When the Grumman F-14 Tomcat flew its last mission in February, an era of naval aviation ended that we aren’t likely to see again. The F-14 is the heaviest—and probably the most famous—fighter ever to be catapulted from a carrier. Nothing in the fleet today can match the long reach of its radar or the clobber of the six Phoenix missiles it could carry.
From This Story
For the magazine’s cover-story tribute, the editors interviewed pilots, radar intercept officers, designers, maintainers, and fans. Some of the stories wouldn’t fit even in 22 pages, so they’re included below, including a Grumman test pilot’s account of ejecting from the first production model of the F-14.
Bailout With 1.3 Seconds to Spare
Aircraft testing is a dangerous business, as test pilot Bob Smyth explained in a talk at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, Garden City, New York, on May 19, 2005.
“After Grumman’s Chief Test Pilot was killed in an F-111B takeoff accident in the spring of 1967, I was named the new chief test pilot.
The F-14 program promised to produce an airplane ready for first flight 17 months after contract go-ahead, which would be January 1971. As chief test pilot, I would make the first flight, and Bill Miller, our project pilot, would occupy the rear seat.
The F-14 program was led by a vice president who had previously spent years heading up the Preliminary Design Department. He was a very aggressive leader with a short attention span. It was his goal to fly a month earlier than the optimistic schedule had promised.
By December 30th, everyone was back (from a Christmas break), bright-eyed, and the weather was bluebird day. We were ready for our “real” First Flight, when we would go to altitude, sweep the wings, push out to Mach 1.2, and generally exercise all systems within the modest flight envelope allowed on First Flight and, of course, take pictures. (The First Flight, taking the Tomcat up and making a few simple turns, was made on December 21.)
By agreement, we would swap seats and Bill would sit up front. The weather was CAVU and cold, with about 20 knots of wind out of the northwest.
After takeoff we climbed to 10,000 feet, lest there be any hydraulic or mechanical mischief in the system. We had rounded Montauk Point and were headed back along Long Island’s south shore when we got to gear retraction entry on the flight card.
Immediately after raising the gear handle, our A-6 chase pilot said we were venting fluid out of the right side of the airplane. At the same instant, the combined hydraulic system gauge went to zero. Twenty-one gallons of hydraulic fluid had just left the airplane.