The key structural element of an F-14 is its wing box. It is an electron beam welded titanium box that keeps the wings firmly attached to the rest of the aircraft.
Perhaps the most widely recognized US Navy fighter thanks to its starring role in Top Gun, the F-14 Tomcat served as an advanced interceptor and air superiority fighter, capable of attacking six enemy aircraft simultaneously at a range of over 100 miles with the AIM-54 Phoenix missile.
Equipped with a weapon control system that enabled the aircraft’s crew to track 24 hostile targets at a range of 195 miles and attack six simultaneously with AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, deliveries to the Navy began in June 1972 with deployment of operational carrier squadrons in 1975. The F-14 made a brief appearance over Vietnam, flying protective patrols for helicopters effecting the final evacuation of American personnel and foreign nationals from Saigon with no opposition from enemy fighters. The Middle East was destined to become the scene of the Tomcat’s combat initiation during encounters with Libyan fighters during the 1980s.
Upgraded F-14A (plus) and F-14Ds came into service in the late1980s and early 1990s, boasting enhanced avionics and more powerful F110-GE-400 turbofans. The aircraft also proved an outstanding air-to-ground platform employing a capability present from the initial design work, but rarely employed. At peak employment, thirty Navy squadrons operated F-14s.
Tomcats flew combat missions during the Gulf War and in missions over Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 until the F-14’s retirement in 2006.
The remaining intact F-14s in the U.S. were flown to and stored at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group “Boneyard”, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona; in 2007 the U.S. Navy announced plans to shred the remaining F-14s to prevent any components from being acquired by Iran.
Several Tomcats are preserved in museums.
Would it be possible to restore in flight conditions the museums’ F-14s?
‘It is an electron beam welded titanium box that keeps the wings firmly attached to the rest of the aircraft.
‘In 1974, the US sold 80 F-14s to the Shah of Iran. In 1979, the Iranian Revolutionary Army overthrew the monarchy, established a theocracy, and took the so called “Persian Cats” for themselves.
‘Since fighters burn through spare parts almost as quickly as fuel, the US embargoed the export of spares for Iranian F-14s. This had some effect, but, over time, Iran developed industrially to the point where they can either make or buy most of their spares from third parties. The one thing they couldn’t make, however, were wing boxes.
‘You don’t electron beam weld titanium with a MiG welder; it’s a fairly complicated process for which Iran did not have the needed equipment.
‘When the USN retired the F-14 in 2006, they made sure to slice through each aircraft’s wing box, destroying its structural integrity. And they destroyed the welding equipment needed to make it.’
‘Every F-14 you see in a museum will never fly again. No one, outside of the Iranian air force operates them. The Persian Cats that have not been worn down to flying scrap metal are the only “airworthy” F-14s in existence.
‘But who knows? Maybe someone will build a reproduction one day, somehow.’