We’re blasting along through the bumpy mid-day air at a brisk 480 knots, 500 feet above the desert. The ride is rough, and the purposeful rumble of our engines reminds me that it takes a lot of power to push this machine through the dense air at 800 feet per second. Fortunately, we have a lot of power. To my left at about a half mile is another Tomcat, and a mile ahead are two more. We fly in an offset box formation, each of us carrying two Mk 84 2,000-pound bombs. I’m the radar intercept officer (RIO) in an F-14A Tomcat.
“Checkmates, tac left, reference 287.”
At the waypoint we crisply roll into almost 90 degrees of bank. My pilot pulls to 5G and in a few seconds we roll out on the new heading. We are on our way to our ground targets.
Below us, cars and trucks cruise Interstate 10 at 1/8 our speed. I can just imagine the sound of four Tomcats in MIL power (full power without afterburner) and I wonder if anyone is looking up to see their tax dollars at work. They probably couldn’t see the bombs, but with our wings swept back they could tell we’re moving out. It’s a short segment of our flight and in just over a minute we turn south. Sorry, folks, airshow’s over.
[Editor’s Note: He gave us an incredible look inside life as a Topgun instructor during the filming of the famous cult classic by the same name, now our good friend and author of the fabulous Topgun Days, Dave “Bio” Baranek is working on his second and third books, and has come back to Foxtrot Alpha to recollect on the intricacies of the mighty F-14 Tomcat’s evolution and his own career that evolved right alongside it.]
On the final leg, activity and crew coordination in each cockpit increase. Suddenly we reach the IP (initial point), lead selects afterburner and pulls to begin a pop-up delivery. Dash 2, Dash 3, and finally my aircraft pop-up in turn.
The F-14 – yes, even the A-model – is powerful and responsive at this speed and altitude, and we climb quickly. A 4,000-pound load doesn’t hurt performance much and soon we roll over and dive while my pilot visually acquires the target.
I back him up on airspeed, dive angle, and altitude. My stick is a nugget, but very sharp; he has it all under control. The bombs come off with a couple of quick thumps, and we recover from the dive with a 5G pull to stay outside of its fragmentation pattern.
These are live bombs and as we climb away the pilot rolls so we can see the impact area. We are rewarded: even in the blazing sun you can see the fireball of the 2,000 pound Mk 84s.
That was in December 1996, during an air-to-ground training detachment to El Centro, California. I was executive officer of the VF-211 Fighting Checkmates. We were a hard-working team of 30 officers, 16 chief petty officers, and 200 enlisted, operating 14 F-14A Tomcats.
If I were philosophical, I would have pondered how things had changed in the F-14 community... and how much had not changed. But I wasn’t thinking about that, because in nine months I would become the commanding officer and the squadron would deploy for Operation Southern Wat. I had a lot on my mind.
On Tomcat Fighting In Its Early Form
When I joined my first F-14 squadron in 1981 (VF-24), the A-model was still relatively new and some US Navy squadrons were still flying Phantoms. The potential threats that we most often trained for were the MiG-17 and MiG-21, which were not match of a threat beyond visual range (BVR), but could be a handful if you got engaged within visual range (WVR). Since we always expected to be outnumbered, and with the lessons from the air war over Vietnam still fresh, we spent a lot of our training fuel and time on ACM – air combat maneuvering, or dogfighting.
We would use the AWG9, which at the time was by far the most capable radar in a fighter, to paint the picture of what is out there and get us to the merge. Our weapon during the intercept was the AIM-7 Sparrow, which was much improved since its flawed debut in Vietnam and had become a reliable and versatile weapon. But in my experience we often wouldn’t kill-remove adversaries based on pre-merge shots because we wanted to maximize the number we faced in the within visual range engagement.
As a new RIO I changed radar modes to compensate for the limitations of the AWG9’s two modes: pulse (low PRF) and pulsed Doppler (high PRF). Each mode had strengths and weaknesses and I think most Radar Intercept Officers switched between them as an intercept progressed. It seemed to be a sign of a good RIO. I used a lot of my brain processing time develop a good picture. In other words, “RIO technique.”
We fought anything we could: F-4s, F-5s, F-15s, A-4s, A-7s, and more. There were no Hornets yet, and few F-16s. When the F-14 was clean (no AIM-54 rails on the belly and no external tanks) and light on fuel, with all systems working, it was a very capable fighter. With more stores and fuel we paid a penalty in maneuverability. The Tomcat was strongest below 20,000 feet, and lower was better. But of course the soft deck and hard deck safety restrictions usually kept us from going too low. A Tomcat fighting in the thick air below 5,000 feet altitude maneuvered the way you always wanted it to!
In an engagement there were many moving parts. In the front seat, the pilot was primarily working stick and throttles, which included almost all essential switches because the F-14 benefited from switchology and cockpit ergonomics lessons that were learned the hard way in the skies over Vietnam. (These are now known as “human factors” and “pilot-vehicle interface.”) The Tomcat pilot used the rudder pedals as necessary, such as for roll control at lower airspeed. He had a HUD but it didn’t show flight information effectively so he checked the instrument panel if necessary – but with a little experience pilots rarely needed to look inside during an engagement.
Depending on the scenario, the RIO’s priority would be defensive visual scan (behind the 3-9 line), facilitated by the 360-degree view from the cockpit. Any good RIO could see between the tails, though it was hard at 6.5G! The RIO coordinated with the pilot to keep track of bandits and wingmen through effective communications and handoffs.
The RIO’s eyes were seemingly everywhere at once, watching the bandit being chased, watching airspeed, watching altitude, watching fuel state, keeping sight of wingmen, clearing their six o’clock, as well as our own. “Watch right four o’clock low.” “Got him. Sluggo is engaged at left eight.” “Visual.” The RIO always had to be ready to activate VSL – vertical scan lock-on, one of the most useful of the radar’s dogfight modes – when an adversary was coming into the scan volume off the nose of the jet. Employing cockpit resource management principles, the RIO would act as copilot, keeping tabs on fuel, navigation, range time – whatever it took to win the engagement and complete the mission safely.
Meanwhile, the jet itself had a lot of moving parts. The TF30 engines were in burner a lot, but pilot handling of the throttles was similar to my radar work during the intercept: compensating for limitations, doing the best with what you’ve got. The variable geometry wings swept back and forth automatically, programmed via Mach number, while the slats and maneuvering flaps did their best to maximize lift. These auto-maneuvering devices significantly enhanced F-14 maneuverability.
There was a lot going on in those engagements.
Then there was the fact that most O4s (Lieutenant Commanders) and above in most squadrons had Vietnam combat experience, with some having hundreds of combat missions under their belt. Even if a pilot or RIO wasn’t King Kong, he brought a healthy dose of aviating experience that was valuable to us nuggets. Plus great stories for midrats (midnight rations).
On Carrying The AIM-54 Phoenix
Most anyone who has ever had an interest in military aviation knows that F-14s carried AIM-54s, and that the Phoenix (affectionately known as a 1,000-pound wingman) was famous for its long range and large warhead, as well as active terminal guidance and the ability to have multiple Phoenixes in flight simultaneously. This gave us impressive capability, especially compared to other air-to-air missiles in the early 1980s. Yes, the AIM-54A had some employment limitations, but it repeatedly destroyed fighter-size targets in test shots. Let me digress to say how disappointed I am that the U.S. Navy has no real-world Phoenix kills.
Anyway, the penalties for this capability included weight and drag. We would carry the Phoenix on the belly (also known as the tunnel), and that required adapter rails that weighed 400 lbs each and added drag. Each missile itself weighed 1,000 lbs. But the reason we didn’t use them against fighters was policy: carriers planned to save AIM-54s for use against a raid by a Soviet bomber regiment. On my first tour we were never in a real-world counter-air situation so I don’t know for sure, but that’s how we trained: against enemy fighters it was AIM-7s, AIM-9s, and the gun.
Let me segue to the “outer” air battle. If you look at literature from the period, you’ll see that the F-14’s power projection/fighter mission was emphasized, but effectiveness in the maritime air superiority (MAS) mission was also an essential capability. This was a mission where the most effective training was done in simulators, mainly due to complexity. It would have been hard to assemble a realistic number of targets and jammers. Because so much of the information was displayed to the RIO, he had to take the tactical lead for MAS missions.
I want to talk about actual flying today so I won’t say much more about MAS, except for a few parting thoughts. In Fleet squadrons, when we flew live MAS training events the most valuable portions were command and control and tanking. Sitting in my cockpit, I would try to imagine dozens of Phoenix contrails streaking through the sky from my own jet and my wingmen.
On The Evolution Of Tomcat Tactics
My first squadron tour lasted a little over three years (1981-84), then I was selected to serve as a Topgun instructor, and I returned to the F-14 community in 1987. I joined the Bounty Hunters of VF-2, deploying aboard USS Ranger. To set the stage, West Coast carriers still deployed to the North Arabian Sea as we had during my first tour. But by this time US Navy ships were escorting oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz under Operation Earnest Will, and the carrier air wing was airborne for the duration of the oil tankers’ transit, to provide immediate response to any hostile acts. There was a realistic prospect of conflict with Iran, which would mean flying against F-4s, F-5s, and F-14s, as well as I-HAWK SAMs. Without speculating on Iranian military skill, I will just say we didn’t dismiss the threat.
Around the world there had been developments during the 1980s that affected our training and tactics. Among the most significant was the proliferation of forward-quarter capable MiGs and Sukhois. Against the MiG-21 and previous threats we were essentially immune from attack until the bandit was behind our 3-9 line. This may seem like ancient history, but it shows the advantage US fighters held until the early 1980s. Our response to the Flogger was gradual. I participated in a series of test flights to explore the Flogger threat in 1982, but those flights didn’t include tactics designed to counter threat missiles, so they were like the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and they proved the need for a whole new approach to the intercept. Some of that was taking place while I was at Topgun, and by the time I got back to the Fleet it was becoming well-established.
Basic information on BVR tactics is familiar to enthusiasts. Think back to when it was new, however, when we had to admit we had a vulnerability that was something we could mitigate if we learned the details of AIM-7 performance compared to the Soviet AA-7 (and later the AA-10). We learned how to optimize our launch range and reduce the enemy’s by working against his radar and his missile.
Our training became more realistic than it had been. Of the two adversary aircraft available, the F-5 provided the better simulation of a MiG-23 since it could at least go supersonic, though it couldn’t match the Flogger’s incredible acceleration and speed. In engagements, F-5 pilots limited their G to represent the Flogger’s relatively poor turn performance, so once engaged (past the merge) the Tomcat had a real advantage.
As mentioned before, much of my earlier training seemed to focus on radar technique, but facing Floggers required additional skills such as evaluating our mission and how to reduce vulnerability. Sometimes we launched AIM-7s and maneuvered to avoid the merge.
One day a senior officer was flying with the adversaries, expecting to mix it up with Tomcats like we all did back in the day. But the F-14s took shots, timed them out, and bugged (ran). In the debrief he asked, “What the hell was that?” Using the common term, our flight lead respectfully said, “We were flying counter-Flogger tactics, sir.” With a red face, the senior said, “Well I call them chicken-shit tactics!” No one said anything for a few heartbeats and we gingerly finished the debrief. When the senior left, the adversary lead, a skilled and respected lieutenant, said, “You guys did a good job.”
In reality, the transition in tactics was more fun than it sounds. For one thing, it was cool to fly intercepts at Mach 1 or higher against supersonic F-5s. At this time in my career I had more than 1,600 F-14 hours and had been flying tactically for about seven years including time in Topgun F-5s, so I was very comfortable.
Also, the general situation quickly improved. For one thing, we learned about valid shot criteria and much of that came from our Air Force brothers. My recollection was that we had been kind of cavalier regarding missile launches. Yes, we knew the envelopes well and had good cockpit indications, so most shots in training probably would have been good shots in combat, but we just didn’t have enough rigor in the debrief. So the Navy fighter community stepped up and started holding aircrew accountable for every trigger squeeze.
I don’t know exactly where it started, but I heard it came from debriefs and exchanges with Air Force F-15s and it quickly spread through the Tomcat community. (This was more important when we were not on TACTS/ACMI, because that evaluates shots.) Many things started to become more standardized across the Services, such as the format of tactical communications and the nicknames and codewords we used for various tactics and weapons/countermeasure employment. They were all documented in the Topgun manual, which soon became the standard used for training and real world employment.
Another improvement came from high-level Navy decision-makers who supported the F-16N. The first Navy Viper arrived at Topgun in June 1987, and they were quickly provided to all adversary squadrons. We finally had a radar-equipped high-performance aircraft that could replicate the current threat. This had been in work for years, and at times it seemed like we might get the F-20 Tigershark or an F-16 with a J79 engine. The way it turned out, I was proud of the Navy for putting the money into a very capable adversary aircraft. Of course it meant that I spent a lot of time at 6.5G in knife fights trying to kill F-16s, because you really couldn’t disengage. But you know what they say about good training, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” Duke Cunningham said that a lot.
How We Kept The Tomcat’s Claws Sharp
When we started to get serious about the threat, especially when the AA-10 Alamo arrived, we realized we had to employ AIM-54s against enemy fighters. So of course we began to train with them. I think the capability was in TACTS all along, we just never used it. Fortunately the Navy introduced the AIM-54C in 1987, when we really needed it. The Charlie corrected many shortcomings of the Alpha, in both outer air battle and closer-in tactical environments. With its long motor burn time, large warhead, and radar improvements, the AIM-54C was a tenacious missile. Again, it is too bad it doesn’t have a combat record.
One of the coolest visuals I remember was from TACTS debriefs at Fallon, when a division of Tomcats launched AIM-54Cs against simulated Fulcrums at 30-plus miles. A few seconds after launch the debriefer rotated the view from overhead to horizontal, and there were four Phoenixes performing their trajectory-shaping climbs. AIM-54s were not 100% kills, but they sure started to reduce the threat as scenarios developed.
Now we have the attitude and the tools. The Tomcat had been in Service more than ten years, and there was talk of an all-F-14D fleet: building new D-models and converting all As into Ds. The late 1980s was a great time to be in F-14s.
One of the F-14’s more interesting systems was the TCS (television camera set). This was useful in many scenarios, and was actually integrated into the weapons system. For those who are not familiar with it, the TCS was a camera that could be slaved to the radar antenna and provided a gray-scale visual image to the aircrew. It had a fairly limited field of view and of course it was greatly affected by atmospheric haze, so it was most useful at high altitude where the air is clear.
TCS grew out of the Vietnam experience of crews have difficulty obtaining visual identification (VID) of a radar target. The concept proved its value in AIMVAL/ACEVAL, but there was some problem with its fielding and I didn’t see it operationally until I got to my second Tomcat squadron. It was a fascinating system, and there are some great videos of it in action, but I don’t recall using it a lot in training engagements.
Why The F-15 Was One Of Our Toughest Opponents
Earlier I mentioned the Vietnam-experienced senior officers in my first squadron. The characters and personalities in a Navy fighter squadron are some the things I miss most. In VF-2 I was promoted to O4 and so I had to write fitness reports on junior officers. Fitreps had been an administrative burden in the early part of my career; no one likes doing that rigidly-formatted paperwork. But seeing these very talented and dedicated JOs, it was really a privilege to write fitreps on them. And in the years since then, several have advanced to impressive leadership positions.
While talking about people, I also have to mention the sailors who gave the squadron its combat capability. Most junior officers quickly come to respect the ability and commitment of the sailors who work long hours in often unpleasant conditions (heat, noise, etc.) and keep coming back for more. Although I don’t have readiness rates to back it up, my perception was that aircraft mission capability was better during my second tour. This was likely the result of a combination of factors, such as newer block aircraft that received incremental improvements. Whatever the exact cause, I appreciated it!
My recollection of these years may be affected by my own situation. I’d been fortunate to accumulate a good amount of flight time and experience, and I was in a squadron full of enthusiastic and capable pilots and RIOs. One of the flights I remember was above the Yuma TACTS Range, a 2vUNK (two versus unknown) hop against F-5s simulating Floggers. Tomcats were simulating an AIM-7/AIM-9 load, so our employment had to be spot-on. I was in Dash 2. Our section lead was good, but I had noticed that the RIO had a habit of locking the wrong target. We had a 30-mile-plus setup and as the intercept progressed, I saw that there were four bandits in a box formation, about 3 miles between the lead group and the trail. We were just topping 600 knots indicated and the F-5s were going about 550 for 1,150 knots combined closure speed. As we closed inside 20 miles the RIOs prepared to take radar locks for Sparrow launch. The lead RIO called his sort (the aircraft they locked in the enemy formation) over the radio. Even though we were closing at 2,000 feet each second, I quipped, “Lock anyone, Lead, I’ll get the other one.” In the end we had separate locks and two good kills. I felt like I was performing at the level that was expected of me.
In preparing for this interview I pulled out the only video I have of a training intercept/engagement, and it happened to be a 2v2 against F-15s in 1988. Of course the F-15 was a challenge, which made it great training for us. (The video quality is poor due to its age and the F-14A’s crappy recorder.) It was a 30-mile initial setup, with Tomcats in combat spread (line abreast about two to three miles apart) and Eagles in trail formation (one in front of the other with a wide separation).
Listening to the intercept, F-15 intercept comm was excellent; as a RIO, I thought, that’s how I want to sound. The engagement took place around 20,000’ (altitude) and started as two 1v1s, but we still had to be concerned with the other Eagle. About one minute after the merge my pilot got into position to launch an AIM-9 at an F-15, and I got this screen capture of the HUD video. As mentioned before the F-14 HUD wasn’t as good as other aircraft – you can see the lack of info displayed – but you can tell we’re in good position with Sidewinder (SW) selected. The image flickered a lot so the trigger-down cue has already gone. It’s only one frame out of two engagements, but it shows we would and could fight anyone.
The F-15 was one of our toughest opponents; if you just compare the specs for the F-14 and F-15 you’ll see why. And F-15 pilots are well-trained (that’s how you get a combat record of 104 kills / 0 losses; I know many of those are non-US kills). There are stories of Tomcat crews (pilot and RIO) acting like they were a section, and in fact I did that, too. But for a straight-up 2v2, fighting Eagles required us to execute at near-perfection. That is what we should always do anyway, right?
Radar work and comms in the intercept had to be spot-on. Once engaged, the Tomcat pilot had to keep his knots up to maintain options, and then know when it was worth it to give up energy for a shot, knowing there was another Eagle in the arena. I fought F-15s several times throughout my career and had a roughly even record, but the wins were never easy. Neither were the losses.
How The Tomcat Became The “Bombcat”
The F-14 faced challenges but like a real champ it fought until the end. One of the first reality-checks came in the 1980s with the simple realization that the Navy could not afford an all-F-14D fleet. F-14As continued to serve until 2003 and the final F-14D retired in 2006. This was all predestined when the Super Hornet was selected for development, signaling the end for the F-14 community. No need to go into that. It happened.
In 1991 the F-14 community participated in some important ways in DESERT STORM, such as strike lead, escort, and TARPS. But for a variety of reasons, some good and some ugly, the F-14 did not show its full air-to-air capability during that war. I wasn’t there and this subject is covered elsewhere. On the plus side, the Navy learned a lot from its DESERT STORM experience.
But the news is not all bad. One of the less-obvious improvements to the F-14 fleet arrived in 2000 when the digital flight control system (DFCS) was installed. Providing enhanced maneuverability and improving some of the Tomcat’s messy low-speed handling characteristics by means of an aileron-rudder interconnect, DFCS was the realization of a dream from the early days of the program, when there was never quite enough funding. DFCS markedly improved the capability of all F-14s, allowing pilots to perform more aggressive maneuvers in dogfights such as pirouettes, and significantly reduced pilot workload during instrument approaches, eliminating the signature dutch roll of the earlier analogue AFCS equipped F-14A. I had my last Tomcat flight in 1998 and never flew a DFCS bird, but some authorities have said that the F-14D with the big engines, new radar, and DFCS was finally the fighter we should have had all along.
In my opinion the biggest change during the Tomcat’s career was when it assumed the strike fighter mission. Several commanders considered this over the years, and in fact we looked into it around 1988 when I was in VF-2. Air Wing TWO Commander (CAG) CAPT Chris “Boomer” Wilson wanted his F-14 squadrons (VF-1 and VF-2) to drop bombs. But we weren’t able to get approval. Other squadrons on both coasts made exploratory attempts at developing the F-14’s air-to-ground capability but it wasn’t until the A-6 retired that the Navy deployed a real “Bombcat.” Around the same time, the LANTIRN system that flew on F-15Es and F-16s was being podded for carriage on F-14s. Integration into the F-14 cockpit was straightforward, and the mission was eagerly embraced throughout the community. The first LANTIRN deployment was in 1996 (VF-103) – and with it the F-14 finally became a versatile precision strike-fighter.
Connecting this to my own experience, when I left VF-2 in 1990 I was assigned staff jobs for several years. The extended time away from Tomcats was unexpected, and when I finally returned in 1996 it was almost a different world. The Flogger threat seemed almost quaint compared to Fulcrums and Flankers with AA-10s. Combine this with the strike-fighter mission and various systems changes, and I had a lot of catching up to do!
The F-14 community took a confident and professional approach to these changes. One of the most visible signs of this was implementation of the Strike Fighter Weapons and Tactics (SFWT) syllabus, which greatly improved the quality of training for every Fleet pilot and RIO in all missions. In addition, SFARP (the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program) and airwing predeployment training at NAS Fallon were much more challenging than I had experienced in the 1980s. But all of these changes bred a competitiveness in the junior officers, who strove for perfection. They signed up to fly fighters and wanted to be the best. I was very proud of the aviators I commanded in VF-211.
How We Kept The Tomcat Flying
It’s true that the Tomcat was a complex aircraft when introduced, and twenty years later it was an older complex aircraft. But let me cite two published articles with information so readers can have some facts.
In February 1993, US Naval Institute Proceedings published an article by F-14 pilot LT John Wood titled “F-14D Reliability Confounds Critics.” In this brief article he addresses many aspects of the F-14 program and the F-14D. The information I’ll mention was the direct maintenance man-hours per flight hour (MMH/FH) for his F-14 squadron, VF-11, in two types of Tomcats: for F-14As it was 31.3, and for the F-14D it was 17.8 – a significant decrease.
Five years later (September 1998) Proceedings published an article by LT Patrick Porter that addressed Naval Aviation readiness from end to end: “A J.O. Looks at TacAir Readiness.” This was an insightful piece that leveraged LT Porter’s experience as a RIO and Quality Assurance officer in VF-211, when I was CO. Again, I will only mention the MMH/FH statistics. During the first few months of deployment our hard-working maintainers logged roughly 65 hours of maintenance for every flight hour, but they were working-off the effects of a very demanding turnaround training cycle on fourteen F-14As. After three months of hard work the situation improved, and we logged 37 MMH/FH at the end of deployment. LT Porter does an excellent job of analyzing causes, and it may be difficult to compare to other aircraft, but at least now some hard numbers are out there.
In both cases, the credit goes to the men and women who kept the Tomcats flying: dedicated sailors with skilled leadership from senior petty officers and chief petty officers.
On Being A Squadron Commander
On a personal level, it was a great honor, being placed in command of this impressive military capability. Over the preceding years as I advanced in rank, there were times when I thought being a squadron commander must be impossibly tough, and other times when I thought, “I could do that, and do it well.” And then when I pinned on that command star (sometimes called the sheriff’s badge) and realized I was the CO, it was challenging and also rewarding. I was fortunate to have talented and very dedicated people in VF-211 at all levels, and I tried hard to be the CO they needed.
We deployed on USS Nimitz in 1997-98 in support of Operation Southern Watch (OSW). The Iraqi air force had been violating the southern no-fly zone before we arrived, and we actually skipped a port call to arrive in the Persian Gulf early. I was very excited that we might get to shoot, but as soon as we arrived the violations stopped. It would be speculation on my part about whether they recognized the presence of the Tomcat’s AWG9 and didn’t want to deal with Phoenix.
Our OSW missions consisted of counter-air patrols of the no-fly zone, strike packages, and TARPS (Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System). Our LANTIRN pods were fantastic: easy to use and reliable. We also performed regular practice strikes with the Marine Corps, Air Force, and allies. These were large and complex operations where positioning and timing were critical. We could see the other assets on radar and visually, and I was just amazed at how smoothly these events ran, with zero communications. It demonstrated how well-trained our forces were.
An OSW mission was a demonstration of the precision and execution of modern air combat. Before launch we were required to have secure radio and all systems operating. We then launched about a dozen aircraft: Tomcats, Hornets, Prowlers, a Hawkeye, and sometimes a Viking. The OSW package flew up the gulf to the tanker orbit or went right over Iraq to assume station – all under very tight control to ensure positive identification. We patrolled in our assigned box. For me, I shared time between the radar (of course) and using the LANTIRN to look at the terrain below, sometimes identifying targets, other times just looking for an interesting structure. We had excellent system reliability, and we needed it. The flights were about 4 hours each, usually with two refuelings from a KC-10, and then it was back to the Nimitz. The Navy increased the F-14’s max trap weight from 51,800 pounds to 54,000, which may not seem like much but it added a bit more safety factor to our recovery fuel, or meant we could bring back the ordnance we carried.
Several times we ramped-up the excitement by “riding shotgun” for U-2s while they flew high above Iraq. Of course we didn’t escort them in any sense, they were miles above us, but we provided a response package should Iraqi forces make any offensive moves. They threatened to, but never did.
It was all fairly routine. Except we were flying over hostile terrain with live weapons as part of an international operation. Professionalism and consistent high performance were required on every flight.
The F-14 served the country for more than three decades, from the closing days of Vietnam and into the Global War on Terror and went through an amazing evolution in that time period. The Tomcat as a strike-fighter, with Phoenix, Sparrow, Sidewinder, and bombs. Who in those early F-14 squadrons in the 1970s would’ve imagined that?
Like all aircraft it has fans and detractors. But for those who worked on it and flew it, I think all would proudly proclaim their association with the mighty Tomcat. I’m in that group.
Dave “Bio” Baranek logged more than 3,000 hours during a 20-year career as a Naval Flight Officer, including 2,600 in the F-14 Tomcat and 450 in the F-5F Tiger II. He retired in 1999 and is a defense contractor in the Washington, DC area.
He is the author of TOPGUN DAYS, which gives a good account of going from a nugget in an F-14 squadron to Topgun instructor. His next book, available in March 2016, is a prequel that describes his experiences in Naval flight officer training and the F-14 RAG. Bio is also working on a third book that will cover the latter portion of his flying career and includes his best photos.
Photo Credits: All photos taken by Dave Baranek aside from Phoenix missile shot and F-14 low level desert shot. Those images are courtesy US Navy archives.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.