‘Within seconds the F-14 Tomcat rotation rate shot up to 180deg/sec and g forces reached 7.8g eyeballs-out! My head was slammed against the instrument panel and my mask and eyes filled with blood!’ Donald D.D. Smith, Naval Aviator and test pilot.
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. Equipped with long range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, F-14s could engage multiple hostiles over 90 miles away. 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.
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.
Donald D.D. Smith, Naval Aviator and test pilot recalls;
‘The F-14 hadn’t been in the fleet a year when some handling problems at high AOA (low speed) started to bust out. Good low speed maneuvering is right up there with speed and acceleration in the list of “must haves” for a good fighter plane. It turns out that F-14 jocks were having to cross-control to get the roll performance they needed during low speed hassles. Being fighter pilots, it didn’t bother them much, but it set off alarms all throughout the test community. The Tomcat, after all, was America’s world-class fighter, and was the greatest carrier-based fighter ever built! NAVAIR told Grumman to fix it – and tasked the Naval Air Test Center to test it.
‘I was the only one standing around who had a lot of experience spinning fighters and was also current in the F-14, so I was asked to participate. Suited me fine! Now, this wasn’t going to be a spin program, but we were going to have to take the Tomcat out of control to do the job. Sort of poke the Cat in the eye, so to speak. We learned from Grumman model tests that the F-14 had a vicious spin mode that was NOT SURVIVABLE BY THE CREW – but not to worry, it was not possible for a pilot to fly the airplane into a spin – they said. The Navy had gone along with this – there was never a spin test program on the F-14.’
‘This was to be a Class-A Hazardous Test, so our little 15-flight test program was reviewed by senior engineers and test pilots up the line. We hijacked a new airplane right off the Grumman production line and wired it up for a dozen key parameters for live monitoring. But there were none of the usual spin accouterments like batteries, auxiliary hydraulics, spin parachute etc. (the airplane wouldn’t spin, remember?).
‘Flights 1 through 11 were completed without too much excitement. Unlike the A-7, the F-14 exhibited a docile post-departure mode and recovered easily after half a turn. All this changed on Flight 12 – my flight. The show didn’t stop – it was just beginning. During departure recovery with the nose well down, the airplane started to develop a yaw rate and within a couple of turns the nose came up to a flat attitude. Within seconds the rotation rate shot up to 180deg/sec and g forces reached 7.8g eyeballs-out! My head was slammed against the instrument panel and my mask and eyes filled with blood! Twenty seconds had gone by and I lost consciousness.’
D. D. Smith concludes;
‘There is much more to this story – obviously, since I am here to tell it. You might check it out on Amazon, “Above Average – Naval Aviation the Hard Way.”
‘The video below has been exhibited widely over the past decades, but I think you’ll find it worth a look.’
Photo credit: NASA