We Talk Tomcats With A Veteran Navy Test Pilot On The F-14's 50th Birthday

We reminisce about Grumman's big swing-wing jet that became as much a pop culture star as a weapon of war with a Navy pilot who knew it well. 

F-14 Tomcat 50th Anniversary
Mike Rabens

It's amazing how time flies. For the F-14 Tomcat, it flies even faster. First taking to the air 50 years ago, few aircraft in the history of aviation have captured imaginations and have sparked the passion for flight like the twin-tailed, swing-wing icon. It went from a big, loud, fire-breathing, hard turning, arrowhead-shaped flying technological marvel to a full-blown movie star after Top Gun touched down in theaters in 1986. From then on, Grumman's biggest 'cat' sunk its claws into pop culture like no other fighter jet in history.

Fast forward to today, and we sit on the precipice of the Tomcat's golden anniversary. The first Full Scale Development F-14A, BuNo 157980, blasted into the skies on its maiden flight on December 21st, 1970 from Grumman’s test center in Calverton, on Long Island, just a mere 22 months after the company was awarded the VFX program contract. The sortie was short, but it was the beginning of a naval aviation revolution, one that would finally give the service the 'fleet defender' it had dreamed of, and later on, so much more.

USN

F-14A launches off the catapult. 

To honor this historic milestone, The War Zone talked with Michael V. "Mike" Rabens, the President of The F-14 Tomcat Association and a guy with quite the career under his belt. Rabens retired as a Captain after commanding Naval Test Wing Pacific. Prior to that, he commanded the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, had multiple cruises on carriers, and graduated from the Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as Topgun, on his first squadron tour. By the end of his Navy career, Rabens had amassed a whopping 4,700 flight hours in 58 different aircraft and more than 700 carrier landings. Today, he is currently the Director of System Integration Test & Evaluation at Northrop Grumman—the same company that built his beloved Tomcat. 

As part of the Tomcat's half-century birthday, Rabens and The F-14 Tomcat Association are holding an event to commemorate the occasion on December 21st, 2020. More details can be found about the online streaming event, which you can watch, can be found here.

Simply put, there are few better people to reminisce about the Tomcat than Mike Rabens.

Northrop Grumman

Michael V. "Mike" Rabens, now an executive at Northrop Grumman and President of The F-14 Tomcat Association.

So, without further ado, here is our exclusive interview with the highly experienced Tomcat flyer.

TR: How did the arrival of the Tomcat change the Navy? 

MR: The arrival of the F-14 was a game-changer. It really defined a whole era of aviation, particularly naval aviation, for a couple of reasons. The first reason was, it was the first Navy airplane with swing-wings. Obviously, F-111 was first, but it allowed it to be a Mach 2.4 class supersonic fighter and land on carriers with bring-back capability. In other words, it could bring back missiles that you hadn't expended. So, that was one part of it. 

Probably even more important than that was the Phoenix missile system along with the AWG-9 weapon system, and later on APG [AN/APG-72 was an upgrade of the AN/AWG-9]. That was unheard of. At that time, the F-14 was the only airplane that had a 'launch and leave' missile with the Phoenix. The only airplane that had a radar that could see as far as it could. And the only weapon system where the Phoenix missile could be launched, you know, at ranges that are well-exceeded everything else that the US and enemy fighters were carrying at the time.

So, in terms of dominating the sky, the F-14 was the top of the heap. It was the preeminent fighter of its time. And it really created many things, many innovations that came later on other airplanes, such as the AMRAAM launch and leave missile. So, I think the F-14 set the standard. It was at the top of the heap for quite a long time. And it really did define that whole era from the '80s and the '90s. It was the era of the F-14.

US National Archives

F-14A letting lose an AIM-54 Phoenix missile. 

TR: Starting out, the F-14 had a pretty rough entry into service with the engine issues and other problems. That whole stretch of time when the aircraft was really teething, and it sort of turned the Tomcat into what it really could be later on. Can you talk about how the Navy learned from that?

MR: Sure, anytime you've got ground-breaking technology, there's always going to be some teething, as you said. The Grumman team, which was working hand in hand with the Naval Air Systems Command at the time, was right on the spot in developing solutions, every time there was a discovery of an issue, they came up with the sound engineering solution. They worked hand in hand with the Navy, and then they implemented those solutions. So, even though, like any first article being introduced to the fleet, there was a lot of learning, but there was a lot of improving and it was rapidly improving, and it was actually expansive, in that, they tackled every single issue and solved it. So, the airplane actually was a mainstay of carrier aviation for so long, 30-plus years, and I think that record is a testament to how successfully Grumman and the Navy teamed together to solve those issues.

Grumman

The F-14 Tomcat on its first flight.

TR: Stick us in the ejection seat, what was it like flying the 'Turkey Bird?' You've flown so many airplanes through your test pilot career. How did the F-14 differentiate itself from the others?

MR: Well, I'd love to bring you into the cockpit with me because if you had a chance to experience it, the visceral thrill of it would certainly be far better than the words I can use to paint a picture. But imagine if you will... Sitting into a relatively spacious cockpit. And I know from some of your previous work, you've talked to people that talked about that transition from the A-4 where I literally had to turn my shoulders obliquely to get the canopy down. Now again, in the F-14, and the first thing you notice is the incredible field of regard where you can see literally between the tails if you arched your neck around and looked around the ejection seat head. You've got great visibility downward towards the ground, and then with the canopy, you can just see all around you really well. So, that's the first thing that jumps out at you.

US National Archives

The Tomcat's cockpit was comparatively roomy. 

Now, imagine, if you will, you've gone through the pre-flight, the pre-start, the pre-taxi checks... You've gone through your take-off checklist... You've gotten clearance from the tower to take off, and the first time you do it... It's an afterburner take-off, at Miramar, back in the heyday of the F-14. You plug in the afterburner, even with the TF30 [engine], you feel the G-forces push you back into the seat, the airplane rapidly accelerates, lift off the ground, and you bring the gear up. As you fly the departure out of the La Jolla, you are... I was just amazed. I was just amazed at how the airplane flies because it's a big airplane. It's such a big airplane, but it flew really, really well. They'd really got well-harmonized controls so that the longitudinal and lateral control just felt fantastic.

Then when you go to climb, oh my God! You go to full military power, typically we don't go into afterburner to climb up into the operating areas. But when you can pitch the nose up 40 degrees and look behind you and see the earth receding. You've got all this power in your hands. It's an ego rush that I can't even... I don't think I can do it adequate justice with my words, but you can just, imagine if you will, sitting in a recliner and having that feeling, but now you're not in a recliner, you're actually... Your body is in the same position as a recliner, but you're just screaming into the sky, going through 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 feet, climbing up to your mission altitude. And you can just feel the thrust behind those engines, the F-14D engines were even more impressive. 

It is one heady rush.

US Navy/Lt. Baranek

An F-14A blasts into the twilight. 

TR: Culturally speaking, the jet had a huger impact. Top Gun was a big part of it, the movie, as well as the Topgun Navy Fighter Weapons School. How did that culture change with the aircraft coming into the Navy in the late '70s and the '80s? What did the Tomcat community's world feel like during that period of time? It seems like it was a magical moment for naval aviation.

MR: Yeah, I think it really was. It was a confluence of a lot of things. First of all, there was a legacy of fighters that Grumman had built, and even Northrop with the F-5, there was this rich legacy of fighters that came together in Northrop Grumman. And the fighter camaraderie and the fighter squadron atmosphere, I think was relatively constant along the way. What the F-14 brought to that was even more power, even more mastery of the skies, and a two-person crew. The F-8 was single piloted, the A-7 was single piloted, the A-6, the Grumman platforms, the A-6 and the F-14, were dual-crewed. Of course, the F-4 had been dual-crewed too, but the backseater in the F-4 had far less capability than the F-14 Radar Intercept Officer [RIO], so that introduced just a tremendous pride in the airplane that you could feel in the squadrons. They certainly were confident of their ability to prevail in combat, something that's so important. But then from the public, you mentioned Top Gun. Even before the movie anybody that saw the F-14 at an air show could not help but be impressed, and I suspect you've been to many air shows and... Did you ever see the F-14 in air shows? 

TR: Oh yeah, many.

MR: Yeah, so you know it's loud, it's big, and it's fast. When I was in my first squadron, they accidentally broke the sound barrier at the Miramar Air Show... And the crowd loved it, though the people that suffered some window damage didn't, but the Navy made that all right. 

USN

F-14 screams by the crowd in a high-speed pass during an air show.

So, it was just such an impressive airplane. I am convinced that a generation of people joined the Navy because they either saw the F-14 in an air show or they saw the movie Top Gun, or maybe both.

Being in an F-14 squadron in that era was a heady experience because you knew you were at the top of the world when it comes to mastery of the skies, air dominance—all those things. You had the equipment, you had the training, and you knew you could do what the nation needed you to do.

TR: Talking about mastery of the sky, right alongside the F-14, the Air Force had the F-15. They originally had different roles to some degree—the fleet defender versus the air security fighter, but then again, they were still there alongside each other, teammates, but competitive ones. Can you talk a little bit about how the F-14 actually stacked up to the F-15 when you were flying it? How could they hold their own against each other? 

MR: It was the Air Force's top-line fighter at the time [the F-15 Eagle], in it was the Navy's top-line fighter at the time [the F-14 Tomcat]. I'll just compare the F-14D against the F-15C because those were the most recent ones. Obviously, without getting into classified information, because the F-15 is still flying, I'll just say that both were superb maneuvering vehicles. The F-14D with the big engines was amazing in a dogfight and the F-15 was too, but the key difference is you didn't want to get in a dogfight, you didn't want to get tangled up with enemy aircraft, because now you're in one geographical area, you're flying a relatively big airplane, both were, the F-15 and F-14, and people can see you. What you really want to do is influence the enemy from far away.

Public Domain/USN

HUD camera still from an F-14 with its gun pipper squarely on an F-15 Eagle's canopy. The ideal end to a dogfight between the Tomcat and the Eagle for the F-14 crew.

So, the F-15 with the Sparrow missile system just didn't compare to the F-14 with the Phoenix missile system, and that was the biggest differentiator. You could influence the enemy from farther away, and you could do more in an air superiority role when you compare the F-14 to the F-15, depending on the missile load that was on the aircraft. Of course, that was the biggest thing, you could reach out and touch the enemy from further away, and if you got into a close-in dogfight, I think they were roughly equivalent. You would never find an Eagle Driver that would agree with that statement, but I would maintain that F-14D is equivalent, if not slightly better than an F-15 in a dogfight. The F-14 of course, being a little bit heavier, has a little more work to do, but as a well-flown airplane, the F-14D was a dream to fly and was amazing in aerial combat

TR: Speaking of F-14D, that lines our next question up. So, the F-14D program gets cut early, and this was a tumultuous time for Naval Aviation, in the early '90s. 50 or so F-14Ds were either re-manufactured or built. At the same time, we were coming out of the Cold War, the A-12 Avenger was canceled, the A-6F was passed over. The Naval ATF was abandoned. Eventually, the Super Hornet became the future of the Navy's tactical aviation fleet looking into the 2000s. Was that the right decision to only acquire 50 or so F-14Ds? What about the other stuff that Grumman was working on that was so impressive looking, like the Super Tomcat 21 and the ASF-14? These were kind of the Super Hornet model for the F-14. Looking back, do you think the Navy made the right decision by abandoning those future platforms and just going all-in on the Super Hornet?

MR: Wow, it's a great question, but it's a very complicated question, Tyler. And I have my personal opinion. My personal opinion is that the evolution of the F-14D into the Tomcat 21 and all the other variants that were envisioned would have been very, very successful for the Navy. Grumman, and eventually Northrop Grumman, really knew what it was doing with that airplane and with a larger platform, you can take more, you can stay out longer, and I think that offered a tremendous advantage to the Navy.

US Navy

F-14D flying alongside an F/A-18 Legacy Hornet.

I certainly can't comment on the inner Pentagon's decision-making about all that. They were looking for efficiencies in a peace dividend kind of world, and I'm not in a position to comment on that. What I can say is that the airplane itself, and I loved your War Zone piece on what it would have been, it would have been incredible. And as we look forward into the future, you know all of those concepts are still relevant. I think you have to decide if you want a big platform that can carry a lot of weapons and can stay out a long time or go a long way, and that's where the Tomcat 21 was going. And it would have been, I think, hugely successful.

TR: Leaping into the future, we saw the F-14 get precision-guided ground attack capability, it was very successful, and working as a forward air controller airborne. I mean, hit a bunch of different areas that it wasn't really intended to do, very well. And by the mid-2000s, it was chosen that they would be retired, the F-14s. The last F-14Ds that left the deck were so reliable, those jets were flying more than the Super Hornets that were replacing them. So the question often comes up that may be a smaller Tomcat force would have still been relevant. What is your viewpoint on when they decided to retire the F-14, that decision, and what that did to the air wing? 

MR: Well, it took some capability away, and again, I'm not in a position to second-guess what the fleet leadership was thinking about when they made those decisions. I can just tell you from a pilot's viewpoint that the Grumman airplane was incredible. The F-14D, as you said, they could fly it a lot. It was the number one choice of people on the ground. When I was doing the combat air support mission with the precision weapons, the LANTIRN, the ROVER system, all those other enhancements that had been put in the airplane, in a way it was retired at the peak of its career. While that all just sounds like a nice cliché, that you want to go out on top, I just personally think that the Navy missed an opportunity to continue the platform into the future. The bottom line is the platform had so much potential. It was positioned to be the platform in the future too, and the Navy took a different path.

HANGAR B PRODUCTIONS

What could have been, one of our renderings of the Super Tomcat 21. You can see more and read all about the program here

TR: Personally, what is your best memory in the Tomcat, and what is maybe your most terrifying?  

MR: Well, the worst day in a Tomcat was better than the best day anywhere else, for a lot of people. I think you'd hear that from a lot of pilots. I will say a couple of experiences really stand out to me. When I was deployed, there was a night when we climbed to get above the clouds so we could do intercepts, and we were in the North Pacific and there were thunderstorms in the area, so we kept climbing and climbing and climbing, and I ended up leveling off at about 42,000 feet so I could be above the clouds. There was cloud-to-cloud lightning, and you could see it. It was right below you, and it was beautiful and just a little bit frightening too, thinking you had to go back down through that to get back to the ship. But it was one of those moments. 

If I could paint the picture for you, where you've got this incredible star-studded sky above you, but it's black with just the stars because it was night, then you've got this white blanket almost like snow beneath you, except you've got lightning flashes going off and you can see some of the lightning bolts and some are still inside the clouds. So, you've got the clouds kind of illuminating internally, and then you've got the occasional lightning bolt. It was just an incredible experience that happened, I don't know, 30, not quite 30 years ago, but a long time ago, and I can remember it vividly as if it was just yesterday.

In terms of other notable moments, just in my experience, was during carrier suitability testing in the Navy. We would go out and certify flight decks and check new features on the airplanes, and in the daytime, I just have very fond memories of blasting off the catapult, turning downwind, and doing multiple approaches and traps. At that point, I had a fair number of arrested landings under my belt, over 600, and I got up to about 700 during the carrier suitability testing. You just become so comfortable flying the airplane in that environment. It was just a thrill. It's just an incredible memory. I could talk about those kind of things for hours, so you'll have to stop me...

US Navy

F-14D heading into the pattern over the boat.

TR: I get asked all the time why can't somebody put one back in the air again, and I try to explain this to them, that even at a private party, and I know that that was tried actually after they were going to retire them, I believe [Dale] Snodgrass tried to do this and it didn't work. Can you talk a little bit about that... You know, the reality of that and anybody who's actually tried to get one of them back in the air? 

MR: Well, to my knowledge, it's been talked about quite a bit. In fact, for the anniversary of naval aviation, we talked about doing that within the company. It is logistically though, a challenge... If you just think about picking an airplane from Tucson from the boneyard, you've got to have not just... We certainly have all the material you'd need to get the airplane back flying again, but then you've got to have spares and you've got have other things. I would be the first one to volunteer to go fly it, and in fact, I'd probably try and make sure nobody else knew about the opportunity, so I'd be hopefully on the shortlist. But the reality is that logistically taking anything that's been retired for a few years, and in this case, we're talking about 14 years, taking something like that that has been retired and then and bringing it back into service use would be a tremendous investment.

Clemens Vasters/Wikicommons

An F-14D on display at the boneyard in Tuscon. There are very few Tomcats left in storage. Most were cut up and recycled after retirement, with some going to museums. The fact that Iran still flies the type heavily influenced how the Tomcats and their spare parts were handled following their withdrawal from service. 

I just think no one's been willing to make that investment yet because you gotta be able to sustain it if you were going to... I'm sure Dale, callsign "Snort" Snodgrass would love to take one out on the air show circuit, but it's not like taking a typical warbird, because it's such a magnificent weapon system and you'd have to work through all the details on that.

TR: Right. It's still used in Iran too. Do you find it amazing that there are still actually a few of them that are airworthy over there? 

MR:  Not my area of expertise, but I'm not surprised that the airplane is still flying. What I can say is that the airplane itself that Grumman designed, that the Navy procured and we deployed was an amazing platform.

USN

An F-14B with a full load of Phoenix missiles takes off the famed NAS Miramar in Southern California. 

TR: Parting shot: If there's anything that you'd like the average person to know about the Tomcat, what would it be, after all these years? 

MR:  First of all, and this is going to sound like a little bit of a Navy ad, but every time a pilot and a RIO got into an airplane and got to go do their mission, it was because there was a small army of maintainers behind them working literally 12 hours a day, day-after-day, out on the carrier, 84 hours a week, to make sure that weapon system worked. The dedication of those people really needs to be recognized, too. The pilots and the RIOs got the glory, but we only were able to do what we did because we had dedicated maintenance troops back there, making sure that the airplane was ready, that it had ordnance, and that the weapon system worked day-after-day, night-after-night. I think that's really important.

The other thing, because well, I think you know the why, so I'll stop there, but I will also say that our nation builds amazing weapon systems, and that the average American may not give it much thought. But they should be very impressed that a company like Northrop Grumman can build something like that, that can be in operation for 30-plus years, defending our nation and doing diplomacy overseas, and position ourselves to be taking the fight overseas instead of here within the United States. People should feel good about that... I think it's just assumed by a lot of people and it's good that they have the capability to be comfortable at home and it'd be nice for them to think about why they have the capability.

US Navy

Tomcats sit ready on the fantail of the carrier at sunset.

A big thanks to Mike Rabens for taking the time to share his Tomcat tales with us. You can check out the wonderful F-14 Tomcat Association by clicking here.

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com