The Soviets tried to go fishing for an F-14 that fell off the USS John F. Kennedy in 1976 – after the plane’s control systems went haywire and the pilot/RIO had to eject
Designed in 1968 to take the place of the controversial F-111B, then under development for the US Navy’s carrier fighter inventory, the Grumman F-14A Tomcat used the AWG-9 system and carried the six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles that had been intended for the F-111B. A completely new fighter system was designed around these with emphasis on close-in fighting “claws” along with standoff missile fighting.
Overall, the F-14 was without equal among today’s Free World fighters. Six long-range AIM-54A Phoenix missiles could be guided against six separate threat aircraft at long range by the F-14’s AWG-9 weapons control system. For medium-range combat, Sparrow missiles were carried; Sidewinders and a 20mm were available for dogfighting. In the latter role, the Tomcat’s variable-sweep wings gave the F-14 a combat maneuvering capability that could not have been achieved with a “standard” fixed planform wing.
The Tomcat’s outstanding fighter capabilities posed a serious threat not only to Soviet fighters but also to Russian strategic bombers and cruise missiles that were tasked to attack US Navy’s carrier strike groups (CSGs) if the Cold War went hot.
‘So serious a threat, that the Soviets tried to go fishing for a VF-32 F-14 that fell off the USS John F. Kennedy on Sep. 14, 1976 – after the plane’s control systems went haywire and the pilot/RIO had to eject,’ says Aaron Stormcastle, an aviation expert, on Quora.
‘See, at the time, the John F. Kennedy was off Scapa Flow (in Scotland’s northern islands)… which wasn’t too far from the Soviet backyard, and this gave them plausible cover to attempt a recovery of the aircraft by posing as a fishing fleet conducting normal fishing operations.
‘Why go through all the bother?
‘In 1976, the F-14 was still a brand new plane – complete with its AIM-54 Phoenix missiles designed to kill Russian-made aircraft… and the AIM-54 alone was worth whatever effort it took to illicitly acquire (since securing the entire aircraft without anyone noticing would have been highly improbable).’
‘However, by the end of their operations in the area, the Soviet interlopers were unsuccessful – and they went back to Russian waters empty handed.’
‘Once all the Ruskie hubbub calmed down, the US Navy sent in their ace-in-the-hole: Admiral Rickover’s science toy, the NR-1… which was a nuclear research submarine suited to these kind of mission.
‘Being nuclear powered, the NR-1 could crawl along the bottom for as long as the onboard provisions (food and water, mostly) held out – which allowed the crew ample time to zero in on the F-14 and inspect what, if anything, the Soviets had accomplished.
‘The Tomcat wreckage was located soon enough, and the NR-1 crew observed that it had indeed been thoroughly harassed by Soviet efforts – with the fuselage roughed up quite a bit and entangled in fishing nets that had no business being there (the area of Scapa Flow doesn’t have any commercial fish stocks at the depth where Kennedy’s F-14 was sitting).
‘At first, NR-1 couldn’t account for the AIM-54… but the missile was eventually spotted after working a grid pattern going outwards from the F-14.’
‘With the Tomcat and its missile accounted for, and the Russians having long given up on illicitly recovering either of them, the US Navy put their own operation into effect – hiring a local salvage outfit to lift the plane from its watery grave so that the Soviets wouldn’t be tempted to have another go at it.’
Top image: Gunnie Moberg
Photo credit: U.S. Navy