F-14 Tomcat

Getting Grumman and the Tomcat through Difficult Times: the story of Bob Belter, the man who bought the first 70 F-14 Fighter Jets for the US Navy

Bob Belter. You’d think more people would know the name of a man who bought 70 F-14 Tomcats!

Bob Belter. You’d think more people would know the name of a man who bought 70 F-14 Tomcats!

Bob had an exciting and varied career as a Navy pilot, earning his wings in 1950. In fleet squadrons he flew the AJ Savage, A-3 Skywarrior, and other aircraft. He then became an Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer (AEDO) and served at the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland, where he flew F-8 Crusaders as much as he could. He was also one of the few Navy pilots who flew the F-111B (the proposed Navy version of the F-111), and “helped put the nails in its coffin,” as he says. He was the Naval Air Systems Command Design Officer for the A-6E Intruder and flew the jet in addition to helping manage the program.

F-14 Number 3 (Bureau Number 157982) first flew in December 1971 and is the oldest surviving Tomcat. It is currently on display at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, NY. (Grumman photo via Bill Barto)

But this article is concerned with his relationship to the F-14 during his time as the Skipper of the Naval Plant Representative Office (NavPRO) for Grumman Aerospace’s Bethpage facility from 1971 to 1974. When he took command of NavPRO Bethpage he was the first officer in memory to hold that position who actually flew aircraft, logging time in A-6 Intruders. While he didn’t fly the Tomcat, he “bought” the first 70 F-14s for the Navy, along with Grumman’s other products at the time: A-6E, EA-6B, and E-2C.

The NavPRO Bethpage logo, as seen on a coffee mug from approximately 1980. (Photo from former F-14 RIO Bill Lindner, who served at NavPRO Bethpage)

His years at NavPRO were turbulent. For example, soon after joining the Tomcat effort, Bob anticipated a cost overrun that could bankrupt Grumman and shut down everything. The situation was summarized in the 1978 book “F-14 Tomcat” by Arthur Reed: higher-than-expected inflation raised Grumman’s costs while their income remained stable under the fixed-price contract. Grumman had already shaved their price as much as possible to win the contract against strong competition.

Bob says that part of the cure for these financial woes was to advance Grumman progress payments at a favorable rate – sort of a loan – which went into a special account at First National City Bank of New York (now Citibank). For Grumman to draw the funds, checks had to be signed by a senior Grumman corporate officer and Mr. Belter. One of the checks is shown here, with Bob’s signature as the “countersigning agent.” Grumman eventually took a loss that it could bear, arranged several loans, and renegotiated the contract, and Bob still gets a chuckle out signing a check for “thirty-eight effing million dollars … and eighty-five cents!”

Bob enjoys recalling the time he signed this check for “thirty-eight effing million dollars … and eighty-five cents!”

A good example of Bob’s aviation-related duties can be found in response to the F-14’s early TF30 engine problems. In January 1975, while deployed to the Western Pacific aboard the USS Enterprise, VF-1 lost two F-14s in short succession: 158982 on 2 Jan, and 159001 on 14 Jan. Fortunately all aircrew survived. A response team of ten experts headed to the ship the day after the second mishap.

As is probably known to this audience, the TF30 was intended as a “proven” interim engine that allowed the Tomcat program to focus on airframe development. In a 2012 email, former Grumman vice president Butch Satterfield notes that, unfortunately, the TF30 wasn’t proven as a fighter engine, an environment that required frequent major throttle changes.

This illustration by former Grumman technical illustrator Bill Barto shows the first 12 Tomcats and describes each jet’s mission.

Bob explains that when a pilot selected burner, the TF30 nozzle opened and raw fuel was injected and ignited to fire the first flame holder (a structure in the afterburner section, explained here: https://www.wikimotors.org/what-is-a-flame-holder.htm ). If the burner didn’t light and increase pressure in the afterburner section, the nozzle closed, but in the interim seconds the fan was unloaded and wound up to 106-108%. “The second fan stage would go into a flutter like a palm tree in a typhoon, and overstress the disc,” to use Bob’s words.

Several engine experts had foreseen the problem and told the response team what to look for. Arriving on the Enterprise, they disassembled engine fan sections and subjected the second stage discs to inspection techniques: dye, x-ray, and eddy current. The eddy current test revealed the problem. US Air Force program managers had carved the titanium containment ring forging around the fan section down to a thin waffle pattern to save weight. When the afterburner light problem caused a fan blade to fail, the reduced strength ring allowed it to destroy critical and flammable components in the vicinity – which led to the loss of aircraft.

Mr. Bob Belter with the hulking AJ Savage nuclear bomber, a few decades after he flew it in the fleet. (Photo from Bob Belter)

Sailors inspected all TF30s aboard the Enterprise and found three more cracked rings.

The Enterprise’s Tomcats were soon returned to flight status, but with increased monitoring while the Navy implemented a program to contain fragments and protect components in the event of future incidents.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-14A Tomcat VF-1 Wolfpack, NE103 / 162603 / Operation Desert Storm, 1991

More teething problems would soon emerge, but Bob Belter helped Grumman to survive and helped the Tomcat to mature and serve a long and distinguished career. At the age of 94 (as of this writing), Bob is one of the last alive who lived through the early acquisition history of the Tomcat, and he is happy to share his stories.

Photo credit: Bob Belter, Bill Barto and Bill Lindner

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS
Dave Bio Baranek

Dave "Bio" Baranek was an F-14 RIO and Topgun instructor. He retired from the Navy in 1999 and has written three books about his flying experiences. His latest book, Tomcat RIO, was published in 2020. His website is www.topgunbio.com.

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