At roughly 62 feet long and 64 feet wide, there were a lot of things the “Big Fighter” F-14 Tomcat could do very well. However, there were certain maneuvers that were prohibited because it would have been too dangerous. Most of them make sense when you think about it. Of course, there was always a Maverick who wanted to push the envelope to see what the jet could do.
Therefore, there is one thing I want to make abundantly clear: I can neither confirm nor deny that I have been in an F-14 Tomcat during any of these situations!
(Editor’s note: U.S. Navy flight veteran Lt. Commander Joe “Smokin” Ruzicka was the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to fly the last F-14 Demonstration before the Tomcat’s final demise in 2006. He’s here to tell us all about what not to do in one. —TR)
#1: No intentional spins
Departure from controlled flight is not where you want to be in any aircraft, much less the F-14. Unless you were a test pilot performing a test maneuver under specific conditions, it was probably best to not try and put the Tomcat intentionally into a spin, while it was also against the rules.
The Tomcat was an honest aircraft with moderate departure resistance, but I think we all learned our lesson from the Top Gun scene where Maverick and Goose get into a flat spin (headed out to sea.)
While the scene was not completely accurate, it did emphasize how critical and challenging recovery from a spin could be. There are different types of spins and different ways to recover from them, but there was no true recovery when the Tomcat entered into a fully developed flat spin.
To get the Tomcat into a fully developed flat spin would have meant the pilot had made sustained and unnatural control inputs, or the aircraft malfunctioned and created an uncorrectable aerodynamic imbalance. The most likely reason was a combination of the two and that was hopefully a very rare occurrence.
Getting into a flat spin was difficult to do even while in the simulator. Fleet Replacement Squadron instructors would have the pilot put one engine to idle to create what is called “asymmetric thrust”. The pilot would then hold the control stick and rudders in abnormally long and awkward positions until the instructor told him to “recover.” Many times, even after holding these awkward control inputs, the spin would not fully develop and initial spin recovery procedures returned the aircraft to normal flight.
A flat spin was characterized by three things: a flat aircraft attitude meaning 10 degrees nose down with no pitch or roll oscillations, steadily increasing yaw rate (think aircraft spinning left or right), and high longitudinal acceleration. Think of a pancake spinning and a falling straight down; it can’t get any momentum to go forward and instead lands “flat as a pancake.”
The last characteristic—high longitudinal acceleration—is sometimes described as “eyeball out G.” This meant that the pilot and RIO felt like someone was pulling their insides out through their ears, eyes, throat and nose. The eyeball out G also made it difficult for the aircrew to get into a good body position and command the ejection.
If the aircrew could identify that they were in a flat spin by all three of these characteristics—the only remaining course of action was to eject. However, one final step was for the RIO to jettison the canopy before commanding the ejection. This would give the canopy enough time to separate from the aircraft and clear the path for the ejection seats. Remember, the aircraft is falling straight down, so jettisoning the canopy first was paramount to give it time to clear.
This is why Goose died in Top Gun. When the ejection handle was pulled, the canopy did not clear and the RIO—always first in the ejection sequence—did not have a clear path upwards.
#2: Zero or negative G maneuvers in excess of 10 seconds with afterburner operating or 20 seconds at military power (full throttle without afterburner) or less
Zero or negative G maneuvers are best described as the “roller coaster” feeling you may experience when going over a steep hill or drop. Performing this maneuver is typically done one of two ways: flying upside down for an extended period of time (not exactly tactical but looks cool when the Blue Angels do it) or performing what is called a “bugout.”
A bugout is when the pilot performs a maximum thrust acceleration followed by a pushover in an effort to head down to the deck as quickly as possible. In other words, moving to full throttle followed by pushing the stick forward to go down. The maneuver is used when trying to get away from a threat fighter and the Tomcat was fast enough that bugging out was a viable tactic.
Extended duration at zero or negative G on the aircraft, particularly while in afterburner places extreme demands on the engine fuel feed system. You’ve seen NASA astronauts floating in an aircraft that is used to simulate zero gravity. The same thing happens with the remaining fuel in the F-14’s fuel tanks. The fuel floats to the top and exposes the fuel lines to air. If air is drawn into the fuel lines, particularly during afterburner operation when there is a huge demand for fuel, the result can be an afterburner blowout or even worse an engine flameout.
#3: No AIM-9 launch with landing flaps and slats extended
Slats (located on the leading edge of the wing) and flaps (located on the trailing edge of the wing) change the camber of the wing. Changing the camber helps to create more lift when the aircraft is at a slow speed, such as in the landing configuration. In the Tomcat, the AIM-9 Sidewinder was placed on Station 1 or 8, which was located directly under each respective wing.
One of the most dangerous situations is when a missile does not separate from the jet but the rocket motor ignites. This is called a “hang fire”. The missile is still hanging on the aircraft with the rocket motor burning. If the AIM-9 rocket motor continued to burn but the missile never separated from the aircraft, there was the potential for burning a hole through the extended landing flaps. Even if the missile did come off the rail, a drooping slat would probably receive some residual damage from rocket exhaust.
Additionally, since the AIM-9 is a heat-seeking missile and used in very close range, it needs to keep the seeker head as unencumbered as possible for it to acquire the target. Covering the seeker head with the slats extended (even minimally) is like when you have a raincoat hood over your head—your peripheral vision is occluded and you can’t see to the side. With the slats extended, the same holds true for the AIM 9 not being able to “see” its target.
Furthermore, to fire forward with an extended slat would probably have posed a clearance issue and in only a few instances is it tactical to fight the jet in this slow speed configuration.
While a hang fire is rare, Pete Purvis has a great story about the day he shot himself down in a F-14 with his own AIM-7 Sparrow missile. You will have to read it for yourself, but it provides great understanding into why separation of the stores from the aircraft is so critical.
#4: No Fuel dumping with afterburner operating or with speed brakes extended
Remember in the summer when you were a kid and would take the OFF bug spray can and hold it up to a lit match? The resulting flame spray was pretty awesome, right?
Imagine if you dumped raw fuel at then end of an engine with 23,000lbs of thrust. Now that would be a sight to behold. Fuel dumping while in afterburner would be exactly that, the greatest spray of flame known to mankind.
(Tyler adds: This is the “dump and burn” maneuver that the F-111 was so well known for. The F-14's fuel dump was placed between its engines like on the F-111, although the Tomcat’s wide “tunnel” between its engines set them much farther apart.)