Bittersweet end in sight for Tomcat, Navy’s ‘muscle car’
ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT — The mainstay of naval aviation might, the F-14 Tomcat, is retiring for good.
The Navy’s last two active Tomcat squadrons, the “Tomcatters” of VF-31 and “Blacklions” of VF-213, both based out of Oceana Naval Air Station, Va., are on their final deployment aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier as the strike group sails to the Persian Gulf to relieve the USS Nimitz.
“As a lifelong Tomcat pilot, it’s bittersweet to see those wonderful airplanes go away,” Rear Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., commander of Carrier Strike Group 2, said Sunday while aboard the Roosevelt as it sailed off the coast of Rota, Spain.
“I think that every time an airplane is retired, the people who were close to that airplane will shed a tear. It’s safe to say that the F-14 is special. It’s been with us for a long time, it’s a beautiful airplane. … It’s sort of a majestic aircraft, and so [retirement] is a little bittersweet.
“We know we have an excellent aircraft coming along to take its place. The F/A-18 [Super Hornets] are extraordinary aircraft, less expensive to operate and have a lot more of reliability.”
For decades, thanks in no small part to Hollywood, the Tomcat has been emblematic of U.S. naval aviation.
Goodbye doesn’t come without a heavy heart, said VF-213 pilot Lt. Josh “Fezzik” Rose, 28.
“The Tomcat has been the premiere fighter for naval aviation for three generations. A lot of people enlisted in the Navy and retired with the Tomcat being around. It was in ‘Top Gun,’ and if you’ve seen the movie, you know what [the Tomcat] is all about,” Rose said.
“It is the Navy’s muscle car. The Hornet’s like a Miata,” said Lt. Cmdr. Charlie “Scotty” Brown, who as a former instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, best known as “Top Gun,” has flown both aircraft. “It all depends on taste. Some want muscle, some want a sports car.”
While the Super Hornet is smaller and yes, even slower, both aircraft can perform the job the military looks to accomplish in combat, said Brown, with VF-31.
Pilots will need about four months’ training to make the switch, officials said.
The Tomcat squadrons, with about 30 pilots and 300 maintenance crewmembers, described being among the last as an honor. In spite of back-to-back deployments over the past three years, more pilots volunteered to be part of this six-month deployment than the wing had available spots, Winnefeld said.
“Everyone falls in love with their first aircraft,” Rose said. “But I’m looking forward to the Super Hornet. It has a lot of new technology. Like a new car. It’ll have that new car smell, and I’m sure the maintainers will appreciate it.”
Tomcats required about 50 to 60 hours of maintenance for every flight hour, compared to roughly 15 hours of maintenance time for Hornets and Super Hornets.
It’s not about shorter hours for mechanics, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jarell Thomas and Airman Mario Guzman said. After all, they’re on an aircraft carrier — what else are they going to do, they joked.
“The Tomcat is my baby,” Thomas said. He’s worked on the engine for all three years of his naval service.
“The Tomcat leaving is pretty much a heartbreak for me.”