September of this year will mark the last flight by an F-14 Tomcat in US Navy service. VF-213 and VF-31 have completed the last combat deployment of the Tomcat flying the best model ever allowed to take flight, the F-14D.
Arising like the missile it carried, Phoenix-like from the ashes of the Navy portion of McNamara's TFX program; the F-14 has always faced an uphill battle. From being too expensive and complex to it being a single mission plane in a multi-mission world. The first F-14s were developed as dedicated fleet protectors and for air superiority, though even in the early days Grumman saw the future and designed the Tomcat to haul bombs.
The first Tomcat lifted off the runway at Grumman's Calverton facility on December 21, 1970. It was F-14s which flew overhead as Saigon fell in 1975, guarding the American fleet as so many people fled the onrushing tyranny of Ho Chi Minh's followers. Except for brief mentions like the two Libyan shoot-downs and the interception of the Achille Lauro hijackers' plane, the Tomcats lead quiet lives protecting the US Navy from possible Bear/Blinder/cruise missile attacks. The high-point of F-14 popularity came with the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun which told a very bawlderized version of the US Navy's Fighter Weapons School at NAS Miramar.
On the hardware side, the F-14 was saddled with probably the worse part of the TFX program. I am talking about the TF-30 engines the Tomcat inherited. Prone to compressor stalls with even modest changes of AoA, Tomcat pilots found themselves flying the engines instead of the airframe. Lt. Kara Hultgreen was killed when her F-14A's left-hand engine stalled during approach to the carrier, her approach was waved off, and when she tried to bank left she banked into her dead engine at too a low a speed and too low an altitude. Her RIO ejected safely but when Hultgreen was fired out of the stricken plane it had traveled out of the safe ejection parameters, resulting in Hultgreen's death. To add to the jittery feeling, the TF-30s would shed fan blades which had the unnerving tendency to slice through the lifting body between the engines and cut through the fuel tanks there resulting in fire and a hasty ejection by the crew. To combat this nasty tendency, the Navy placed a steel jacket around each engine to help catch the stray blades.
Despite this handicap, the Tomcats kept serving their country until the 1980s when a new engine was installed, the F110 which gave the Tomcat 7,300lbs more thrust per engine than the TF-30. These new engines gave improved performance and improved endurance while removing the AoA restrictions of the TF-30 so the F-14A(Plus) Tomcat became a true dogfighter armed with the most extensive array of weapons ever fielded by a fighter: AIM-54 Phoenix, AIM-120 AMRAAM, AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder, and the M-61A 20mm cannon.
The final model of the Tomcat to reach production was the F-14D Super Tomcat. Equipped with the same engines as the F-14(Plus) and parts of the USAF F-15/F-16 fleet, the electronics were completely revamped. The venerable AWG-9 radar was replaced by the digital AN/APG-71 radar which can still track 24 separate targets and guide missiles to six of them at once. Other avionics like the AYK-14 computers were compatible with other Naval aircraft like the F/A-18C Hornet. The biggest change that came with the Super Hornets was the re-emergence of a ground mission so the F-14s started to be called Bombcats as they carried laser-guided bombs. And it was these models of the F-14 that saw final combat, not going toe-to-toe with MiGs or Mirages, but dropping bombs to support American and Coalition forces in contact with the enemy.
In the early 1990s it was expected of Grumman to produce new-build F-14Ds until 1995 along with remanufacturing low-time F-14A and A(Plus) Tomcats to D standards. Due to the much announced 'Peace Dividend' and the voracious monetary appetite of the F-18 Mafia, this never came to pass. After 72 F-14Ds, Tomcat production came to a halt and for the first time in 60 years Grumman was out of the Navy fighter business.
So now we bid farewell to the United States' first super fighter. I do not think it will ever be surpassed in Navy service; the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet may try but it will never come close.
Postscript: Grumman future Tomcats that never came to pass.
This page has a bit of info on these wonderful might have beens. Things like completely glass cockpits. Even more fuel than the 16,400 lbs already carried. Redesigned wing gloves. More weapons. Better attack aids. An airplane or three that could have kept blowing the bad guys' socks off.