The remains of two Navy F-14 Tomcats and an F-4 Phantom II sit in an overgrown field in Temple, Texas.

The remains of two Navy F-14 Tomcats and an F-4 Phantom II sit in an overgrown field in Temple, Texas. (Screenshot from ErikJohnston video)

AUSTIN, Texas — Rusting, cracked and covered in dead leaves, three relics of Navy aviation sit rotting in an overgrown field in Temple, Texas – a far cry from their glory days of fighting for America in the skies over Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Surprisingly, a few switches and throttles have remained despite obvious signs of souvenir hunters picking at the aircrafts’ frames.

The two F-14 Tomcats and an F-4 Phantom II can be seen in a YouTube video, viewed more than 600,000 times — their wings stripped off and piled nearby, trees growing through the fuselage, wires exposed and glass cracked.

The owner, who declined an interview, said he purchased the planes from “property disposal.”

Jim Hodgson, a Marine Corps veteran and director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum, believes the owner intended to scrap the planes, but never finished the job.

“They probably scraped out all of the easy pieces and what was left was going to be difficult. Rather than going through the time and trouble, they just dumped them,” said Hodgson who has discussed the aircraft with the owner and the Navy. As a participant in the Navy’s aircraft loan program, he felt responsible for alerting officials to their existence once he was made aware of it. It also bothered him to see the once powerful machines in such a sad state.

“We consider these airplanes as vets just like any human being,” he said. “They’ve all got a story. They’ve all had interactions with lives and combat and all the rest of it. We consider them as noteworthy of respect as the people that rode in them. And to me it’s just like discarding somebody on the side of the road.”

Officials with the Navy said in September they are aware of the planes and working with the landowner for removal. In these instances of sale for scrap, the Navy has to ensure that the aircraft are reduced to that condition, said Anthony Mazzone, the Navy’s stricken aircraft program manager. The Defense Logistics Agency’s Defense Disposition Services handles the actual sale.

The fact that these aircraft are on private property has complicated the issue, he said.

Only the F-4 has an identifiable bureau (serial) number that is distinguishable, and that aircraft was formally stricken from the naval records in March 1983,” said Jeffrey Landis, spokesman for Navy Supply Command Weapons Systems Support.

Navy officials couldn’t speculate on how the aircraft came to land in this particular field, but provided information on the typical disposal process. Navy policy requires they drain all fluids and remove any hazardous materials before rendering the airframes into scrap. The scrap is then disposed of at an authorized recycling facility. In all cases, engines are removed along with wings, nose-mounted radars, electronics, cockpit controls, seats and instrumentation.

Without discernable bureau numbers, the F-14s can’t be positively identified in naval records inventory.

Record-setting technology Hill Goodspeed, a historian with the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, said F-4s were designed in the 1950s and nicknamed the “big iron sled” and the “flying anvil,” because of the aircraft’s size and shape. Just 31 months after its first flight, the F-4 was the U.S. Navy’s fastest, highest flying and longest-range fighter.

Delivery to the Navy began in 1960 and soon the U.S. Air Force caught interest in the aircraft, along with 10 foreign nations, making it one of the most widely used aircraft in aviation history.

“It appeared during the Cold War,” Goodspeed said. “The U.S. Navy was looking at newer technology to be used to defend aircraft carriers at sea.”

During that time a lot of air-to-air missiles were being developed. The Phantom, which included a back seat for a radar intercept officer who tracked targets, was designed to “fly very fast and at a high altitude and intercept incoming Soviet aircraft at great range.”

The Phantom II went on to establish over a dozen world records for speed, altitude and time-to-climb.

Once the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, the Phantom was pressed into a very different type of service. It became a bomber and very well-known, in part because of its great performance, Goodspeed said.

‘It’s the only aircraft in history that the Blue Angels, the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy have flown at same time,” he said.

The platform was decommissioned in the 1990s and this particular plane finished out its military career as part of the “Cowboys” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112, a Reserve unit. However, the aircraft posed too many maintenance issues to be flown, Hodgson said. The unit instead chose to display it on a pedestal at Dallas Naval Air Station, which closed in 1998.

Hodgson believes the two Tomcats were “hangar queens” -- not flown, but kept in the hangar and picked over for parts to make other planes ready for flight.

Delivered to the Navy in 1972, the Tomcat was considered large and nicknamed the “big fighter,” Goodspeed said. Its maximum wing spread was 64 feet, 1 inch, compared to the Phantom’s 38 feet, 4 inches. The Tomcat had a unique variable sweep wing that would automatically swing forward and back depending on the aircraft’s maneuver.

“The Tomcat had a lot of public visibility through the years,” Goodspeed said.

Its notable moments in history include two engagements with Libyan aircraft in the 1980s, and confronting the hijackers of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. On the lighter side, the Tomcat starred alongside Tom Cruise in the movie “Top Gun” in 1986.

Though its first deployments were during the final stages of Vietnam, the Tomcat’s service continued through Desert Storm and post-9/11 operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The F-14 was retired from operational service in 2006.

“It’s definitely very symbolic of naval aviation for many years,” Goodspeed said.

‘A big birdhouse’ Hodgson’s initial concern when he heard of the abandoned aircraft, and another reason why he felt the responsibility to contact the Navy, was the potential for the F-14s to fall in the wrong hands. The flying platform is still in use by the Iranian military, and the Navy is tight-lipped about the technology they used within them, he said. The Tomcat on display in the Fort Worth museum is just a shell, he said. There’s nothing inside.

But once he saw the photos and video, his mind was at ease.

“We know the F-14s we have is really nothing more than a big birdhouse,” Hodgson said. “There’s nothing I could see that’s of any real import.”

The owner of the planes did indicate he would like to see a better future for them, but for now he doesn’t want people to know about them. Awareness, he said, only encourages trespassing, theft and vandalism. Twitter: @Rose_Lori

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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