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USA TODAY September 22, 2006

Navy retires F-14, the coolest of cold warriors

By Tom Vanden Brook

VIRGINIA BEACH — In a ceremony today that reminded guests of why it was retired, the Navy holstered the F-14 Tomcat, the top gun in its Cold War arsenal and one of the most recognizable warplanes in history.

Maintenance costs for the F-14 have soared, and its replacement, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, is more versatile and cheaper to maintain. The maintenance issue appeared again at the plane's retirement ceremony.

Pilot Lt. Cmdr. David Faehnle and radar intercept officer Lt. Cmdr. Robert Gentry gave a final salute from inside their cockpit before aircraft 102 taxied down the runway and out of sight at Oceana Naval Air Station. The plane that actually took off as thousands applauded and whistled, however, was aircraft 107, with Lt. Cmdr. Chris Richard at the controls and intercept officer Lt. Mike Petronis in the back seat.

The first jet had mechanical problems — "a common occurrence with the F-14," said Mike Maus, a Navy spokesman. The second jet had been on standby just in case.

The Super Hornet is unlikely to surpass the F-14's following. Furiously fast, deafeningly loud and lethal to enemy aircraft, the Tomcat had attained legendary status by the 1980s. The 1986 film Top Gun, in which Tom Cruise portrayed an F-14 pilot in training, cemented the supersonic warplane's reputation in the popular culture.

"There's something about the way an F-14 looks, something about the way it carries itself," says Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations, the Navy's top officer. "It screams toughness. Look down on a carrier flight deck and see one of them sitting there, and you just know, there's a fighter plane. I really believe the Tomcat will be remembered in much the same way as other legendary aircraft, like the Corsair, the Mustang and the Spitfire."

About 3,000 guests — mainly former aviators, mechanics, suppliers and builders — were on hand for the jet's official retirement. The last F-14s will be mothballed in the Arizona desert or go to aviation museums.

The Tomcat was designed in the late 1960s with one enemy in mind: the Soviet Union. The jet was typically launched from an aircraft carrier, and its twin engines could propel it at twice the speed of sound. Its armaments deterred Soviet bombers designed to fire missiles at U.S. Navy ships.

"It was intended to do one thing really well," says John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank based in Alexandria, Va. "The Soviets evidently respected it. Their answer was to build bigger and faster bombers."

After the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, the F-14 was something of a stray cat. It had no real enemy in a world with one superpower. Eventually, the Navy armed it with precision bombs and targeting systems and added attack missions to its résumé.

Tomcats, with their two-member crews of a pilot and a backseat radar officer, flew missions in Desert Storm, in the Balkans and, until February, in Iraq.

"The Tomcat has been a dogfighter, an interceptor, a reconnaissance platform, even a bomber — whatever the Navy needed it to do," Mullen says.

Pike calls it "a crowning achievement of 20th-century aviation."

A monument at Oceana Naval Air Station will be dedicated to the 69 Tomcat crewmembers killed while flying the jet, says retired rear admiral Fred Lewis, chairman of the Tomcat Sunset Committee, a non-profit group established to organize farewell ceremonies for the F-14.

"That's the risk we all accepted when we flew the plane," Lewis says.

The only other country flying F-14s after today will be Iran, Pike says. Starved for spare parts, the Iranians struggle to keep the jets in flight.

Smuggled parts will be even harder to come by after the Navy retires the Tomcat.

"Nobody will be sorrier to see them go than the ayatollahs," Pike says.

Contributing: The Associated Press.


Copyright 2006, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.