In response to US Navy requirements for a high-altitude interceptor to defend carriers with long-range air-to-air missiles against attacking aircraft, McDonnell Aircraft Company delivered the F4H (later redesignated F-4) Phantom II.
Unique in that it carried no internal cannon, the F-4 relied on radar-guided missiles for offense and required a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to operate its advanced sensors and weapons systems.
While the F-4 was serving as the Navy premier air superiority aircraft advancements 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.
The F-14 entered active service in 1974 and started to replace the F-4 in the same year.
But which was really the better fighter, the Phantom or the Tomcat? ‘It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot,’ Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw from Top Gun: Maverick would answer you.
Rooster’s answer implies that the training is the real deal. And the following story proves he’s right.
In the early 1980s the Soviet-built MiG-23 Flogger caused real concern among US defense analysts. The MiG-23 in fact was more capable than the MiG-17 and MiG-21 in some important respects: better radar, better missiles, and great top speed capability. The Flogger was a very effective interceptor and since it was one of the first threat aircraft types that could launch missiles at American aircraft during the radar intercept, it presented a major increase in the threat.
A limitation was its relatively poor maneuverability. However during the 1980s timeframe the MiG-23 was becoming fairly common in the air forces of US potential enemies and its ability to launch missiles at American fighters before the merge caused real apprehension because it was the first time fighter pilots faced that possibility.
To counter the MiG-23 threat a series of flights for a research project called “Rising Fighter” were conducted by west coast F-14 Tomcat squadrons (at the time based at then Naval Air Station Miramar). The aim of Project Rising Fighter was to explore tactics against the new Flogger.
As told by Tomcat RIO with twenty years experience, Dave “Bio” Baranek in his book Before Topgun Days: The Making of a Jet Fighter Instructor, Rising Fighter consisted of 2vUNK scenarios: two Tomcats ran intercepts against an unknown number (UNK) of F-4 Phantoms from regular Navy Squadrons. During the intercepts, all jets could use their radar and simulate launching missiles, and effective launches would be scored as kills. Any surviving aircraft would engage in a dogfight when the opposing formations met.
Bio took part in several flights for Project Rising Fighter in December 1982.
He recalls: “I’d been in the Fleet (VF-24 Fighting Renegades) for twenty months and had about 800 flight hours in the F-14 – a good amount of experience. More importantly […] it was only two months after completing the Topgun class. […] My pilot would be the same one I flew with in Topgun: Jaws. We had honed our crew coordination to a sharp edge during challenging scenarios fighting the Topgun instructors. Now we would get another chance to practice our craft. […] It was an all-out, aggressive scenario that would require Jaws and I to use al of our skills.”
All the sorties were flown on the instrumented Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System (TACTS) Range near Yuma, with high quality intercept control and real-time kill removal, as Bio explains: “That meant that a good missile shot by either the fighters (Tomcats) or the bogeys (Phantoms) resulted in an aircraft being called ‘dead’ and immediately disengaging. Based on tactical thinking at the time, we Tomcats used only Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, the same as the Phantoms. These missiles were roughly similar to a Flogger’s missiles, so our F-14s had little advantage in this category.”
According to Baranek F-4 Phantoms provided a good simulation of many MiG-23 characteristics, at least for the purposes of Project Rising Fighter. “No restrictions were placed on tactics used by either side, so we were facing well-trained U.S. Navy pilots and RIOs. The missiles that both sides launched would be simulated, but as the Phantom neared the end of twenty-five years as a front-line fighter with the U.S. Navy, its aircrews wanted to show they still had it. Meanwhile, we Tomcat crews wanted to demonstrate the superiority of our still-new fighter.”
In a typical Project Rising Fighter sortie, Tomcat crews were always outnumbered: their primary advantages were F-14’s better radar which helped them to develop situational awareness (SA) during the intercept, and Tomcat’s superior maneuverability “once we got to the merge. The hard part was getting there. These guys could shoot us in the face and kill us,” Bio points out.
Most flights included at least two intercepts to engagements, and the odds were 2v4, 2v5, or 2v6. But, as Bio explains, “that was only how the intercept started. With the aggressive pre-merge shots and kills, both sides suffered casualties. […] Seared into my memory forever are snapshot images from a flight that started as a 2v6 and turned into a long 1v5 engagement.”
That time, on the intercept, the Tomcats killed one Phantom, but the F-14 flown by Cowboy and Ice (the other VF-24 aircrew that along with Jaws and Bio was taking part in Rising Fighter) was kill-removed too just before before the merge.
Jaws and Bio were left alone to fight five Phantoms.
Bio relives the most exciting moments of the subsequent furball. “It was a day with a high layer of thick clouds, softening the browns and grays of the desert during those microseconds I registered the terrain for orientation. We were flying about 450 knots when we merged with the Phantoms, and they were the same, maybe faster. I had used my radar effectively to describe their formation, and Jaws started seeing them at eight miles. ‘Tally two F-4s. Looking for the others.’
“As we flashed past their formation at 1,000 knots closing speed, Jaws immediately cranked our jet into a crushing 6.5-g left turn to get into position to take the first shots. He said, ‘Watch the guys on the right!’ The Phantoms scattered out of their formation. ‘Tally three. No threat,’ I replied.
“Through my visor I noticed our wings sweep forward automatically as our speed decreased due to the hard turns. The high-lift leading edge slats deployed, trembling under high g forces and turbulent airflow while we stressed our fighter in max-performance turns. At that fuel state we weighed more than twenty-five tons.
“It wasn’t easy, but Jaws and I were in our element. We had refreshed the ‘contracts’ we developed when we went through the Topgun class, such as who looked forward and who looked back. Our weapons system use and inter-cockpit comms (ICS) were spot-on, based on practice, candid debriefs, and constant improvement. We used every system available on our Tomcat. In my general experience, use of the radar warning equipment had not been emphasized, but it was a priority for Jaws and me. I used a ‘bypass’ function so it would alert us if an F-4’s radar – which was categorized as friendly, not a threat – locked us up in preparation for a missile shot.
“We pulled more than 6 g almost constantly in the fight, but this wasn’t a problem after all of the dogfighting I had done in the past few months. Jaws called an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile shot on one Phantom and the controllers declared him killed, so he climbed away from the fight.
“A moment later Jaws called an AIM-7 Sparrow on another Phantom. Another kill. We were now 1v3.
“This memorable contest was a tight turning engagement approaching two minutes’ duration. I had to suppress my inclination to watch the ‘dogfight action’ over Jaws’s shoulder; my responsibility was defensive lookout, behind us. Over my right shoulder I picked up a Phantom slicing through a descending turn, a few seconds from becoming a threat, as we pursued another Phantom through a left turn. Over the ICS I told Jaws, ‘Approaching, right four (o’clock) high. Okay, hard right.’
“As Jaws broke off his attack on the jet in front of us, the irritating screech from our warning equipment announced that the Phantom had taken a radar lock. He was about to launch a missile. I made an awkward reach with my right hand to launch a few rounds of decoy flares and chaff in anticipation of the shot. We used simulated missiles, but real chaff and flares. The chaff broke his radar lock as our hard right turn neutralized his approach. We traded updates on the F-4s remaining in the fight and Jaws returned to pursuing our original target. In a few more seconds he called another missile shot and we notched another kill.
“Checking our fuel, we realized we needed to leave the area, to bug out. No Phantoms were threatening, so we headed to the southwest and extended out of their missile range. With radio calls of ‘Knock it off,’ the engagement was over.”
Bio concludes: “In the contest of Rising Fighter, it was just another event, a series of data points. When we returned to Miramar we reported the usual information – range of first radar detection, range at initial missile launch, etc. – and objectively debriefed the engagement.
“But for me personally it has remained one of the more memorable missions from more than 3,000 hours of flying fighters.”
Bio recently revealed an untold fact about this event: most of the ACM took place below the hard deck! CLICK HERE for his statement.
For more on the F-14 Tomcat and Top Gun check out Bio’s website, www.topgunbio.com, and his books TOPGUN DAYS and BEFORE TOPGUN DAYS.
Photo credit: all images used with permission of author Dave “Bio” Baranek
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