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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 9, 2006

‘Top Gun’ fighter jets preparing to retire

Associated Press

USS Theodore Roosevelt Aviation Boatswain's Mate Handler Airman Terrance Johnson gives parking directions to an F-14 Tomcat in a U.S. Navy photo released Nov. 5. The F-14 Tomcat is to be retired from the U.S. arsenal this spring, replaced by the F-18 Hornet.

Associated Press library photo

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MANAMA, Bahrain — The Navy's F-14 Tomcat, a Cold War-era fighter jet emblazoned in the public's imagination as Tom Cruise's sleek ride in the movie "Top Gun," is beginning its final weeks of combat sorties over Iraq before being retired from the U.S. arsenal.

A pair of Navy squadrons with the last 22 operational Tomcats are flying bombing and strafing runs on insurgent targets in Iraq, jetting off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is expected to leave the Persian Gulf for its base in Virginia this spring.

Navy pilots are switching to the smaller, more reliable and easier to fly F-18 Hornet, said Cmdr. Jim Howe, deputy commander of the Roosevelt's F-14 squadrons.

"It's a bittersweet time for all the Tomcat people," Howe, 38, of Pittsburgh, told The Associated Press by telephone from aboard the Roosevelt. "The powers that be figured it was time to put it to rest."

Despite the dogfighting flash of the 1986 film, in real life the Tomcat — a big two-seater with signature retractable wings — was so tough to fly and maintain that it became known as the "turkey," Howe said.

The first squadron of Tomcats screamed across the skies in 1971 after rolling off Grumman's assembly line in Bethpage, N.Y.

The jets were considered a major coup in the U.S.-Soviet arms race, carrying up to six Phoenix air-to-air missiles that could be fired simultaneously and guided to six separate targets.

The Pentagon envisioned the F-14 defending carrier groups against fleets of Soviet bombers, said Rear Adm. John W. Miller, a former Tomcat radar operator who is deputy commander of Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain.

"It was a phenomenal capability when it was developed," Miller said. "It's one of the planes that helped us win the Cold War."

Upon the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Tomcat's dogfighting prowess became an anachronism so the Navy retooled it as a ground-attack jet, with capabilities to drop guided bombs that were first used in the air war over Bosnia and Kosovo in the late 1990s.

The Tomcat's wartime debut in April 1975 was a humble one: providing cover for the U.S. evacuation of Saigon just before the city fell to the North Vietnamese.

Six years later, a squadron flying near Libya's Mediterranean coast shot down a pair of SU-22 Fitter fighters after a Libyan pilot fired a missile at the U.S. jets — and missed. The planes also downed a pair of Libyan MiG-23 fighters in 1989.

In the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. Tomcat pilots lost one plane to an Iraqi missile and shot down one helicopter, but the dogfights were over in three days, when the Iraqi air force was destroyed or fled.

Carrier-based F-14s then began enforcing a no-fly zone over southern Iraq and have flown over the country ever since.

The pair of squadrons on board the Roosevelt fly daily over Iraq, giving air cover to U.S. ground troops fighting insurgents in Baghdad and north of the capital, Howe said. But they haven't seen as much action as Air Force and Marine F-18s and AV-8 Harriers, which have been engaged in increasingly intense bombings of rebel positions in western Iraq.

Ironically, the last flying Tomcats may belong to Iran.

The United States sold 80 F-14s to Tehran in 1974, while the country was a U.S. ally under the Shah of Iran — the only known export of the plane. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iranian Tomcats — defending Iran's Islamic revolution — downed three Iraqi fighter jets. Saddam Hussein's air force also was thought to have downed a handful of Iranian F-14s.

U.S. intelligence assessments say five or six of Iran's early model Tomcats can probably still fly but do so rarely, given the U.S. embargo on the Islamic republic and the prodigious maintenance — 40 hours in the shop for each hour in the air, four times that needed by its F-18 replacement — and parts the F-14s need, Howe said.

The Navy's Tomcat pilots will be retrained to fly two versions of the Hornet, the two-seat F-18F and the one-seat F-18E, Howe said. Most remaining F-14s eventually will be mothballed in the desert on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz.

The Tomcat isn't the oldest combat jet in the U.S. arsenal. The B-52 Stratofortress bomber, which entered service in 1954 and still blasts targets in Afghanistan, wins that honor.