Flying & Fighting in the F-14 Tomcat: We ask a TopGun instructor to rate the F-14
The F-14 Tomcat was a no compromise carrier warplane operated by the US Navy. Bristling with the most capable weapons in the world it was utterly formidable, and rose to international fame as the star of the 1986 film Top Gun, which celebrated the Navy’s TopGun fighter school. Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek was a TopGun instructor and Radar Intercept Officer, here he describes flying and fighting in the awe-inspiring Tomcat.
What were your first impressions of the F-14?
“I’ll think back to the first time I saw an F-14 in person, at an air show in 1977, when I was in college. After reading about it in aviation magazines, I was excited. To me it looked like a spaceship, but also a very complex form instead of just a fuselage with wings sticking out of it. When I got to NAS Miramar for training, I was surprised at (1) how big the jet was and (2) how dirty many Tomcats were, with footprints, greasy smudges, and leaking fluids. First impressions: large and complex.”
What is the best thing about the F-14?
“It had a great weapon system. Go back to the F-14’s introduction into Navy service and first deployment in 1974. It had long-range, multi-shot, look-down/shoot-down capability. I think the next American fighter to have all of these came along seventeen years later, when the AIM-120 became operational on other teen-series fighters.
I’ll add another item as the second-best thing: endurance. I’m going to throw the engines under the bus, so I might as well give them a little due credit. At throttle settings for maximum endurance, the total fuel flow was around 4,400 pounds per hour. (Of course this would require a permissive environment, but even bumping up the speed to increase survivability still gave decent time on station.) With the relatively large fuel capacity, this gave a healthy on-station time while maintaining a combat package. But light the burners and follow an acceleration and climb profile, and you could meet a high-fast flyer, or be at tactical airspeed in a minute or so.”
..and the worst?
“I’m going to sound like a broken record: the TF30 engines of the F-14A. Probably no surprise, and I’ll come back to this topic later.”
What was your most notable mission?
“There were actually a lot, but I’ll spotlight two of them. The first one was a training mission that was part of Project Rising Fighter, which was a series of flights on the TACTS Range near Yuma, Arizona, that was overseen by the Center for Naval Analyses. The purpose of the project was to investigate tactics against the then-new MiG-23 Flogger. To simulate the Flogger, they used full-up F-4N Phantoms operated by regular fleet squadron aircrews. There were no limits on their weapon system or manoeuvring; they were a decent approximation of a MiG-23. Meanwhile, our F-14A tomcats were armed (simulated) with AIM-7 s and AIM-9s – the same missiles as the bandits – plus our gun, of course. The set-up was a 35-mile start for a forward quarter intercept, with two Tomcats versus an unknown number of Phantoms, a 2vUNK. The bandits always presented between 4 and 6 Phantoms. The notable mission started as a 2v6, and each side lost one aircraft during the intercept. These were the days before forward quarter tactics. So my pilot and I engaged in a 1v5, and for me it was a fantastic experience of the F-14’s manoeuvrability, weapon system versatility, and crew coordination. I was flying with the pilot I had gone through the Topgun class with just a few weeks before, and we worked very well together. We killed at least three Phantoms in the engagement and then bugged out. I would pay $1,000 for a tape of that engagement. On the next engagement, we were kill-removed on the intercept, so that wasn’t memorable.”
The second was a large coordinated simulated strike over Iraq during Operation Southern Watch (OSW). Our air wing flew simulated strikes all the time, but this was the ‘strike of the month’, so it involved the US Marine Corps, US Air Force, and coalition forces. Strike packages came in from many different points and ‘hit’ different targets, supported by counter-air packages, electronic warfare, and other elements. Routing, timing, deconfliction were all complex and planned in detail. The memorable part for me was that it was radio-silent. In my cockpit we used our radar and eyeballs to watch as much as we could see: multiple elements flowing with precision, all silent. It was an impressive event.
Other memorable missions involved training against F-16s, low-level TARPS, and more, and I describe many of them in my new book, Tomcat RIO. I’m including a photo of a water-colour camouflaged F-14 from one of the training events because it was very cool to man-up a giant camo-painted fighter.”
What is the biggest myth about the F-14?
“That is was designed as an interceptor. I see this statement all over the place, often made by people presenting themselves as aviation experts, and it really sets me off. The F-14 was designed as the replacement for the F-4 Phantom – a multi-mission aircraft – and incorporated many lessons from close-in aerial combat in Vietnam. These lessons showed up as features that would not be necessary on an ‘interceptor’: excellent visibility through a bubble canopy, manoeuvring flaps and slats, a gun, dogfight modes on the radar, and more. Yes, it had a big radar and carried the AIM-54 (designed as a long-range bomber-killer but also capable against fighters, especially as the AIM-54C), but the F-14 was the Navy’s power projection fighter, intended to perform Sweeps, Strike Escorts, and all “fighter” missions. When new, the F-14 was renowned for power and manoeuvrability, as evidenced by the reaction to its display at the Paris Air Show in 1973. But of course other new fighters came along in the 1970s and soon they too had spectacular airshow displays.”
Complete this sentence.. “The Tomcat is better than the F-15 because…”
“The Tomcat had a more versatile weapons system. In addition to the attributes already mentioned, the AWG-9 had high power for a fighter radar and its analog processing and displays would help the RIO to identify and counter some forms of jamming. The F-14 also had the television camera set (TCS), which allowed long-range identification under good conditions, and may help the aircrew get a count of the number of aircraft in a formation, if they didn’t break out on radar. TCS was a passive sensor that was integrated into the weapons system to the point that it supported some missile launch modes. As for the AIM-54, it had active terminal radar and good anti-jamming capabilities, so it was tenacious about attacking something.
The Tomcat also had a second set of eyeballs.
“The final version of the F-14, the F-14D, was a better fighter and strike fighter than the F-15C and F-15E, in one aircraft. If you take a snapshot of time and compare the capabilities of the F-14D from 2003 (OIF) until its retirement in 2006, the jet had capabilities that were unrivalled. Here is a short list: Digital Flight Controls with DLC; Wide HUD; Mach 2.0+; GE-110 motors; APG-71 high power and long range Medium PRF radar incorporated in a full MFD digital suite with a large programmable TID; IRST that could detect targets, including low observable aircraft, at range and provide with the new digital suite a tracking solution for the AIM-54C+ missiles; full digital sensor fusing; TCS; ALR-67 V3; high capacity Bol chaff dispenser; ALQ-167; JTIDS/Link 16 and Fighter to Fighter Data Link; LANTIRN pod; TARPS; IFF Interrogator; three secure voice channels; real-time digital and secure transfer of imagery back to the CAOC or ship; TARPS; JDAM series; LGBs; MK-20 Rockeye series; extensive range and on-station time perfectly matched the two person cockpit for FAC(A)/JTAC mission. RIOs carried an IZLID and could mark and laze targets with the LANTIRN while also roping in forces using an IR pointer. Task sharing and task shedding allowed for excellent management of the CAS stack, positioning, and eliminating ground targets either organically, through buddy lasing or by coordinating other air and ground assets.
While over 450 Ds were in the initial buy, the limited jets that were actually produced had a robust spare parts locker and good availability.”
What did F-14 pilots think of the Top Gun movie?
“I can’t speak for the community but I’ll tell you my perceptions from being at Miramar when the movie came out. I think F-14 pilots and RIOs enjoyed the movie and took it with some humour. It put us in the spotlight and made our aircraft look good. When the aircraft was the villain (poor Goose, but somebody had to die), the real villain was the engines, and we all knew their problems. Yes, the personalities were exaggerated, and the squabbles were petty, but it was a movie, not a documentary. Beyond all of that, it made flying Navy fighters look fun – which it was. The Miramar O-club was actually livelier than shown in the movie, and squadron gatherings around San Diego were great. Getting back to flying: who wouldn’t want to dogfight among the hills and valleys around Fallon? The F-14 was best at low altitude and maneuvering at low altitude was very cool. (But we didn’t routinely fly like that for safety reasons; the whole soft deck / hard deck thing.)
This is a good time to establish a convention: I’ll refer to the movie as two words and the Navy organisation as one word.”
The Super Hornet, star of the 2020 Top Gun movie isn’t as cool as the F-14, what do you think?
“I understand that to some, ‘Top Gun’ means Tomcat, and I appreciate this
enthusiasm. But like my answer about when the Navy retired the F-14,
it’s a fact of aviation life that airplanes have to be retired. I was
pleased that the Tomcat starred in the original, but now I’m ready to
watch the Super Hornet in action. Something that helped was reading the
book ‘Lions of the Sky’ by Paco Chierichi. That made me a Super Hornet
What was your involvement in the Top Gun movie?
“I was an instructor at the Topgun school when Paramount filmed the movie, one of the 16 listed in the credits as “Topgun Instructors and MiG Pilots.” I think we all contributed to the movie. One afternoon many of the instructors hung out with the actors for an hour or so at a local bar, telling stories. Writers asked many people for their favorite saying or line from flying; that’s where, “Do some pilot shit” came from. A RIO actually used to say that. The line that I contributed to the movie was, “Watch the mountains!” which I once said during a bugout. So we all contributed.
In addition, after filming was complete John “Smegs” Semcken and I flew to Hollywood for two days to help edit the flying scenes and provide dialogue for them. Smegs was a former F-14 pilot who is listed in the movie credits as Cooperation and Support Officer: U.S. Navy. It was fascinating to get the inside look at Paramount Studios, and we helped the film editors piece together many aerial segments into sequences that made sense. Smegs and I also contributed lines such as, “Contact. Multiple bogeys. Two miles. Looks like they’re going away from us.” I know, right?! But they had no idea what pilots and RIOs said in the jet. We did NOT say, “I’ll clean them and fry them.” That was the writers. We also contributed some plot ideas, but I don’t have those well-documented.
I remember these things, but let me put the movie experience in perspective for the time: I did not take a single photo of the instructors hanging out with the actors or my trip to Paramount. The movie just did not make a big impression on me, my real life as a Topgun instructor was enough.”
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What was the most unrealistic thing about the movie?
“There are a lot of technical errors, but to me as a former instructor and RIO, the biggest one was the close range of aircraft in the flying and dogfight scenes. The training rules had minimum ranges for many situations, which were for safety considerations. In combat you would have minimum ranges for weapons, as well as not wanting to frag yourself by flying through the debris of the plane you just blew up. The problem was that realistic ranges would make aircraft look too small on the screen, so we flew a lot closer than normal. It wasn’t a safety violation of the training rules because were not in a dynamic ACM engagement, but a scripted situation.
I was in a flight where we filmed some head-on passes used at the beginning and near the end of the movie. On our first pass we adhered to the safe 500-foot separation of the ACM Training Rules, but producer Tony Scott (flying alongside in Clay Lacy’s Learjet) knew that wouldn’t look good, so he had us fly closer, and then closer again. Fortunately the flight leads, in this case “Rat” Willard for Topgun’s black F-5s and “Bozo” Abel for the F-14s, discussed refinements real-time and we all felt safe getting the close pass we needed. But it was still exciting to see a couple of Tomcats flash past so close that I could hear them.
The second-most unrealistic thing was how they conveyed the advice, “never leave your wingman.” At Topgun we taught mutual support as a basic concept, but you did not execute by flying in formation during an engagement.
I don’t want to disappoint you, but there is no “Top Gun Trophy.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the movie
“To film most of the scenes of the F-14s going through the Topgun class, the film crew and one or two Navy advisors climbed to the top of a small mountain near the Naval Air Station at Fallon, Nevada. They went up every morning and came down every evening. Unfortunately the first peak they used overlooked a valley that had another peak at its end, like a box canyon but not that dramatic. So they found a second peak that was better.”
Would US fighters have anything to fear in the Iranian Tomcat force? Is it a serious threat to Super Hornets?
“I’m not sure I would say “fear,” but certainly American fighters should respect the Iranian air force. That was something Topgun taught (when I was there, and probably still do): almost any opposing aircraft that is called a fighter should be respected. They made the point by describing unexpected successes and failures through the history of air combat, and at the time they demonstrated it by “winning” engagements while flying aircraft inferior to the students’ fighters. That is, until the students learned to fly their aircraft to its performance limits. Getting back to Iran, I suspect at least some of their Tomcat aircrews have combat experience or were trained by combat-experienced crews, which is valuable. But US fighters are well-trained and we have programs such as Red Flag and Air Wing Fallon training, so an enemy should fear our fighter pilots and WSOs.”
INTERVIEW WITH IRANIAN F-14 PILOT HERE.
The F-14’s engines have a bad reputation, is this deserved?
“Yes, as long as we are talking about the TF30 engines of the F-14A. You may know that the TF30 was intended as an interim engine for the F-14, but for several reasons it ended up as the primary. Plenty of other sources have described its limitations in a fighter. Something hardly ever mentioned is that in order to improve engine stability and longevity, maximum thrust in afterburner was actually decreased to roughly 17,000 lbs per engine. As I mentioned before, the TF30 did have good fuel specs and it also had good thrust, especially at lower altitude – but these points did not outweigh their poor performance as a fighter engine. But still, I flew A-models my entire career and I can tell you pilots did not sit around complaining about the TF30: they learned its weaknesses, worked around them, and went out and flew the best jet they could. They were Navy fighter pilots.
I’ve only heard good things about the F110 engines in the F-14B and D. It’s just too bad there weren’t more of them.”
Rate the F-14 in the following categories:
Instantaneous turn: Very good. The F-14 had large horizontal stabs with large deflection values and no computer limiters. If the wings were out they generated a lot of lift, and the F-14 belly, the flat area between the engines, also generated a lot of lift. The pilot could easily overstress the airplane at most tactical speeds. As a side note about the horizontal stab’s ability to move the nose: Maverick’s signature manoeuvre in the Topgun class (“I’ll hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by.”) came about when Rat and Bozo thought about something they could show director Tony Scott that would demonstrate Maverick’s skill. They hit upon the pitch pulse as a dramatic move, it worked, and it was included in the film. The downside in real life would be that the pitch pulse really bled airspeed so the F-14 had better get the kill.
Sustained turn: Excellent compared to other fighters when the Tomcat was new, again due to the wings and the power of the engines. Being turbofans, TF30s experienced a significant thrust increase with airspeed and this helped with sustained turn. Of course B/D Tomcats had the power. But as I’ve mentioned before, newer jets came along with better sustained turn rates.
Acceleration: Very good, even in the A-model, for the reasons just mentioned. I was a Topgun instructor when early Hornets came through the class, and we often had mixed division flights: two F-14As and two F/A-18As. I recall being kill-removed during a big engagement and going overhead to watch. A Tomcat and Hornet were near each other and both called bugging out, and the Tomcat really walked away from the Hornet. As a casual observation, the F-14 also seemed to be less-affected by the addition of combat stores than other aircraft. An unclassified chart in USAF Fighter Weapons Review from 1989 showed the F-14A had a higher top-end at 15,000 feet than all other US fighters except the F-16 and F-111 (all aircraft with representative weapons load). Going to the F-14D again: Although like all Tomcats the D-model was limited by NATOPS to 1.88M, it could obtain and sustain over 2.0M at altitude if it was relatively clean, without external fuel tanks and a large missile load-out.
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Energy preservation: Good. I’ve been emphasizing strengths, but I have to admit that the max thrust from two TF30s fell short of the level we wanted. In its early years, when flown in clean configuration and before the engines were detuned, tactics included climbing away from threats. But the reality emerged that a nose-low fight was essential to sustain a good energy package.
Climb rate: Good, for the reasons stated above.
Combat effectiveness: This is a complex question. As a pure fighter, the US Navy had good experience with the Tomcat and aircrews have great stories of missions from Desert Storm. (I missed that one.) But I have to admit that the lack of onboard positive identification (PID) limited full employment of F-14 capabilities in Desert Storm. Later, as a strike fighter in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the F-14 showed real strength and versatility. As a TARPS platform in all of the preceding operations the F-14 was capable and valuable. On the topic of combat, the biggest disappointment for me personally was the lack of US AIM-54 kills, although some of the reasons were mundane (improper weapon arming procedures). I won’t comment on Iranian combat effectiveness.
Cockpit ergonomics: Very good overall. Manufacturers were learning and improving all the time, but the F-14 was one of the first (if not the first) to have HOTAS, a HUD, and other modern ergonomics that improved aircrew effectiveness. On the downside, depending on the radar mode and range scales used by the RIO, the tactical picture could be difficult to be seen and interpreted by the pilot. (I think the A-7 Corsair II was the first US aircraft to have a modern HUD.)
Please describe DACT against the following types
Phantom: I fought a lot of Phantoms and you could count on Navy and Marine Corps fighter crews to fly their jet to its limits, so you had to fly a good Tomcat. By the time I joined the fleet (1981) Phantoms had learned what to do and what not to do. But in an engagement the Tomcat demonstrated that it was an improvement, with better sustained turn and energy sustainment.
Hornet: This was a challenge because one of the Hornet’s strengths was engaged manoeuvring. A well-flown Tomcat could definitely compete against a Hornet, especially if the Hornet pilot was not flying the jet well. This is also a case where aircraft configuration was important, as the Hornet seemed to be more adversely affected by external loads.
F-5: Similar to the Phantom in terms of considerations, except it was much harder to see, especially in an engagement. Remember that anyone flying an F-5 in the US Navy was a trained adversary pilot who probably had 1,000 hours or more in their primary aircraft type.
F-15: This was a challenge for an F-14A from intercept to engagement, because the F-15 is an impressive aircraft and the pilots I met were usually well-trained. The only thing going against it was that of all the aircraft we’re discussing, it was the easiest to see (besides me in the F-14). But it wasn’t impossible for the Tomcat to win. The Eagle driver would probably fly a smart jet and go 2-circle, while the Tomcat driver would want to go out of plane (nose-low) and try to go one circle, giving up energy to try to get a shot. My best experiences fighting F-15s were always multi-aircraft, when my jet occasionally called valid shots. When you asked this question, it really made me wish that when I was in VF-211 at Oceana 1996-98 (I was the executive officer and then commanding officer), I had pushed for fighting F-15s from Langley. But we had an outstanding Operations Officer and department and they had a full schedule with the Navy’s Strike Fighter Weapons and Tactics training program, so it all worked out in the big picture.
F-16: This was another challenge, especially when the Navy received F-16Ns in the 1980s. With the 110 engine, no gun, and usually carrying only wingtip blue tubes / TACTS pods, these jets had boatloads of power and minimal drag. In other words, a very tough fight. I write quite a bit about fighting them in Tomcat RIO. They were a real challenge – which meant good training – and when you stayed alive or got a kill it was a sense of satisfaction. Later in my career, when I was CO of VF-211, our crews fought operational F-16s. I was proud of our junior pilots flying F-14As when they came back with video of valid missile and gun shots.
A-4F: Some readers may wonder why an A-4 Skyhawk would even be on this list. The A-4 ‘Super Fox’ ‘had a very powerful motor and when light on gas, had a thrust-to-weight ratio of close to 1:1. The A-4Fs were flown by talented USN adversary pilots and were some of the most challenging 1v1 opponents. A Super Fox with its 720 degree per second roll rate and leading-edge slats extended at about 225 knots could aggressively visually intimidate F-14 pilots and get them to enter the ‘phone booth.’ Once in the phone booth, the A-4 could employ a variety of strategies to maintain the offensive, and camp aft of the Tomcat’s 3-9 line. Additionally, in a 2vUNK fight against A-4s, they were small and hard to see and keep track of under G.
Any interesting foreign types you have ‘fought’? “On deployment in 1987 I fought Super Étendards and Crusaders from the Clemenceau, when USS Ranger operated near them in the North Arabian Sea. While it was cool to see them, the engagements were similar to what we were used to in training. Thinking back, I would characterise the Super-E as similar to an A-7, and the Crusader as somewhat similar to a Phantom. By the way, I like both of those airframes so as an aviation enthusiast it was cool to fight them.”
Biggest regret: I did not break into the flow of the mission for 2 minutes and set up a photo.”
What equipment would you have liked to have seen added to the aircraft?
“I really wish the Navy would’ve been able to bring in the Digital Flight Control (DFCS) system much earlier than they did. I retired from the Navy in 1999 and DFCS arrived in 2000. I heard from several guys who flew DFCS-equipped F-14s that the system significantly improved handling, especially where a pilot would really appreciate it, such as low-airspeed / high-AOA when engaged, and in the carrier landing pattern. It allowed pilots to maneuver more aggressively during an engagement. The F-14 had some adverse handling characteristics known from the start of the program and the Navy investigated a correction in the early 1980s called Aileron-Rudder Interconnect (ARI), but the Navy never “found the money” to fix them until DFCS.”
What were the most and least reliable systems?
“One of the most reliable systems was the wingsweep. For a system that was in operation a lot as Mach number varied, took a lot of stress, and was a technological accomplishment, the wingsweep system was remarkably trouble-free. I’ll bring it up again later.
As for least reliable, it could depend on the timeframe. Early in my career (VF-24, 1981-84) we had some problems with AWG-9 reliability. Not things that compromised squadron readiness, but more of an irritation. In my next fleet squadron (VF-2, 1987-90) the radars and other systems were much more reliable. When I thought back on it, I concluded that it could have been the time-in-service of the airframes. I remember several people in VF-24 saying we had the high-time F-14 (at the time, of course), and other aircraft were also fairly well-worn jets, while in VF-2 we had brand new jets. During my final fleet tour (VF-211, 1996-98) our maintainers worked hard but the payoff was good system availability.
Continuing with the idea of reliability issues, the Tomcat’s fuel transfer system occasionally caused trouble. It was designed to be ingenious and simple, using things like motive flow pumps (no moving parts) and automatic interconnect valves. But almost any failure caused a major problem due to fuel that the engines could not get to. A pilot and I once lost an engine on a cat shot. He handled it well, which took real skill, but as we flew around we discovered that we could not get to about half of our fuel. When we landed on the carrier we were above landing weight, which stresses the arresting gear, but we also had only 10 minutes of fuel remaining, so we had to land ‘right now.’
The environmental control system (ECS) could also cause problems. The Tomcat had great air conditioning, but an ECS turbine failure could start a catastrophic fire, and the emergency procedures included, “Land as soon as possible.” I once dealt with this, too, and after landing the aircraft skin around the ECS turbine was very hot.
But to keep it in perspective, these ‘failures’ were a small percentage of my flights. Most of my flights went well and are thus unremarkable, so this aircraft that was first new American fighter in ten years proved to be a pretty good machine. (In terms of air-to-air fighters, the F-4 first flew in 1958 and the F-14 was the next first flight in 1970.)”
How do you rate the AWG-9/AIM-54 combination?
“It was truly amazing when designed and introduced. As I’ve mentioned, the combination provided long-range, multi-shot, look-down/shoot-down, and many more attributes at a time when other friendly fighters were shooting AIM-7Es. Yes, it had limitations due to analog processing, such as false targets overland in some modes, but I’m not here to complain about it. And fortunately the Navy bought the APG-71 for the F-14D and that fixed any flaws in the AWG-9.
In the maritime air superiority environment it provided a realistic capability to counter a large raid by Soviet bombers with anti-ship missiles and jammers. No other platform came close, and during the Cold War these fielded capabilities were important.”
Until the late 1980s we didn’t plan to use the AIM-54 when in the tactical fighter role, reserving them to defend the carrier strike group. If we had gotten into a ‘limited war’ that lasted more than a few days, who knows if things would’ve changed to allow Phoenix use. But by the late 1980s it was apparent that the AIM-54 was the essential counter to the AA-10, and the AIM-54C came along just in time. The -54C added a new digital guidance system, new digital control system, improved rocket motor, and improved target detection device to the active terminal radar and large warhead already present. This made the Phoenix a potent missile for the forward quarter missile battles. Unlike early missile testing, which allowed for tactically limited early versions of the AIM-7 and AIM-9 to be approved, the AIM-54 was repeatedly tested against challenging targets, including manoeuvring fighters, and proved its abilities.
The AWG-9 took a fair level of operator skill to get the most out of it over land. During my first time through the F-14 training squadron (the RAG) and in my first fleet squadron, it was a test of RIO skill to be good over land, and I wanted to be good so I tried hard. Years later I talked to a former F-14A RIO who had converted to the F/A-18F, and asked about the impact of the radar and other systems. He said, “Oh, man, you have so much more SA. You can use all of that brain-power that used to be dedicated to the AWG-9 and work on the big picture.”
What was the most challenging mission you trained for?
“For me this would’ve been my missions as an air wing strike leader during my last fleet assignment, 1996-98. I don’t know if this was “easy” for anyone, and I salute the aviators who did it well. It was challenging to coordinate the many force elements the air wing could bring to a fight, analyse threats and defences, and put together a viable plan. Then as the strike leader I briefed it to men and women who were putting their lives on the line. And once we started engines I managed the deviations from plan that often happened on the ground or in the air. Of course the payoff was a sense of satisfaction upon successful completion – which was usually the case given the talent in every cockpit, all working for the same goal. It took me several flights to qualify as an air wing strike leader, but I made it.
As far as the F-14 missions, I felt like my training was well-designed and prepared me for them. They were different types of challenges. Multi-plane intercepts and engagements took a lot of concentration to process the radar picture and other inputs, and think of directive guidance to position the fighters for the intercept. The outer air battle (which could only be realistically practiced in a simulator) was an exercise in processing a lot of information and getting switchology correct. The TARPS reconnaissance mission required careful planning and good visual interpretation of terrain and comparing that to a chart. All of them, of course, required good crew coordination
Here’s another one, and it was something that everyone in the air wing experienced: “blue water EMCON.” EMCON means emissions control, indicating that the carrier would shut down its navigation equipment – the TACAN and air search radars. Aircraft launched with radars off, we flew out to stations, maybe performed a mission, and then had to shut off our radars and return. Finding the carrier in the open ocean without benefit of electronic aids was an uncomfortable feeling. At least one F-14 crew got lost, ran out of fuel, and ejected. They were very lucky to be found after spending a night in their little survival rafts. I talk more about these blue water EMCON missions in “Tomcat RIO.”
What advice would you give to someone about to perform their first carrier landing and take-off?
Different comment at different times. While holding overhead or on deck (depending on which event comes first): “You can do this; they wouldn’t bring you to the boat if you weren’t ready.”
Carrier landing: “Work that scan. Fly the ball.”
If I was feeling salty, for the landing I might say: “You own the middle and top half of the meatball (the lend that indicates glideslope), the LSO owns the bottom half. Stay in your half.”
Cat shot: “Check the engines and enjoy the ride.”
Overall: “Hope for the best but be mentally prepared for the worst.”
What are your thoughts about the Tomcats retirement in the US Navy?
The F-14D was retired too early, and the fact that the vast majority of Tomcats were destroyed and not preserved is a real shame. When the D-models left in 2006, the earlier versions of the Super Hornet were inferior in some ways, but had some good capabilities that have now been leveraged and grown into the extremely capable Block III E/F, so I’m good with it. I know this may sound sacrilegious, but I was around when the legendary F-4 was retired from active Navy squadrons and I heard the final Phantom aviators’ laments: It’s the end of an era; nothing will ever replace the Phantom; etc. Of course I respect the Phantom, but all aircraft have their time. So when the F-14 retired, I took my own medicine, saluted its service, and looked forward. It also helped that the decision was really made nearly 15 years earlier, when the Super Hornet was selected over the Super Tomcat. So the fact that the F-14 served for so long after its successor was determined was a testament to the original design…and the dedication of the hard-working Navy maintainers who kept them in the air.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the F-14
“Did you know the F-14’s wingsweep was fully automatic? Many people ask about that. It was controlled by one of the first (if not the first) microprocessors. The reason that this “first” is not better known is that the Navy kept it classified for many years after introduction. The pilot could manually sweep the wings aft of the commanded angle, but could not sweep them forward of it (unless using a backup mode).
If you already knew that, how about the fact that the TF30 had five different stages of afterburner. They were called “zones,” with 1 being minimum and 5 being maximum. The pilot could move the throttles to the stage necessary. You’ve probably already concluded that if he selected afterburner, he usually went to Zone 5 (maximum).
Even though fighting ACM with the main flaps down is a prohibited manoeuvre, some very experienced fighter pilots knew that at low altitude, below 225 KIAS, with the flaps down and the blowers engaged, the Tomcat could out-turn any enemy fighter. It was referred to as bringing down the big boys.
The F-14 doesn’t have ailerons, it has spoilers on the top of the wing that in combination with the large tails were used to turn and roll the jet. Another technical point I already mentioned is that the F-14 gained a significant amount of lift from the tunnel between the engines and shape of the fuselage, which might be news to people. There are a lot of obscure little things like this.”
What should I have asked you?
“Did you ever have to eject?
Well, tell me about it!
“This happened when I was still fairly new, a lieutenant (junior grade) only a few months after joining my first squadron. We were in the middle of a 7 ½-month deployment, also in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It was a normal flight and we thought it would be a normal arrested landing, but as soon as we caught the cable, it slowed us down and then basically let-go. We had about one second to make the decision as we rolled down the flight deck, too fast to stop and too slow to fly away. I had my hand on the lower ejection handle but was, uh, processing the situation. My pilot said “Eject! Eject!” and I pulled the handle on the first “E.” I knew what he was going to say.
The plane cleared the deck and started to fall before our seats fired. We both made it out, but it was a low-altitude ejection, so in the water I got tangled in my parachute. The pilot didn’t even get a chute, but he was okay. One of the coolest things I have seen in my entire life was our jet floating on the water with the carrier going by behind it. Just incredible.
I tell the story in detail in my book “Topgun Days.”
I would like to thank Robert ‘Lex’ Luthy, Mark ‘Tank’ Tankersley, Doug “Boog” Denneny, and Paul “Nick” Nickell for helping me recall some things that made the F-14 a remarkable fighter.
Topgun instructor and F-14 Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek has a new book coming out. His new book is called ‘Tomcat RIO’ and is available starting in August 2020. Besides his insightful answers, Bio also provided some of his amazing photographs. Here is his website.
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Great write up from Bio. He covers all the points; thanks for posting this!