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The Virginian-Pilot March 18, 2003

F-14 Tomcat may see final mission in Iraq

By Matthen Dolan

ABOARD THE TRUMAN -- Da-ding . . . da-ding . . . da-ding. . . .

Inside the hangar bay, Shawn Bush rapped his ball-peen hammer against the outside of an F-14 Tomcat, one of the nation's most storied fighter jets.

The hammer bounced rhythmically, like playing a tight snare drum -- a sign that the ``skin'' of the No. 112 jet remained adhered to its skeleton.

And then it came: Thud.

The sound of trouble.

On the upper lip of the Tomcat's right engine intake, Bush, a 31-year-old aviation mechanic from Newport News, detected a problem.

Bush reported upstairs to the maintenance control room of Fighter Squadron 32 that he had ``a gripe,'' Navy-speak for a problem with an aircraft.

Soon he'd know whether the weakness in the outer structure of the aircraft could be watched or whether an invasive repair would be needed immediately. The answer would help determine whether the Virginia Beach-based squadron could use this jet to train for a war that might be just days away.

It took a team of senior mechanics upstairs barely a minute to make the call:

Start surgery immediately. No. 112 was officially down.

It is a point of supreme pride and endless frustration for Tomcat crews: The F-14 is an old warrior.

Tomcats became operational in 1973, after the model's first flight on Dec. 21, 1970. The F-14 remains one of the world's premier fighter jets.

``When it launches off the deck of an aircraft carrier, it is the most feared fighter in the sky,'' according to GlobalSecurity.org, a respected Web site on military issues.

The F-14 Tomcat is a supersonic, twin-engine fighter designed to attack and destroy enemy aircraft day or night and in all weather conditions. The Tomcats, which cost $38 million each, are superior in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, F-14s flew almost 800 reconnaissance missions. While carrying the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System, the F-14 can deliver real-time photos to commanders, providing them with the information they need to make crucial decisions on the battlefield.

Equipped with Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting InfraRed for Night system, Tomcats can drop laser-guided bombs.

And yes, Tom Cruise piloted a Tomcat in the movie ``Top Gun.''

The front seat of the cockpit holds the pilot, and the radar intercept officer -- or RIO -- sits in the rear. Navigation, target acquisition, launching weapons and electronic counter measures from incoming fire are divided between the two.

The F-14 can track up to 24 targets simultaneously with its advanced weapons control system and attack six with Phoenix missiles while continuing to scan the airspace. Other air intercept missiles, rockets and bombs round out the ordnance a Tomcat can carry.

During Operation Desert Fox, an aerial assault on Iraq in 1998 that lasted 70 hours, Fighter Squadron 32 appeared on the front lines as part of the carrier Enterprise's carrier air wing. Now in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Fighter Squadron 32 is on its second-to-last deployment with the F-14s before the squadron transitions to the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Today, flying some of its final sorties, the Tomcat ``needs a little tender loving care,'' said Cmdr. Marcus A. Hitchcock, commanding officer of the Swordsmen of Fighter Squadron 32.

But getting the right spare parts -- and getting them on time -- has not been a problem since Fighter Squadron 32 left Norfolk with the carrier Harry S. Truman in early December, Hitchcock said.

He estimated that the squadron's mechanics -- more than 200 sailors who specialize in everything from engines to air frames to avionics -- spend about 33 hours working on Tomcats for every hour the fighter jet is in the air.

The Hornet, he said, requires less than 20 hours per flight hour.

One fellow in the hangar bay said they call the Tomcat a ``Tomkitty,'' because workers who move aircraft often place pans below the jets to catch leaking fluids -- like an unbroken house pet.

``The Tomcat requires, frankly, a little more effort,'' said Hitchcock.

Greg Davis shoulders much of that load.

The master chief petty officer has spent his entire career learning the intricacies of the F-14. His maintenance control office buzzes with constant conversation: with the pilots and with the mechanics, who scurry around the carrier's flight deck and hangar bays.

On Saturday, three days after it was determined that Tomcat No. 112 needed work, Davis came over to inspect the plane.

The initial problem on No. 112 was discovered when Bush hit the dull spot on the intake during a regularly scheduled check-up.

The damage, according to Bush, was caused by delamination, when moisture causes the jet's surface to separate from the honeycombed body of the plane. Hitting a problem area sounds similar to striking a cereal box, according to one of the squadron's senior mechanics.

A great fear for pilots and the sailors who support them is that a particle of almost any size could get sucked into the intake and damage the engine. A delaminated section of the aircraft could fray or even break off.

Failing to catch it could cause the undetected moisture to spread like a cancer, said Chief Petty Officer Brian DiMartino, the squadron's flight deck coordinator.

By the time Davis made his inspection, Bush had already removed and patched the corroded section. Then he scuffed up the surface so that a sealant could be applied.

The bubbled surface was still wet, so Bush wheeled over a giant heat lamp to help dry the patch.

``You know why I'm here,'' Davis joked with Bush. ``C'mon -- laminate!''

Hours later, the repair job was handed off to another team.

Using sandpaper attached to his portable drill, Petty Officer 3rd Class Adam Lausch, 23, of Virginia Beach, buffed the patch smooth so that sailors from corrosion control could paint it by Sunday night.

``This bird needs to fly,'' Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Novotny, Lausch's supervisor, said.

The test came Monday.

Pilot Lt. Brandon S. Kaser and RIO Thomas A. Bell suited up for their 12:30 p.m. flight.

The aircraft status board in Davis' maintenance office told the final part of the story.

When a jet is out for repairs, the maintainers place a red arrow pointing down. That had been the case for No. 112 for four days.

But when Kaser looked at the board, he saw a green arrow, pointing up.

No. 112 was ready to go.

Staff writer Matthew Dolan and photographer Chris Tyree are with the Harry S. Truman carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. You can reach them at mdolan@pilotonline.com or ctyree@pilotonline.com

Copyright 2003, HamptonRoads.com / PilotOnline.com