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?
‘I was privileged to have well over 1,000 flight hours in both, fine fighters,’ says former US Naval Aviator John Chesire on Quora. ‘I truly enjoyed both of them. Also, I obviously do happen to have an opinion on this. However, I am conflicted. One of the two was a “better fighter,” but I loved to fly the other one even more.
‘Of course, the comparison of the two fighters is a little troubling since they were of different generations with the F-14 being much more advanced, technically.
‘I had just completed two combat cruises to Southeast Asia flying F-4s and was now on shore duty, far away from the fighter community. I desperately wanted back in and wanted to fly the highly anticipated F-14 that was about to enter the fleet instead of going back to the F-4. And to my great excitement I received orders back to the west coast and San Diego to VF-1, which was on its very first operational cruise with the new F-14 aircraft.’
‘While the F-14 was a fleet air defense (FAD) fighter designed to intercept long-range enemy bombers, it was also promoted by Grumman Aircraft as an “air superiority fighter” which to a great degree it was. However, as an air-superiority fighter it also carried a lot of baggage.
‘For one, it was really too large to be a fighter. One of the guys in training said it had the same square footage as a tennis court. So, we sometimes referred to it as a flying tennis court when an air combat maneuvering (ACM) flight did not go well against smaller adversaries like the A-4, F-5, or F-16.
‘We also soon learned the F-14 as many military aircraft do, had some serious “growing pains” early on. On its first cruise one aircraft was lost at sea due a poor design of a fuel line and lack of engine containment. Of course, the major problem with the early “A” model was with the infamous TF-30 fan engine that had a nasty habit of failing when needed the most.
‘Nevertheless, the F-14 was a big jump over the F-4B that I flew with its highly advanced radar and missile systems, an internal gun, and a much tighter turning radius and a faster turn rate.
‘While both were designed initially for fleet air defense, both turned out as very good fighter aircraft too. However, both were initially difficult to learn to fly in a dogfight scenario and each one needed very specialized and different training to accentuate their strengths and avoid their faults in the air combat arena.
‘So back to the question: Which one was the “better fighter jet?” That would have to go to the later generation and more technically advanced F-14. As to which one was the better ACM dogfighter, that also would go to the F-14D with the later engines, and only if it were properly flown.’
‘If both aircraft were sitting on the flight line and I could fly against my alter ego in the other, I would pick the F-14 with the later engine in the “D” model in a dogfight over the F-4.
‘But if I wanted to have more fun, I would pick my favorite fighter of all time that I will forever love above all others. I would pick the Fox-Four Phantom every time… and I might even win some engagements with it too against an F-14.’
Photo credit: LCdr. David Baranek / U.S. Navy
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