February 20, 2006
I was certainly aware that air superiority is no longer a high priority task of U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots, but I had no idea that the Navy's F-14 "Tomcat" was going to be taken out of service so soon. Yes, the very same futuristic, supersonic plane that Tom Cruise made famous in Top Gun is now officially obsolete! Man, does that make me feel old. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, some F-14s were modified to run bombing missions, since there was no enemy air force to speak of, but they really weren't designed for that mission. The fact that the Mach 2+ fighter jets are so expensive to maintain (partly because of their variable-geometry wings) makes the Navy's decision understandable. Donald Sensing reports this sad news and adds some comments about SPADs, Fokkers, and other fighters from World War I, when "dogfighting" was invented.
I got to peek into an F-14 cockpit at one of the annual air shows at Andrews (!) Air Force base outside Washington, D.C. This would have been in the early 1980s. I asked one of the pilots what the maximum range of the Phoenix air-to-air missiles carried by the F-14s was, and he coyly said he wasn't sure. I knew the precise range was a big secret (estimates ranged from 40 to 50 miles), since that was one of the main weapons in the Cold War, and knowing the range of the Phoenix would have helped the Soviets plan an attack against NATO.
Here's another little-known fact about F-14s: The Nixon administration sold a batch of 80 or so of them to the Shah of Iran, and when he was overthrown by the Mullahs in 1978-1979, those top-of-the-line jets fell into enemy hands. In the end, it didn't matter much, because we were the only source for spare parts, and very few F-14s were available for service in the Iran-Iraq war, as Iran's fleet of Tomcats was depleted through "cannibalization." It's another example of how alliances are prone to shift from time to time in world politics, and yet many critics today seem totally unaware of that basic fact.