Advancements during the Cold War in Soviet long range patrol and bomber aircraft dictated a requirement for a fleet defense fighter that could engage high-altitude bombers from well beyond visual range. The iconic F-14 Tomcat was Grumman’s answer. Equipped with long range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, F-14s could engage multiple hostiles over 90 miles away. Needing an interceptor’s high speed while carrying this heavy ordnance, Grumman produced the highly effective variable sweep wing of the F-14, enabling it to operate at a wide range of airspeeds.
For medium-range combat, AIM-7 Sparrow missiles were carried; AIM-9 Sidewinders and a M61-A1 20mm gun were available for dogfighting. In the latter role, the Tomcat’s variable-sweep wings gave the F-14 a combat maneuvering capability that could not have been achieved with a “standard” fixed planform wing.
With its wing swept back the aircraft could achieve a top speed of 1,544 mph. But what was the maximum speed of the F-14 with its wing swept forward?
“I guess there is a couple ways to answer this question. How fast is it supposed to go if the wings were stuck forward? Or how fast could it physically go looking at thrust verse drag?”, says Chuck Hunter, former F-14 pilot with the US Navy, on Quora.
Despite the Tomcat’s variable-sweep wings were computer controlled the F-14 driver had “the ability to manually position the wings wherever we wanted by pulling up on the emergency wing sweep handle and physically positioning the wings. (the yellow and black covered handle),” Hunter says. “We NEVER did this except to put the wings into oversweep for parking on the carrier (taking the wings from 68 degrees to 72 degrees) The aircraft can’t fly in this position.
“However, if you manually put them at 20 degrees or they were stuck at 20 degree because of a failure in the CADC (Central Air Data Computer) or other systems, you would be limited to about 0.5 Indicated Mach Number. You have plenty of thrust to exceed that, but that is what the aircraft was designed to fly, and it would be very comfortable. You can pretty much do anything with the aircraft except go fast.
“On the other side, just from a point of discussion, how fast could you go with the wings stuck at 20 degrees. The wings are not all that draggy and while you would generate strange limit moments with the afterburners lit I see no reason you wouldn’t be able to push it up to the transonic range even straight and level. It would not be comfortable or smart, but it is doable. It is not designed to do it, but the basic physics of thrust verse drag could get you there. Kind of like the J79 engine on the F-4, with big enough engines you can make anything go fast.
“So that was straight and level, there is also no doubt that if I dropped the nose with burners lit I could get it to go supersonic. Not sure for how long before something ripped off the airplane or the controls stopped working correctly, but we would be supersonic before we died.”
“I have taken the F-14 from ~130kts to 1.2 Mach in the blink of an eye when 90 degrees nose down, unloaded, and burners lit. Those wings at 20 degree would not be a factor in getting there. I only stopped at 1.2 Mach (800kts) because that was the aircraft speed limit at low altitude.
“So, two answers. What is was designed for ~0.5 Mach, and from a thrust verse drag as fast as you have altitude for or until it stops flying for many reasons.”
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
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