Cold War Era

The F-15N Sea Eagle: in the 1970s McDonnel Douglas proposed a navalized version of the F-15 Eagle but it was never up to the F-14 Tomcat

The US Navy considered developing the F-15N Sea Eagle as a faster, lighter and cheaper alternative to the F-14. But modifying the F-15 with folding wings and stronger landing gear for carriers negated its advantages.

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.

Line drawing of the proposed F-15N Sea Eagle.

Advancements during the Cold War 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. 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 Navy’s search for an advanced carrier-based air superiority fighter led to evaluation of General Dynamics’ F-111B, an aircraft that would promote the Department of Defense’s aim of commonality with the Air Force and its F-111A. The F-111B, having been modified to meet Navy mission requirements, was deemed too heavy for carrier operations and the contract was cancelled in April 1968. Subsequently, the Navy inaugurated a new design contest for what was termed the VFX program, the two primary competitors being McDonnell Douglas and Grumman.

Scale model of the F-15N showing AIM-54 mounts.

Grumman’s Model 303 proposed a variable-geometry, two-seat, twin-engined design built around the Hughes AWG-9 weapons system.

McDonnell Douglas instead offered a “navalized” version of its new F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter. A wing hinge, proper arresting hook and strengthened landing gear were among the modifications for the F-15N. According to DriveTribe, even with the weight imposed by these changes, the F-15N was expected to still be able to outmaneuver the F-14. However, the initial proposal did not include were the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles or the AN/AWG-9 radar needed to aim and fire them. A study by the US Navy included adding the radar and AIM-54s, but the resulting aircraft would have weighed 10,000lbs more than a standard F-15A, erasing any advantage the Sea Eagle might have had. McDonnell Douglas, along with Hughes Aircraft, maker of the AIM-54 and the radar, worked up a proposal to modify the F-15s AN/APG-63 radar to interface with the AIM-54.

Part of the Sea Eagle concept study also involved integrating Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

A Senate subcommittee began to study the proposal in 1973, and was later expanded to include a stripped F-14 variant and an upgraded F-4. A fly-off between the F-14A and F-15N was brought up, but was never held.

The Navy ultimately stuck with the F-14, that proved to be an extremely capable aircraft. Following Grumman’s tradition of naming its aircraft after cats, the new “Tomcat” made its first flight in December 1970. After a number of changes following flight testing, the first F-14As were delivered to the Navy in June 1972, with Fighter Squadron (VF) 124 designated to provide crew training. On the West Coast, VF-1 and VF-2 were the first operational squadrons to receive the new aircraft, while on the East Coast VF-14 and VF-32 became the first Atlantic fleet Tomcat squadrons.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. Fast Eagle 102 to Nimitz – Splash Two! Gulf of Sidra 1981

Photo credit: Combat Ace and McDonnell Douglas/Boeing via DriveTribe

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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