the Persian Gulf and sea of Oman.
Biography: Born 1951. Entered Imperial Iranian Air Force in 1970.
Training: US Air Force UPT. Laughlin AFB, TX. (class 74-04).
F-4D/E Phantom II pilot with 2200 hours.
F-14A Tomcat pilot 2086 hours
Aircraft flown: T-37, T-38, F-4D/E, F-14A
Iran AF’s 6th Tactical Fighter Base deputy of operations.
30 years of service. Honourably retired.
Kash Ryan a native of Iran, hails from a military family. Both his father and grandfather were professional service members. His father served in the Iranian Air Force retiring as a Lt colonel. Kash served mandatory service in Iranian Air Force in the late 1990s.
Growing up on an air base planted the seeds of curiosity about aviation and aircraft in him. He is a qualified private pilot currently splitting his time between Canada and the United States. As a military history enthusiast he was compelled to bring several fascinating combat memoirs of the Iranian Air Force pilots to a wider audience in the English speaking world for the first time.
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Thank you for this interesting interview. A video interview combined with actual footage of the plane would be a blast on the net.