US Navy F-14 pilot recalls landing a Tomcat with a full load of six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles on the aircraft carrier

US Navy F-14 pilot recalls landing a Tomcat with a full load of six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles on the aircraft carrier

By Dario Leone
Feb 19 2024
Sponsored by: Mortons Books
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The AIM-54 Phoenix

Designed in 1968 to take the place of the controversial F-111B, then under development for the US Navy’s carrier fighter inventory, the F-14A Tomcat used the P&W TF30 engines and AWG-9 weapons control system and carried the six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles that had been intended for the F-111B.

Thanks to the AWG-9, six Phoenix missiles could be guided against six separate threat aircraft at long range by the F-14.

On the Tomcat, four missiles can be carried under the fuselage tunnel attached to special aerodynamic pallets, plus two under glove stations. A full load of six Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missiles and the unique launch rails weigh in at over 8,000 lb (3,600 kg), about twice the weight of Sparrows.

Landing an F-14 Tomcat with a full load of six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles on the aircraft carrier

So, given the Phoenix (heavy) weight, was there any chance for an F-14 with a full load of six AIM-54s to land on the aircraft carrier?

US Navy F-14 pilot recalls landing a Tomcat with a full load of six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles on the aircraft carrier

A Tomcat flown by pilot Lt Ed Riley and RIO Lt Scott Lamoreaux from VX-4 loaded with six AIM-54C missiles trapped aboard USS Constellation (CV-64) after launching from NAS Pt Mugu on Jun. 30, 1984. As part of the AIM-54C OPEVAL, operational suitability and operational effectiveness had to be determined during operational testing (OT) and that included getting a statistically significant number of captive carry-cats and traps’ aboard a carrier. To accomplish this, over a period of two years, Tomcats with multiple loadouts of AIM-54C Missiles got exposed to the carrier environment before they were shot in various scenarios to prove that they would still reliably perform after being exposed to the stresses involved in carrier operations.

Riley explains n the book Half Century, Baby! by David ‘Hey Joe’ Parsons and Mads Bangsø;

‘So, the question of ‘why’ gets asked regarding a loadout of six Phoenix missiles, due to urban legend that it is not practical off the boat due to fuel remaining at Max Trap. […]

Flying multiple cross-country flights with the six Phoenix/two Sidewinder loadout

‘I had flown multiple cross-country flights accumulating over 20 hours of flight time with the six Phoenix/two Sidewinder loadout, and to prepare for this CV landing, a regular bounce workup with various loadouts including 6+2 missile loadouts was accomplished and handling qualities at the heavy loads were explored. Particular attention was paid to ‘in-close wave off” and potential ‘bolter’ technique.

‘It was decided that a Case III straight in approach to the trap with enough fuel to return to Pt Mugu would be used. Knowing that the Tomcat would be ‘trick or treat’ on the ball, a dedicated A-7 tanking aircraft was available to assist if required, to rendezvous and pass enough fuel for a second try. In addition to the landing, the maximum weight takeoff ‘cat shot’ was of equal importance. Full afterburner catapults could be a dicey situation if a burner blowout or a stall with the TF30 engines was encountered at maximum weight. Proper technique and early identification and application of the right controls were absolutely required to successfully fly away.’

US Navy F-14 pilot recalls landing a Tomcat with a full load of six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles on the aircraft carrier
Close up of a VF-211 F-14 Tomcat carrying six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles.

Doomsday loadout: a rare event

Riley continues;

‘The question of who should fly the flight caused some discussion within the ranks of the pilots and RIOs at VX-4 at the time. The OPEVAL Operational Test Directors (OTDs) wanted a representative fleet crew and not just more experienced operators.

‘Since I (Lt Ed ‘Dragon’ Riley) and Lt Bill ‘Kato’ Nevius were the Co-OTD team conducting the OPEVAL, it was decided to go with an experienced pilot and a RIO with less experience in the F-14. I had over 1,500 hours in the F-14A and over 400 traps (300+ on CV-64). Lt Scott ‘Scooter Lamoreaux was a very experienced RIO in the F-4, but had less than 100 hours in the F-14A and this would be his first trap in the Tomcat.

‘The operational test crew was aware that landing with six Phoenix was a rare event, however the tactical significance of this flight was potentially a ‘real world’ requirement (known as the Doomsday loadout). Getting the maximum number of Phoenix missiles airborne as quickly as possible in a Fleet Air Defense (FAD) scenario had been war gamed at WEPTAC and it was determined to be a clear discriminator making a difference against superior numbers of attackers during the Cold War era.

The F-14 Tomcat with six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles was in a class by itself

‘How better to do this than use the maximum loadout capability of the Tomcat loaded with the new AIM-54C that was proving to be effective against air-to-surface missiles at 100,000ft/Mach 4+ as well as low-flying cruise missiles and the attacking aircraft platforms at long range. With the largest warhead of any air-to-air missile and kill radius unmatched, the Tomcat with six Phoenix missiles was in a class by itself.’

Riley concludes;

SEAL JTAC explains why the Navy F-14 Tomcat crews were the best for Close Air Support (Only matched by those of USMC F/A-18Ds)
This print is available from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. Half Century, Baby! F-14 Tomcat History Flight

‘With all the preparation to make this a safe yet operationally realistic event, in the end it went exactly as planned with a successful trap (OK, three wire)/hot pump/and AB cat shot and return to home base.

‘To answer the question of the viability of carrying six Phoenix around the ship: sure — why not, if the tactical situation dictates?’

Half Century, Baby! is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here and here.

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F-14 model
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Photo credit: U.S. Navy



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Dario Leone

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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Comments

  1. ingrahammark7@gmail.com says:

    The tomcat had a maximum load of 8 Phoenix. This was never carried.

  2. David Lewis says:

    I was an AO and I don’t remember it being capable of carrying 8. Heck, it was extremely rare to load 6. The max was usually 3, especially when out on the carrier.

  3. ggrissom says:

    That is not true. The F-14 could only carry six AIM-54 missiles. Just look at the airframe – there is no room for any more than six!

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