The Week In: Military Aviation -- The Tomcat Retires, or, The Ayatollah's Need For Speed

The touch of Hollywood changes lives! Forever!

Even jets are aware of this. It’s likely people who don’t know anything about airplanes could still successfully ID an F-14 Tomcat, because, yes, Hollywood has laid upon it its golden finger. That was done via someone called Tom Cruise and something called Top Gun.

Last week, the F-14 was officially retired from US active duty. The two squadrons that flew the jet will be switching over to the F/A-18, a plane that apparently does almost everything the F-14 does (take off from aircraft carriers, shoot down other planes/missiles from a long, long distance, and attack targets on the ground [a role the F-14 wasn’t intended to assume, but for which it was successfully modified]) at something like 1/10th the operating cost. And if there’s one thing the US military industrial complex (bigup DDE) is good at, well, it’s being fiscally efficient. Right? So the Tomcat is done. Sort of.

The F-14 made its debut in 1972, as the second major US aircraft (after the F-111) to feature variable-geometry, or swing wings—wings that pivot back into a delta shape at high speeds, and pivot out for more maneuverability during normal cruising.

Another significant claim to fame, of course, was 1986’s Top Gun—the movie that set a yet-unmatched precedent for real-life aerial filming. The movie was shot with full cooperation from the US Navy, which was given final script approval privileges (the film’s initial confrontation with the “MiGs” was moved from Cuba’s skies to safer “international waters, “among other changes), along with a giant surge in recruitment interest, in exchange for accomadating the air-to-air filming whims of J. Bruckheimer et al. The film’s aerial footage can still be seen regularly making money for JB being licensed on shows like JAG, etc. Believe me when I say I can recognize this footage instantaneously when it pops up in other places—a testament both to its singularity in quality as well as in a certain childhood pocket of my hippocampus.

Another interesting caveat to the F-14’s US retirement is that it leaves Iran as the only other country in the world to operate it. What was then the Imperial Iranian Air Force (click on that link, it's amazing) ordered 80 planes beginning in 1976, and they received 79 of them—the last jet’s delivery was still pending in 1979 when the Shah went down. That delivery was, of course, cancelled.

Iran went on to use F-14s to dominate the inferior French and Russian jets of the Iraqi Air Force during the following decade’s Iran-Iraq war. One of this war’s aviators, the Iranian pilot Jalal Zandi, stands as the world’s most successful wartime F-14 pilot (a title he will now hold forever, it seems), supposedly downing nine Iraqi fighters over the course of the war. In the first US-Iraq Gulf War, Iraqi pilots showed considerable experience in dealing with the F-14 (as soon as its unique radar signature was detected, Iraqi pilots would often immediately retreat—a deference they did not [or were incapable of] showing to other US aircraft).

It’s probably safe to assume that today, Iran has virtually no ability to fly F-14s. If the US Navy has deemed them too expensive to operate, it’s likely that the Revolutionary Iranian Air Force is having similar trouble scraping together the funds to keep their F-14s flying, especially considering they haven’t received any direct support or spare parts from the US in almost 30 years. But with help from the USSR (which in turn copied the F-14s unique long-range missile system) and by cannibalizing their own planes for parts, Iran was able to keep their F-14s flying long enough for the US to maybe, maybe regret selling them. Just a little bit.

I suppose we’ll bee seeing the same type of thing happen in 3-4 years, when Iraq also becomes a revolutionary Islamic republic. But it appears that all they’ve received from the US so far (so far!) are some shitty Vietnam-era cargo helicopters.

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