Tomcat may have been the F-14's official moniker, but its other nickname was 'Turkey.' Seeing as many of us will be slaving away in an attempt to cook perfect turkey today, it is only proper that we pay homage to the hard working sailors who had to the cook a perfect Turkey every time- those who maintained the crazily complex F-14 'Turkey.'
The nickname 'Turkey,' or 'Turkeybird,' came from how the normally super-sleek, muscular and famous fighter looked on the catapult going through control checks or on approach to landing, when the aircraft's entire trailing edge seemed to fan out into a messy moving mass of feather-like structures. Flaps, spoilers, speed brake, slats, the F-14's huge all moving 'tailerons' and its twin rudders, along with gear doors and landing gear jutting out from the bottom, the word 'busy' is an understatement for the big Grumman jet in its most vulnerable of configurations.
There was a bit of satire in the 'Turkey' nickname as well. Calling one of the world's most capable and sexy fighters 'Turkey' is just plane ironic, but the complexity and size of the jet did make it a pain in the ass to maintain. The reality is that the Tomcat was a turkey for some time after its operational debut, and there were great limitations on how the jet could be flown, when it could actually fly.
The Tomcat's finicky TF-30 turbofan engines were the weakest part of the initial F-14 package, being maintenance hogs and suffering from deadly stalls. The TF-30s were super sensitive when it came to air flow during hard maneuvering. Large throttle excursions were a real no-no when exploring the outer frontiers of the F-14's aerodynamic envelope. Many crews have stated that it wasn't until the GE F110-400 engines were fielded in the form of the F-14A+/B and D models that the Turkey was truly all the bird it could be.
Still, throughout the F-14's trials and tribulations, an army of extremely dedicated maintainers had to keep these cutting edge, yet analogue fighters in the air. It was no easy task to say the least. One lead maintainer from VF-101 'Grim Reapers,' the Turkey's Replacement Air Group (RAG), told me in the mid 90s that generating F-14 sorties 'was more of a religion than a technical profession.'
Towards the end of its career, the F-14 fleet was at the top of its game. The aircraft had transformed into a multi-role heavy fighter-attack aircraft, and became as synonymous with forward air control and precision strike as it once was with defending the fleet from aerial attack.
The remaining hodgepodge of Tomcat airframes had personalities of their own, and those that were the most 'anti-social' had seemingly never ending wiring issues that sucked up tremendous amounts maintenance time. Towards the end, somewhere between 40 and 60 man-hours per flight-hour were needed to keep the Turkeybirds in the air, well over double that of the Super Hornet that was to replace it. Yet the intrepid band of 'Tomcat Tweakers' kept up, chasing wiring and hydraulic faults with greasy fingers and the mark 1 eyeball, not with some fancy computer self-diagnostic equipment, like those that has become so common with modern combat aircraft today.
The fact that the jets were maintenance nightmares was just part of Tomcat life. The ends clearly justified the means. It was a unique, elite and overtly 'proud' community.
Nowhere is this commitment to the challenge of keeping the ultra intricate, Cold War era Turkeys in the air better stated than in one of my favorite books of all time, the reminiscent obituary to the last Grumman cat- F-14 Tomcat: Bye-Bye Baby..!
This incredibly funny, insightful and sentimental picture book covers virtually every facet of the F-14s existence in a first person testimonial manner, from memories of the big jet's strange peculiarities and epic moments in the air, to its maintenance heavy existence:
Snort (famed high-time F-14 pilot Dale 'Snort' Snodgrass) would bring in a bird from a cross-country. He'd give the maintainers a thumbs up:
"Jet's good to go fellas."
Roger that, sir.
Then you'd start looking closer.
We're going to be here all weekend on this one.
It was a constant challenge, but the rewards could bring tears to your eyes. I've been stabbed, cut, bruised, shocked, pinched, burned, and worse, smashed fingers.
I stood on my head until I was dizzy, going after FOD (foreign object debris) in the cockpit. I even fell of the wing once.
Along the way I uttered every cuss word known to man and I may have evem invented a few.
But let some non-Tomcat sailor say a disparaging word about my jet and I'd rip him to pieces.
Brian "Line Rat" Hegrat
The Turkey was such a maitenance hog Monroe "Hawk" Smith, who was just given the command of a Tomcat squadron replied the following when asked what it was like getting such an opportunity:
I have two things I've always wanted most in life: I'm a Navy fighter pilot, and I own a junkyard.
Still, even with the big jet's need for attention, for those that maintained them, somehow it all always seemed worthwhile in the end:
The maintainers worked their asses off on cruise, doing the impossible every day - the camaraderie was awesome to behold.
Then you'd get to work as the checker (white jersey on the flight deck, checks the jet at the catapult). Kneeling down next to the ass end of a Tomcat, your insides vibrating into goo, watching Zone V burner launches off the bow cats.
You suddenly knew what it was all about, what you were there for -it still gives me chills.
So happy Turkey Day everybody and cheers to all those Tomcat Tweakers that kept the biggest Turkey of them all flying. I am sure the majority of you would line up to put the F-14 back in the air without batting an eye if the call came.
I will leave you with some fantastic Turkeybird HD footage to digest along with everything else you gobbled down today:
Photos via US Navy/Public Domain
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com