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F-14s heading to aircraft graveyard

ONBOARD USS JOHN C. STENNIS, Sasebo, Japan — The U.S. Navy’s meanest, fastest and most agile fighter jet, nearing retirement, is deployed in the western Pacific Ocean for the last time.

The Grumman F-14, which entered military service in 1972, also is a movie star. At least for aviation aficionados, it upstaged actors including Tom Cruise in the film “Top Gun.”

Pilots flying the F-14s are from Fighter Squadron Three One, or VF-31, from Virginia Beach, Va. The VF-31 Tomcatters, also known as the “Felix the Cat” squadron, now are embarked on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.

The ship and squadron already have taken part in Summer Pulse ’04 and Rim of the Pacific ’04. They left Sasebo Wednesday for PASEX, an upcoming communications exercise with other nations in the region, said Stennis spokesman Lt. Corey Barker.

After this summer, the Tomcatters are to deploy once more from the U.S. East Coast, then head to the great aircraft retirement home in the desert, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Ariz.

“It’s still the best fighter jet in the world,” said Lt. Andrew McLean, a VF-31 Tomcatter with three years’ experience at the F-14 controls. “It was built during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was our major military threat. It’s one of the last aircraft built intended to have overwhelming force, and they built these jets without cutting edges … the best engines were put in them, the best radar, the best missiles … It was designed for fleet defense, and did its job well,” the pilot said.

The squadron’s jets sport logos depicting Felix the Cat holding a bomb with a lit fuse. The unit has flown F-14s for 24 years, including the current version, the F-14D Super Tomcat.

Cmdr. Aaron Cudnohufsky, squadron commanding officer, said the Tomcat rightfully has become an American legend — and not just because of the film.

“I like to compare the F-14 to a Harley-Davidson,” Cudnohufsky said. “There are a lot of airplanes out there. But none have the beauty and grace of the Tomcat. Every time I am in the aircraft, I am in awe. It looks fast just sitting there.”

The Tomcatters’ command master chief, Master Chief Petty Officer Tom Gall, called being part of a Tomcat squadron an honor. Even after 25 years in the Navy, he said, the plane’s aesthetics still leave him awestruck.

“The Tomcat just looks sharp,” Gall said. “It’s mesmerizing to watch it fly. Especially as it sweeps its wings back and goes in for the kill. I’m quite certain that many people will miss it when it is gone.”

Throughout its long career, the F-14 has performed many different missions, Gall said, making it “a true workhorse of naval aviation ... air supremacy, or ‘dog fighting,’ to reconnaissance and putting bombs on target.”

The Navy has moved to the F/A-18 Super Hornet, more a multipurpose jet praised for its versatility, rather than the F-14’s pure speed and maneuverability in a dogfight.

“Today, we’re all seeking to do more with less, so with the new jets, there are some compromises,” said McLean, whose pilot call sign is “Lick.” “They are still great, but the F-14s were built as fighters and they were the best fighters.”

The pilot said eventually VF-31 would transform into a squadron of F/A-18s, airplanes he’s had the opportunity to fly.

The F-14, he said, “is more like what you think of as a muscle car ... they have this sort of aura about them ... the F-14s are like that.”

“With the Super Hornets, you kind of get that ‘new car smell,’ like with a new Mercedes. It’s got power, but not overwhelming power, and has a lot of the luxury items and amenities,” he added.

“And the F-14s, being older, tend to take more maintenance. You’ll have Super Hornet guys working 9-to-5 shifts, when our guys are regularly working 12-hour shifts and longer just to keep the Tomcats working at top level,” he said. “But when both planes are up and running at the top of their game, there’s a lot of things the Super Hornet just can’t replace that the Tomcat can do.”

McLean said many lessons learned flying the F-14s “I’ll be able to take with me when I begin flying the Super Hornet.”

Having worked almost exclusively on the F-14s for 16 years, Chief Petty Officer Scott Hadley, an aviation structural mechanic, said he believes retiring the storied jets, even if they’re showing their age, is “the worst thing they could do in naval aviation. Absolutely.”

From the Tomcatters’ Ready Room aboard the Stennis, he said, “There’s nothing out there that can match it right now as far as capability … plus, it’s truly a gorgeous aircraft.”

But Hadley also admitted the jets are aging. “They’re getting crippled, and it’s hard to get parts.”

Still, the F-14D Super Tomcats that the squadron’s pilots fly go faster than Mach 2. They’re still the fastest fighter jet on the carrier.

“A Super Hornet can’t even get close to us,” Hadley said. “Not only is it effective, it’s just gorgeous; it’s artwork. So we carry that pride.”


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