‘Since the wings weren’t budging, we were getting ready to have one wild landing.’ Mark Vizcarra, F-14 Tomcat pilot.
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.
Could you land a Tomcat with her wings swept back?
Mark Vizcarra, who is one of the very few Tomcat pilots who landed his F-14 with the wings swept back (you can hear more great Tomcat stories at F14Tomcats.com), recalls;
In tactical aviation, it’s not if you’re going to have an emergency, it’s just a matter of when you’ll have one. Strangely, I had an intuition when I was flying the F-14 I would one day have an emergency with the variable swept wings. I recall when I was going through training to get qualified in the Tomcat I scoured the manuals to learn everything about this unique weapon system. Oddly enough, I discovered there were no recovery procedures if the wings suddenly failed in the swept position. I remember even asking instructors what we were supposed to do if the variable-swept wings failed, but I was always told it has never happened in the history of the Tomcat so I shouldn’t even worry about it. They’d also point out I could always default to direct manual control of the wings if it failed. I wasn’t buying it, so at every opportunity I would manually lock the wings back and practice shooting different approaches in the simulator trying to create my own procedures if this emergency was ever to occur. Thank God I did because four years later, I found myself in that position and I used the very procedures I developed to execute an emergency recovery of something that was preached could never happen.
It was 1992 and I was operating in an Air Force exercise training with F-15 Eagles over an air range in Arkansas. In aerial combat, speed is life. As the lone Navy Tomcat simulating a SU-27 going against a nest of Eagles, I was already close to supersonic when the “Fights On” call was made. Due to the range location, all aircraft had to stay subsonic, but since I was close to “The Number” (MACH 1) my wings automatically controlled by airspeed were swept back almost as far as they could go. When I merged 180 degrees out with one of the Eagles, I instantly pulled in the vertical upon spotting his wingmen in combat spread high and to the north of me. The Tomcat had a natural tendency to buffet under high G with the wings back, but it would always diminish as the wings adjusted to their optimum position. I knew something was wrong when the buffeting never subsided. I quickly took my eyes off the Eagles to check my wings and sure enough, they were still swept back. I immediately took manual control of the wings and maneuvered the wing lever into the proper position while staying in the fight and pulling the maximum Tomcat G. I knew I was in trouble when I glanced back and noticed the wings hadn’t moved. I hastily called “Knock it Off” to stop the engagement and recovered the Tomcat to level flight. As I scanned my control systems in the cockpit, my Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Rick “Rico” Jordan radioed we had an emergency and were RTB (return to base). Since our squadron was based out of Naval Air Station Dallas, we had plenty of time to plan exactly how we were going to safely recover the F-14 on deck. Unfortunately, since the wings weren’t budging, we were getting ready to have one wild landing.
As my RIO and I flew our crippled Tomcat back to base we went over the procedures to get those wings moving, but nothing was working. We now had to figure out just how we’re going to land this flying dart because with the wings back, we had no flaps and or use of our wing spoilers to slow us down once on deck. I had flown this scenario numerous times in the trainer so I was well aware we’d be landing a speeding bullet. The slowest I’d be able to get without stalling was about 200 kts (230 mph) compared to the normal 135 kts (155 mph) approach, but the real dilemma was how to slow down and not blow since the max speed on the tires were 190 kts. Our home base runway was only 8,000 feet and although there was arrestment gear at the first quarter of the landing strip to take a trap similar to the carrier, the maximum speed the gear could take was 178 kts (205 mph).
“Rico” was already pulling out the approach plate for Carswell Air Force Base when he intercom’d, “with their 12,000 ft strip, you’ll be able slow her down before rolling off the runway”. I transmitted back, naw…I got this. We can get her back to base. Needless to say, he thought I was crazy as he radioed base to inform we were RTB (return to base) and declaring an emergency. He thought I was crazy, but after I told him my plan on how I was going to touch down right where the runway started, he conceded the 2,000 ft before the arrestment gear would most likely dissipate our airspeed enough to safely take a trap.
We dumped fuel to lighten the weight to get the approach airspeed as low possible, but I saved enough gas to make it to Carswell if my plan didn’t work and I had to wave off. As we started our approach, the Commanding Officer radioed me the emergency vehicles were in position and that LSOs (Landing Signal Officers) were on station and ready for recovery. Luckily, all those approaches I practiced in the trainer helped me land the Tomcat exactly where I wanted and sure enough, it worked. My hook snagged the arrestment cable right at the maximum allowable speed and it operated as advertised even though I pulled every inch of available cable down the runway.
We were able to get the Tomcat fixed and we discovered that the titanium gear controlling the wings had cracked. Some of my closest friends are LSOs and they were the reason I was able to get aboard the carrier safely on many nights during bad weather and choppy seas. The funniest thing I remember about this emergency was my LSO debrief. They came up and shook my hand and said “man…you’re like a bullet with tires–we didn’t even have time to transmit back when you called the ball!”
Photo credit: US Navy and Mark and Michael Vizcarra
Other awesome F-14 stories are featured in the documentary Tomcat Tales available to purchase here.