United States of America (1945)
Prototype Fighter – 3 Built
The North American F-86 Sabre is one of the most well-known fighter aircraft of all time, marking the transition from the propeller to the jet turbine. It first entered service with the newly formed U.S. Air Force in 1949, and was instrumental in denying air superiority to Communist forces during the Korean War. After the war ended, many Sabres entered service with dozens of foreign air arms, becoming the primary fighter equipment of many Allied nations. It was built under license in Canada, Japan, Italy, and Australia. Its service was so long-lived that the last operational F-86 was not withdrawn from service until 1993.
The F-86 Sabre began its life as North American Aviation’s company project NA-134, which was originally intended for the US Navy. As the war in the Pacific edged toward its climax, the Navy was making plans to acquire jet-powered carrier-based aircraft, which it was could be pressed into service in time for Operation Olympic-Coronet, the invasion of Japan planned for May 1946. The Navy had planned to acquire four jet fighters, the Vought XF6U-1 Pirate, the McDonnell XFD-1 Phantom, the McDonnell XF2D-1 Banshee, and the North American XFJ-1 Fury.
Work on the NA-134 project began in the late autumn of 1944. The NA-134 had a straight, thin-section wing set low on a round fuselage. It featured a straight through flow of air from the nose intake to the jet exhaust that exited the aircraft under a straight tailplane. The wing was borrowed directly from the P-51D, and had a laminar-flow airfoil. It was to be powered by a single General Electric TG-180 gas turbine which was a license-built version of the de Havilland Goblin. The TG-180 was designated J35 by the military and was an 11-stage axial-flow turbojet which offered 4000 lb.s.t. at sea level. The Navy ordered three prototypes of the NA-134 under the designation XFJ-1 on January 1, 1945. On May 28, 1945, the Navy approved a contract for 100 production FJ-1s (NA-141).
At the same time that North American was beginning to design the Navy’s XFJ-1, the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) issued a requirement for a medium-range day fighter which could also be used as an escort fighter and a dive bomber. Specifications called for a speed of at least 600 mph, since the Republic XP-84 Thunderjet already under construction promised 587 mph. On Nov 22, 1944, the company’s RD-1265 design study proposed a version of the XFJ-1 for the Air Force to meet this requirement. This design was known in company records as NA-140. The USAAF was sufficiently impressed that they issued a letter contract on May 18, 1945 which authorized the acquisition of three NA-140 aircraft under the designation XP-86.
The Navy’s XFJ-1 design had to incorporate some performance compromises in order to support low-speed carrier operations, but the land-based USAAF XP-86 was not so constrained and had a somewhat thinner wing and a slimmer fuselage with a high fineness ratio. However, the XP-86 retained the tail surfaces of the XFJ-1.
The XP-86 incorporated several features not previously used on fighter aircraft, including a fully-pressurized cockpit and hydraulically-boosted ailerons and elevators. Armament was the standard USAAF equipment of the era–six 0.50-inch Browning M3 machine guns that fired at 1100 rounds per minute, with 267 rounds per gun. The aircraft was to use the Sperry type A-1B gun/bomb/rocket sight, working in conjunction with an AN/APG-5 ranging radar. Rocket launchers could be added underneath the wings to carry up to 8 5-inch HVARs. Self-sealing fuel tanks were to be fitted, and the pilot was to be provided with some armor plating around the cockpit area.
In the XP-86, a ten percent ratio of wing thickness to chord was used to extend the critical Mach number to 0.9. Wingspan was to be 38 feet 2.5 inches, length was 35 feet 6 inches, and height was 13 feet 2.5 inches. Four speed brakes were to be attached above and below the wings. At a gross weight of 11,500 pounds, the XP-86 was estimated to be capable of achieving a top speed of 574 mph at sea level and 582 mph at 10,000 feet, still below the USAAF requirement. Initial climb rate was to be 5,850 feet per minute and service ceiling was to be 46,000 feet. Combat radius was 297 miles with 410 gallons of internal fuel, but could be increased to 750 miles by adding a 170 gallon drop tank to each wingtip. As it would turn out, these performance figures were greatly exaggerated.
A mock-up of the XP-86 was built and approved on June 20, 1945. However, early wind tunnel tests indicated that the airframe of the XP-86 would not be able to reach the desired speed of 600 mph. It is highly likely that the XP-86 project would have been cancelled at this time were it not for some unusual developments.
Saved by the Germans
After the surrender of Germany in May of 1945, the USAAF, along with a lot of other air forces, was keenly interested in obtaining information about the latest German jet fighters and in learning as much as they could about secret German wartime research on jet propulsion, rocket power, and ballistic missiles. American teams were selected from industry and research institutions and sent into occupied Germany to investigate captured weapons research data, microfilm it, and ship it back to the US.
By the summer of 1945, a great deal of German data was pouring in, much of it as yet untranslated into English. As it turned out, German aeronautical engineers had wind-tunnel tested just about every aerodynamic shape that the human mind could conceive of, even some ideas even only remotely promising. A particular German paper dated 1940 reported that wind tunnel tests showed that there were some significant advantages offered by swept wings at speeds of about Mach 0.9. A straight-winged aircraft was severely affected by compressibility effects as sonic speed was approached, but the use of a swept wing delayed the effects of shock waves and permitted better control at these higher speeds. Unfortunately, German research also indicated that the use of wing sweep introduced some undesirable wing tip stall and low-speed stability effects. American researchers had also encountered a similar problem with the swept-wing Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, which was so unstable that it flipped over on its back and stalled on one of its test flights.
In 1940, these German studies were of only theoretical interest, since no powerplants were available even remotely capable of reaching such speeds. However, such studies caught the attention of North American engineers trying to develop ways to improve the performance of their XP-86.
The optimal design for an aircraft capable of high speeds produces a design that stalls easily at low speeds. The cure for the low-speed stability problem that was worked out by North American engineers was to attach automatic slats to the wing leading edges. The wing slats were entirely automatic, and opened and closed in response to aerodynamic forces. When the slats opened, the changed airflow over the upper wing surface increased the lift and produced lower stalling speeds. At high speeds, the slats automatically closed to minimize drag.
In August of 1945, project aerodynamicist L. P. Greene proposed to Raymond Rice that a swept-wing configuration for the P-86 be adopted. Wind tunnel tests carried out in September of 1945 confirmed the reduction in drag at high subsonic speeds as well as the beneficial effect of the slats on low speed stability. The limiting Mach number was raised to 0.875.
Based on these wind-tunnel studies, a new design for a swept-wing P-86 was submitted in the fall of 1945. The USAAF was impressed, and on November 1, 1945 it readily approved the proposal. This was one of the most important decisions ever made by the USAAF. Had they not agreed to this change, the history of the next forty years would undoubtedly have been quite different.
North American’s next step was to choose the aspect ratio of the swept wing. A larger aspect ratio would give better range, a narrower one better stability, and the correct choice would have to be a tradeoff between the two. Further tests carried out between late October and mid November indicated that a wing aspect ratio of 6 would be satisfactory, and such an aspect ratio had been planned for in the proposal accepted on November 1. However, early in 1946 additional wind tunnel tests indicated that stability with such a narrow wing would be too great a problem, and in March the design reverted to a shorter wingform. An aspect ratio of 4.79, a sweep-back of 35 degrees, and a thickness/chord ratio of 11% at the root and 10% at the tip was finally chosen.
All of these changes lengthened the time scale of the P-86 development in comparison to that of the Navy’s XFJ-1. The XFJ-1 took to the air for the first time on November 27, 1946, but the XP-86 still had almost another year of work ahead before it was ready for its first flight.
On February 28, 1946, the mockup of the swept-winged XP-86 was inspected and approved. In August of 1946, the basic engineering drawings were made available to the manufacturing shop of North American, and the first metal was cut. The USAAF was so confident of the future performance of the XP-86, that on December 20, 1946 another letter contract for 33 production P-86As was approved. No service test aircraft were ordered. Although the 4000 lb.s.t. J35 would power the three XP-86 prototypes, production P-86As would be powered by the General Electric TG-190 (J47) turbojet offering 5000 lb.s.t.
The first of three prototypes, 45-59597, was rolled out of the Inglewood factory on August 8, 1947. It was powered by a Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 turbojet rated at 4000 pounds of static thrust. The aircraft was unarmed. After a few ground taxiing and braking tests, it was disassembled and trucked out to Muroc Dry Lake Army Air Base, where it was reassembled.
Test pilot George “Wheaties” Welch took the XP-86 up into the air for the first time on October 1, 1947. The flight went well until it came time to lower the landing gear and come in for a landing. Welch found that the nosewheel wouldn’t come down all the way. After spending forty minutes in fruitless attempts to shake the nosewheel down into place, Welch finally brought the plane in for a nose-high landing. Fortunately, the impact of the main wheels jolted the nosewheel into place, and the aircraft rolled safely to a stop. The swept-wing XP-86 had made its first flight.
On October 16, 1947, the USAF gave final approval to the fixed price contract for 33 P-86As, with the additional authorization for 190 P-86Bs. The P-86B was to be a strengthened P-86A for rough-field operations.
XP-86 number 45-59597 was officially delivered to the USAF on November 30, 1948. By that time, its designation had been changed to XF-86. Phase II flight tests, those flown by USAF pilots, began in early December of 1947. An Allison-built J35-A-5 rated at 4000 lbs of static thrust was installed for USAF tests. The second and third XP-86 prototypes, 45-59598 and 45-59599 respectively, joined the test program in early 1948. These were different from the first prototype as well as being different from each other in several respects. Numbers 1 and 2 had different fuel gauges, a stall warning system built into the control stick, a bypass for emergency operation of the hydraulic boost system, and hydraulically-actuated leading-edge slat locks. The number 3 prototype was the only one of the three to have fully-automatic leading-edge slats that opened at 135 mph. Numbers 2 and 3 had SCR-695-B IFF beacons and carried the AN/ARN-6 radio compass set.
In June of 1948, the new US Air Force redesignated all Pursuit aircraft as Fighter aircraft, changing the prefix from P to F. Thus the XP-86 became the XF-86. XP-86 number one was officially delivered to the USAF on November 30, 1948. The three prototypes remained in various test and evaluation roles well into the 1950s, and were unofficially referred to as YP-86s. All three prototypes were sold for scrap after being used in nuclear tests at Frenchman Flats in Nevada
Evolving from the NA-134 project with wings borrowed from a P-51, the XP-86 would eventually end up with a low swept wing mounted to a tubular fuselage, with a large jet intake opening at the nose. The plexiglass bubble canopy gave the pilot great visibility, and afforded the pilot a pressurized cockpit. The tail featured a swept back rudder with tailplanes angled upwards, marking a departure from the largely perpendicular angles seen on most of the Sabre’s propeller driven predecessors. The landing gear was a tricycle configuration, which helped balance the weight of the jet engine at the rear.
The wing of the XP-86 was to be constructed of a double-skin structure with hat sections between layers extending from the center section to the outboard edges of the outer panel fuel tanks. This structure replaced the conventional rib and stringer construction in that area. This new construction method provided additional strength and allowed enough space in the wing for fuel tanks.
The wing-mounted speed brakes originally contemplated for the XP-86 were considered unsuitable for the wing design, so they were replaced by a hydraulic door-type brake mounted on each side of the rear fuselage and one brake mounted on the bottom of the fuselage in a dorsal position. The speed brakes opened frontwards, and had the advantage that they could be opened at any attitude and speed, including speeds above Mach One.
The maximum speed of the XP-86 was over 650 mph, 75 mph faster than anything else in service at the time. The noise and vibration levels were considerably lower than other jet-powered aircraft. However, the J35 engine did not produce enough thrust, and the XP-86 could only climb at 4,000 feet per minute. However, this was not considered an issue, since the production P-86As were to be powered by the 5000 lb.s.t. General Electric J47.
The XP-86 could go supersonic in a dive with only a moderate and manageable tendency to nose-up, although below 25,000 feet there was a tendency to roll which made it unwise to stay supersonic for very long. Production Sabres were limited to Mach 0.95 below 25,000 feet for safety reasons because of this roll tendency.
For the second and third prototypes, the ventral brake was eliminated, and the two rear-opening side fuselage brakes were replaced by brakes which had hinges at the front and opened out and down. These air brakes were adopted for production aircraft.
Prototype number 3 was the only one to be fitted with armament. The armament of six 0.50-inch M3 machine guns were mounted in blocks of three on either side of the cockpit. Ammunition bays were installed in the bottom of the fuselage underneath the gun bay, with as many as 300 rounds per gun. The guns were aimed by a Mk 18 gyroscopic gunsight with manual ranging.
Possibly the First Supersonic Aircraft
There is actually a possibility that the XP-86 rather than the Bell XS-1 might have been the first aircraft to achieve supersonic flight. During some of his early flight tests, George Welch reported that he had encountered some rather unusual fluctuations in his airspeed and altitude indicators during high speed dives, which might have meant that he had exceeded the speed of sound. However, at that time, North American had no way of calibrating airspeed indicators into the transonic range above Mach 1, so it is uncertain just how fast Welch had gone. On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager exceeded Mach 1 in the XS-1. Although the event was kept secret from the general public, North American test crews heard about this feat through rumors and persuaded NACA to use its equipment to track the XP-86 in a high-speed dive to see if there was a possibility that the XP-86 could also go supersonic. This test was done on October 19, five days after Yeager’s flight, in which George Welch was tracked at Mach 1.02. The tests were flown again on October 21 with the same results. Since Welch had been performing the very same flight patterns in tests before October 14, there is the possibility that he, not Chuck Yeager, might have been first to exceed the speed of sound.
In any case, the fact that the XP-86 had exceeded the speed of sound was immediately classified, and remained so for several months afterward. In May of 1948, the world was informed that George Welch had exceeded Mach 1.0 in the XP-86, becoming the first “aircraft” to do so, with an aircraft being defined as a vehicle that takes off and lands under its own power. The date was set as April 26, 1948. This flight did actually take place, but George Welch was not the pilot. In fact, it was a British pilot who was evaluating the XP-86 who inadvertently broadcasted that he had exceeded Mach 1 over an open radio channel. However, the facts soon became common knowledge throughout the aviation community. The June 14, 1948 issue of Aviation Week published an article revealing that the XP-86 had gone supersonic.
XP-86 45-59597 – The first prototype Sabre produced, was reconfigured many times with various test configurations. May have been the first aircraft to have gone supersonic in October 1947 with George Welch at the controls.
XP-86 45-59598 – The second prototype, had different production model speedbrake and flap configuration, various sensors and equipment installed for testing purposes.
XP-86 45-59599 – The third prototype, and the only Sabre prototype to have been armed, fitted with the standard six M3 Browning guns
United States – The prototypes were extensively tested by North American Aviation before being handed over to the U.S. Air Force in 1948.
United States of America (1974)
Prototype Supersonic Heavy Bomber – 4 Built
The B-1A program arose out of a need for a long-range, supersonic, low-flying heavy bomber. The program’s initial development was pushed forward through an ever-shifting geopolitical landscape, as well as opposition and contention among the the top levels of the U.S. government. Even with advanced features such as variable sweep wings, and variable air intake and exhaust capability, it was derided as a ‘dinosaur’ in the age of ICBMs. The opposition and political infighting nearly ended the Lancer, before it was given a miraculous second chance.
The origin of the Rockwell B-1 can be traced back to 1961, when the Air Force began to consider alternatives to the North American B-70 Valkyrie, which had just been downgraded from production to test aircraft status. At that time, the long range strategic missile was assumed to be the weapon of the future, with manned long-range bombers being relegated to a secondary role. The B-70 had been designed to fly at extremely high altitudes and at Mach 3 speeds, and increasingly effective Soviet anti aircraft defenses had made such an aircraft rather vulnerable.
Nevertheless, the Air Force commissioned several studies to explore possible roles for manned bombers in future planning. If successful, these would replace the B-52. At this time, the ability to fly through enemy airspace at extremely low altitudes was was thought to be the key for survival in the face of sophisticated air defenses.
The first such study was known as the Subsonic Low Altitude Bomber (SLAB), which was completed in 1961. It envisaged a 500,000 pound fixed-wing aircraft with a total range of 11,000 nautical miles, with 4300 nm of these miles being flown at low altitudes. This was followed soon after by the Extended Range Strike Aircraft (ERSA), which had a weight of 600,000 pounds and featured a variable sweep wing. The ERSA was supposed to be able to carry a payload of 10,000 pounds and achieve a range of 8750 nautical miles, with 2500 of these miles being flown at altitudes as low as 500 feet. In August of 1963, a third study known as Low-Altitude Manned Penetrator(LAMP) was completed. It called for a 20,000 payload and a 6200 nautical mile range, 2000 miles being flown at low altitude. None of these projects ever got beyond the basic concept stage.
In October of 1963, the Air Force looked over these proposals and used the results as the foundation of a new bomber proposal, termed Advanced Manned Precision Strike System (AMPSS). In November of that year, 3 contractors were issued Requests for Proposals for the AMPSS. The companies were Boeing, General Dynamics, and North American. However, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara kept a tight rein on funds, and expressed doubts about the assumptions behind AMPSS, so the RFPs only involved basic concept studies and did not focus on a specific aircraft. In addition, the contractors all agreed that some of the suggested USAF requirements either did not make much sense or else were prohibitively costly.
In mid-1964, the USAF had revised its requirements and retitled the project as Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA). The AMSA still envisaged an aircraft with the takeoff and low-altitude performance characteristics of the AMPSS, but in addition asked for a high-altitude supersonic performance capability. The projected gross weight for the aircraft was 375,000 pounds, and the range was to be 6300 nautical miles, 2000 of which would be flown at low altitude.
Secretary McNamara was never very excited about the AMSA, since he thought that strategic missiles could do a better job of “assured destruction” than manned bombers, and thought that the cost of the AMSA would probably be excessive. Nevertheless, there was a potential gain in avionics and propulsion technology that could be achieved if the project were to proceed, and McNamara released a small amount of funding for preliminary AMSA studies. The airframe for the AMSA would be worked on by Boeing, General Dynamics, and North American, whereas Curtiss-Wright, General Electric, and Pratt & Whitney would work on the engines. Both IBM and Hughes aircraft looked at potential avionics systems. These contractors issued their reports in late 1964. General Electric and Pratt & Whitney were given a contract to produce two demonstrator engines, but no airframe and avionics contracts were issued at that time.
A bit of confusion entered the picture when the Defense Department selected the FB-111A as the replacement for the B-52C, B-52F, and B-58. The Air Force had not requested a bomber version of the controversial F-111, and was not all that enthusiastic about the choice. Nevertheless, a low-cost interim bomber did have some attractive features, and the Air Force went along with the choice of the FB-111A provided it did not interfere with AMSA development.
By 1968, an advanced development contract was issued to IBM and the Autonetics Division of North American Rockwell. On September 22, 1967, North American Aviation had merged with Rockwell Standard Corporation to create North American Rockwell. Earlier in that year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had recommended the immediate development of the AMSA, but Secretary McNamara was still opposed, preferring instead to upgrade the existing FB-111 and B-52 fleet. McNamara vetoed the proposal.
When Richard Nixon became President in January of 1969, his Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird reviewed Defense Department needs and announced in March of 1969 that the planned acquisition of 253 FB-111s would be reduced to only 76, since the FB-111 lacked the range and payload required for strategic operations, and recommended that the AMSA design studies be accelerated.
The AMSA was officially assigned the designation B-1A in April of 1969. This was the first entry in the new bomber designation series, first created in 1962.
New Requests For Proposals were issued in November of 1969. IBM and Autonetics were selected for the avionics work on December 19. The selection of airframe and engine contractors was delayed by budget cuts in FY 1970 and 1971. On December 8, 1969 North American Rockwell and General Electric were announced as the winners of the respective airframe and engine contracts for the B-1A.
The original program called for 2 test airframes, 5 flyable aircraft, and 40 engines. This was cut in 1971 to one ground test aircraft and 3 flight test articles (74-0158/0160). First flight was set for April of 1974. A fourth prototype (76-1074) was ordered in the FY 1976 budget. This fourth plane was to be built to production standards. At one time, some 240 B-1As were to be built, with initial operational capability set for 1979.
The fuselage of the B-1A was fairly slim, and seated a crew of four in the nose. There was a large swept vertical tail, with a set of all-flying slab tailplanes mounted fairly high on the vertical tail. The aircraft’s fuselage blended smoothly into the wing to enhance lift and reduce drag. In addition, the fuselage was designed to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section in order to minimize the probability of detection by enemy defenses.
In order to achieve the required high-speed performance and still be able to have a good low-speed takeoff and landing capability, a variable-sweep wing was used. This made it possible for the aircraft to use short runways that would be inaccessible to the B-52. The outer wing panels were attached to a wing carry-through attachment box which faired smoothly into a slim, narrow fuselage. Each outer wing had full-span slats and slotted flaps, but used no ailerons. Lateral control was provided by a set of spoilers on the wing upper surface, acting in conjunction with differential operation of the slab tailplanes.
The engines were four afterburning General Electric F101-100 turbofans. The engines were installed in pairs inside large nacelles underneath the wing roots,, and close to the aircraft’s center of gravity to improve stability while flying at high speed through highly-turbulent low-altitude air. The nacelles were far enough apart so that the main landing gear members could be installed in the wing roots between them with enough clearance to retract inwards. In order to achieve the required Mach 2 performance at high altitudes, the air intake inlets were variable. In addition, the exhaust nozzles were fully variable.
Initially, it had been expected that a Mach 1.2 performance could be achieved at low altitude, which required that titanium rather than aluminum be used in critical areas in the fuselage and wing structure. However, this low altitude performance requirement was lowered to only Mach 0.85, enabling a greater percentage of aluminum to be used, lowering the overall cost. Titanium was used primarily for the wing carry-through box, the inner ends of the outer wings incorporating the pivots, and for some areas around the engines and rear fuselage.
Eight integral fuel tanks were planned, one in each outer wing panel, and the rest in the fuselage. About 150,000 pounds of fuel could be carried. There were three 15-foot weapons bays in the lower fuselage, two ahead and one behind the wing carry-through box. Each bay could carry up to 25,000 pounds of conventional or nuclear weapons. The total weapons load was almost twice what a B-52 could carry. All of the offensive weapons were to be carried internally, with no provision for externally-mounted pylons. A key weapon was to be the AGM-69A SRAM (Short-Range Attack Missile), 8 of which could be carried on a rotary launcher in each of the weapons bays.
No defensive armament was planned, the B-1A relying on its low-altitude performance and its suite of electronic countermeasures gear to avoid interception.
An extensive suite of electronics was planned, including a Litton LN-15 inertial navigation system, a Doppler radar altimeter, a Hughes forward-looking infrared, and a General Electric APQ-114 forward-looking radar and a Texas Instruments APQ-146 terrain-following radar.
The B-1A carried a crew of four–a pilot, copilot, offensive systems officer, and defensive systems officer. The crew escape system resembled that of the F-111 crew escape module. In an emergency, a capsule containing all four crewmembers would separate from the aircraft and be steered and stabilized by various fins and spoilers. A rocket motor would fire and lift the capsule up and away from the aircraft. Three parachutes would then open and would lower the capsule along with the crew safely to the surface. Once down, the capsule would serve as a survival shelter for the crew members.
The B-1A mockup review occurred in late October of 1971. There were 297 requests for alterations.
The first B-1 flight aircraft (74-0158) rolled out from USAF Plant 42 at Palmdale, CA on October 26, 1974. It made its first flight on December 23, 1974, a short hop to Edwards AFB where the flight testing was to be carried out. The crew was Rockwell test pilot Charlie C. Bock,; Jr, Col. Emil Sturmthal, and Richard Abrams. The third aircraft (74-0160) was to be the avionics testbed and flew for the first time on March 26, 1976. The second aircraft (74-0159) was initially used for some static ground testing and did not make its first flight until June 14, 1976.
The B-1A test program went fairly smoothly. However, there were numerous modifications introduced throughout the program and some items of additional equipment were added. The avionics suite of the B-1A was perhaps the most complex yet used on an aircraft. The Initial Operational Test and Evaluation tests were successfully passed in September of 1976. The Phase 1 flight test program was completed on September 30, 1976. In December of 1976, the Air Force concluded that the B-1A was to go into production, with contracts placed for the first three aircraft and plans were made for an initial Block 2 production batch of 8 aircraft.
It seemed that the B-1A was well on its way to a full production run of 240 aircraft. However, the cost of the B-1A program began to escalate, and there were still some unresolved issues concerning the avionics suite. In 1970, the estimated per-unit price was $40 million, and by 1972, the cost had risen to $45.6 million. Although this sounds like small-change by today’s standards, this was considerably greater than the figure for any previous production aircraft. Moreover, by 1975, this number had climbed to $70 million.
Alarmed at these rising costs, the new presidential administration of Jimmy Carter (which had taken office on January 20, 1977) began to take a second look at the whole B-1A program. On June 30, 1977, President Carter announced that plans to produce the B-1A would be cancelled, and that the defense needs of the USA would be met by ICBMs, SLBMs, and a fleet of modernized B-52s armed with ALCMs. President Carter genuinely wanted to reduce the arms race, but he was unaware at the time of the secret projects that would ultimately lead to the F-117A stealth attack aircraft and the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
Despite the cancellation of the production program, the Carter administration allowed the flight testing of the B-1A to continue. Most of the effort involved the avionics, in particular the defensive systems. In addition, General Electric continued to work on improvements for the F101 engine, and most of the contractors kept their engineering teams intact. Perhaps most important, work continued in reducing the radar cross section of the aircraft. Less than a month after the cancellation, 74-0160 launched a SRAM on July 28, 1977 at an altitude of 6,000 feet over the White Sands missile range. This aircraft was later modified with an advanced electronic countermeasures system mounted in a dorsal spine, and Doppler beam sharpening was added to the forward-looking radar. 74-0158 had achieved Mach 2.0 in April of 1976, and after completing its stability and control tests was placed in storage in 1978. On October 5, 1978, 74-0159 achieved a speed of Mach 2.22, the highest speed achieved during the B-1A program.
74-0158 was retired from flying in April of 1981 after having flown 138 sorties, the largest number of flights of any of the prototypes. By this time, it had acquired a three-tone desert camouflage scheme. It was eventually dismantled and used as a weapons trainer at Lowry AFB.
74-0159 was later used as a flight test article in the B-1B program. It was modified by having B-1B flight control system features installed. It began flying on March 23, 1983. Unfortunately, it crashed on August 29, 1984 when the aircraft’s center of gravity got unbalanced during fuel transfer management procedures, causing it to lose control. The escape capsule deployed successfully, but the parachute risers did not deploy properly. The capsule hit the ground at a steep angle, so steep that the inflatable cushions could not shield the impact. Chief test pilot Doug Benefield was killed, and two other crew members were seriously injured.
74-0160 was later converted to a ground trainer under the designation GB-1A and is now on display at the Wings Over The Rockies Air and Space Museum (formerly Lowry AFB), near Denver, Colorado.
76-0174 had been ordered to serve as a pre-production B-1A aircraft and was configured with full avionics systems. When the B-1A program was cancelled, work on this aircraft was well under way. Unlike the first three B-1s, 76-0174 was equipped with four conventional ejector seats in place of the escape capsule. This change was made after tests had determined that the crew escape module was unstable if ejected at speeds above 347 knots. It flew on February 14, 1979 and carried out 70 sorties. This plane was later used as a test article in support of the B-1B program. It resumed flying on July 30, 1984. Externally, the main change was the removal of the long dorsal spine but many of the B-1B avionics systems were installed internally. It is now on display at the USAF Museum at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio.
B-1A – The initial prototype run of four aircraft
U.S. Air Force – The sole operator of the B-1A was the USAF
(at max sweep)
78 ft 2.5 in / 23.84 m
(at min sweep)
136 ft 8.5 in / 41.67 m
143 ft 3.5 in / 43.8 m
34 ft 0 in / 10.36 m
1,950 ft² / 181.2 m²
4x General Electric F101-GE-100 turbofans, 17,390 lbf dry, 30,000 lbf with afterburner
29,755 US Gal / 11,2634 L
389,000 lb / 176,450 kg
Maximum Take Off Weight
395,000 lb / 179,170 kg
Mach 2.2 / 1,688 mph / 2716.5 kmh at 50,000 ft / 15,240 m
Maximum Service Ceiling
62,000 ft / 18,900 m
1 pilot, 1 copilot, 1 offensive systems officer, 1 defensive systems officer
The F-14 Tomcat is the most iconic Cold War US Naval fighter, next to the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom. It is also a replacement for the F-4 Phantom and the failed F-111B, incorporating the lessons and experiences acquired during Vietnam as well, like the F-15 Eagle. It has a similar origin to that of the F-15, but it is also the result of two additional factors. First, the Navy’s quest to find a Fleet Air Defence asset, with long-range and high-endurance interceptor characteristics to defend the aircraft carrier battle groups, mainly against long-range anti-ship missiles launched from Soviet bombers and submarines, in addition to intercepting those same Soviet bombers. It also needed a more capable radar and provision for longer range missiles. The role of then Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara was also crucial in this case, as he directed the Navy to take part in the Tactical Fighter Experimental program. But the Navy stepped out in fears that the USAF’s need for a low-attack aircraft would hamper the fighter abilities of the new airplane. Second, the ongoing TFX F-111B project was facing a large number of issues in the late 60s that made both the Navy and Grumman, which happened to be the builder of the F-111B alongside General Dynamics, to consider a new option with better capabilities and less operational and development issues. The F-111B proved unsuitable for the conditions of the Vietnam War and had no long-range missile capability. The Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) also had a role, as it issued requirements for a tandem two-seat, twin-engine fighter with mainly air-to-air capacities capable of reaching speed of up to 2.2 match and able to operate with a new generation missiles. It was also directed to have a secondary Close Air Support (CAS) role and incorporate an internal M61A1 20mm Vulcan cannon, correcting the mistake made with the previous Phantom F-4, as it had no internal gun for close-range combat. A feat achieved by the Tomcat was that it had its first flight 23 months after the contract was awarded, making the of the Tomcat a milestone in the development of new air assets. NASA also had an important role during the development stage as it did with the F-15 through the Langley Research Centre, mainly related to the F-14’s most advanced feature: the geometrically variable wings. But it also played a role in the overall design of the fighter, working very closely with Grumman providing the company with technical assistance and data.
The F-14 Tomcat is a double-seat tandem, twin-engine, double-tail, all-weather carrier-based fighter and interceptor and later gaining multi-role capability, with numerous remarkable features. The glove-mounted swept wings have variable geometry capability, in the same manner as the General Dynamics F-111, the Mig-23 Flogger, and the Panavia Tornado. When the wings were positioned rearwards, it was fitted for high-speed intercept missions. When swept outwards, the wings naturally increased drag, allowing lower speed flight and a lower stall speed. The control of the wing movement was automatic with manual control if needed. The flat area between the engines nacelles, at the rear of the fighter, purposed to contain fuel and avionics components, such as the controllers for the wing-sweep mechanism, flares and chaff and other flight assist functions. This results in a wide space between the two nacelles giving the Tomcat it’s characteristic shape. Its design is based in the aforementioned requirements, which required the new fighter to carry a combination of AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range missiles, AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles, and long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, alongside the 20mm M61A1 Vulcan cannon. As Grumman was awarded with the contract in 1968, it incorporated two features of the unsuccessful F-111B project: the two Pratt & Whitney TF-30-P3 engines and the required AWG-9 radar for the AIM-54 Phoenix. If one observes carefully, it can be concluded that there are many similarities between the F-111 and the F-14, not only the geometrically variable wings.
The F-14 Tomcat became the Naval equivalent of the F-15, as it was equally as capable as the Eagle, with the addition role of an embarked fighter, performing maritime air superiority, fleet defense, long-range interception, and tactical aerial reconnaissance missions. Despite the quite similar structure of the Eagle, the two fighters are very different, and not only because of their purposed missions. The F-14 reportedly relied more on airborne surveillance and identification systems for beyond visual range firing.
The F-14 structure is made of 25% titanium, such as the wing structure, pivots, and both upper and lower wing flight surfaces, with electron beam welding used in their construction. The same fuselage, in combination with the wing, provide the F-14 with exceptional performance in combination with the capability provided by the variable sweep wings, provided the between 40-60% of the airframe’s lift. In fact, it allowed a Tomcat to land safely after suffering a mid-air collision that removed more than the 50% of its right wing. The wings, with their variable geometry, allowed the aircraft to reach an optimum lift-to-drag ratio according to the variation in speed, which in turn permitted the aircraft to perform various missions at different speeds. The aircraft’s twin tail configuration helped it in maneuvers at high angles of attack and contributed in reducing the height of the aircraft, making it more conducive to storage in the limited height of an aircraft carrier’s lower decks. The powerplant also allowed the Tomcat to have a good performance, but it suffered from teething problems in its early years, later requiring modifications. The Tomcat had its first flight in December 1970. The first versions were powered by two Pratt & Whitney TF-30-P412A turbofan engines, yielding speeds of up to 1,563 mph (2,517 km/h) at high altitude. But this initial engine was deemed as unreliable as it caused 28% of the Tomcat’s accidents, mainly due to compressor stalls. As a result, the powerplant had to be improved, and later versions had the were replaced with the General Electric F-100-GE-400 turbofan engine. The Tomcat also had advanced avionics that gave it superior air-to-air and later on, enhanced air-to-ground capability.
The F-14, was subject to numerous improvement programs in avionics and engines, as well as weaponry. For instance, in 1994, the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared System for Night (LANTIRN) was incorporated on the right wing glove pylon, which enhanced the Tomcat’s CAS and air-ground attack capabilities. In addition to the pod, other upgrades in avionics and cockpit displays allowed the usage of precision-guided weaponry, enhanced defensive systems, displays and control devices and even structural improvements. A Global Positioning System and Inertial Navigation System (GPS-INS) was integrated in the LANTIRN pod. Between the late 80s and early 90s, the Tomcat was able to operate with free-fall iron bombs, thus having limited ground-attack capabilities that were enhanced by the aforementioned improvements in avionics. Many proposed improved versions were drafted, but they were ultimately rejected given technical assessments and political reluctance to develop and introduce them, considering that new and more advanced and/or comparatively lower costs alternatives were already introduced or were at their late stage of development.
Tomcats in Combat
The F-14 saw its good share of action after being introduced in September 1974, with the first missions being implemented in the last days of the Vietnam War, providing top cover for the evacuation air route through combat air patrols. During the Cold War and in the North Atlantic, it was a routine for the F-14 to execute long-range interceptions of Soviet bombers and maritime reconnaissance aircraft that were flying too close to the aircraft carrier groups, such as the Tupolev Tu-95, Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, Tupolev M-4 Bison, Antonov An-12 Cub and Illyushin Il-38 May. In addition, NATO exercises in the Northern region of the Atlantic usually garnered the attention of the Soviets, while their routine flights from the Kola Peninsula to Cuba prompted these interceptions on a weekly, if not daily basis. The F-14 also saw some action in the Lebanese Civil War, with combat air patrols while American nationals were evacuated in 1976, and again between 1982 and 1986, with further combat air patrols and Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) missions to spot artillery positions firing against the international peacekeeping force and to provide naval gunfire support with intelligence on targets. During these operations, many F-14s were attacked by Syrian anti-aircraft fire that never managed to strike any targets, prompting retaliatory strikes where the F-14 provided cover to attacking airplanes, and also prompting the battleship USS New Jersey to open fire against Syrian AA batteries. Syrian Migs engaged but did not attack the Tomcat. Tomcats also took part in the failed operation to free the American hostages in Iran.
It was in Libya where the F-14 became very famous, during a series of incidents between the USA and Libya throughout the 80’s, where the F-14 managed to shoot down 4 Libyan aircraft, 2 Sukhoi Su-22 Fitters, and 2 MiG-23 Floggers, while also sinking a corvette and a patrol boat, and damaging many more, including surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. During these incidents, the F-14 provided combat air patrols and interceptions, supporting various missions, such as Operation Arid Farmer, Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon, even outmanoeuvring 2 MiG-25 Foxbats that were intercepted. During these interventions, Tomcats were also attacked by SAMs and air-to-air missiles fired by Libyan air assets, suffering no casualties. Similar incidents took place in Somalia in 1983, where two F-14s were attacked by SAMs while performing photo-reconnaissance over the port of Berbera, being confused with Ethiopian MiG-23s. Photo-reconnaissance, damage assessment, and combat air patrols were also executed by Tomcats during the Invasion of Grenada. During the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, the F-14s monitored activities around the vessel alongside combat air patrols, managing also to force the airliner carrying the terrorists that hijacked the ship to land in a NATO air base in Italy. During the “Tanker War”, an episode of the Iran-Iraq, the F-14 provided Navy vessels with combat air patrols and escort missions, alongside fighter cover during Operation Nimble Archer and Operation Praying Mantis.
The last scenarios where the F-14 saw action was in Iraq during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, where it provided combat air patrols in protection of naval and land forces deployed at sea and in Saudi Arabia, deterring Iraqi advances. Escort for attack aircraft, long range defence of naval assets, combat air patrols, and TARPS patrols were among the additional missions carried out by the Tomcats during the campaign, pinpointing SCUD launchers, and performing battle damage assessments. A single F-14 was lost due to a SAM missile, while an Mi-8 helicopter was the only air kill achieved by the Tomcat, as Iraqi air assets tended to flee when engaged by the Tomcat, being shot down by other fighters instead. After the 1991 Gulf War, Tomcats enforced no-fly zones and executed bombings with advanced ordnance, such as the GBU-24 Paveway III and GBU-10/16/24 laser-guided bombs, making use of the LANTIRN pod and of night vision systems for the first time. During the Second Gulf War and its aftermath, and during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Tomcats executed strike and CAS missions, deploying the JDAM bombs for the first time in combat and against high profile targets. They also acted as Forward Air Controllers for other air assets. Another scenario was in the Balkans, where the F-14 was also deployed, using laser-guided bombs and performing combat air patrol, escort, strike missions, Forward Air Controllers and TARPS tasks.
As Iran was a key US ally up until the 1979 Revolution, it received F-14s to ward-off Soviet MiG-25 reconnaissance flights over Iran. After the Revolution and the following Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian Tomcats saw extensive combat, scoring several air kills, reportedly 160, and managing to intimidate its adversaries, against the loss of 16 Tomcats due to combat and accidents. This was an impressive feat as the Tomcats were not operational and crews lacked training and experience. Reportedly, Iranian Tomcats were escorting Russian bombers performing air strikes against ISIS in 2015, the last to remain in active service.
US Navy Tomcats were retired from service in September 2006, marking the end of an era to a plane that has reached an almost mythical fame in service. They were replaced by the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. 712 units were produced between 1969 and 1991, of which 79 were delivered to Iran in the second half of the 70’s.
The F-14 is composite-construction fighter, with aluminium around 25% of the structure and boron among its structural components, with glove-mounted wings, powered by 2 Pratt & Whitney TF-30-PA412A on the earlier F-14A, and 2 General Electric F-110-GE-400 on the F-14B and F-14D, located within two engines nacelles on either side of the aircraft. These engines are fed by two rectangular air intakes placed at each side of the fuselage, located right just aft of the second crewman’s position. These intakes are equipped with movable air ramps and bleed doors to regulate airflows and to prevent disruptive shockwaves. A bleed system was also installed to reduce engine power during missile launches. The nacelles and engine exhausts are widely separated by a flat area containing avionics systems. A small flat and rectangular radome, fuel tanks and the air brakes are also located midship. A fuel dump is located at the very rear. It has machined frames, titanium main longerons and light alloy stressed skin, with the center fuselage possessing fuel-carrying capacity. The radome at front hinges upwards to allow access to radar.
Although the shape of the Tomcat’s airframe significantly contributed to its lift and light maneuverability, it was still one of the largest and heaviest fighter in service with the US Navy. Another outstanding characteristic of the F-14 is the geometrically variable wings, which are swept and can variate from 20° to 68°, and up onto 75° to overlap the horizontal stabilizers and facilitate storage in the aircraft carrier hangars. The wings can be automatically or manually varied inflight and by the Central Air Data Computer, that gives the variation according to the speed. The wings on asymmetric configuration manage to keep the plane flying and to land; even landings with an angle of 68°in case of emergencies. At high-speed interception, they are entirely swept back, while in low-speeds they are swept forwards. The wing pivot points in the wing gloves are spaced enough to allow instalment of weaponry by a pylon on each side, and the centre of lift moved less, reducing trim drag, at the point of allowing the required high-speed of 2.0 Mach. There are no ailerons and wing-mounted spoilers provide control during roll. There are full-span slats and flaps. The superior and inferior surfaces of the wings are of titanium, with the wing carry-through is a one-piece electron beam-welded aluminium alloy structure with a 6.71m span. Fins and rudders are of light alloy honeycomb sandwich. The aft part of the Tomcat is also where the two twin tails are placed, right at the top of the engine nacelles, in the middle, and with the horizontal stabilizers placed side to side of the aft area of the nacelles. The tails have multiple spars, honeycomb trailing-edges and boron/epoxy composite skins. The landing gear is of the characteristic tricycle type, with the forward gear being beneath the nose, and the rear gears which are retractable, located at the “shadow” of the wings. This area was reinforced in order to withstand with the force that landing and taking-offs from aircraft carriers usually require. An arresting hook is placed beneath the rear fuselage area, in a small ventral fairing.
The cockpit is placed at the forward fuselage of the fighter, having two seats in tandem where the crew consisting of a pilot and radar intercept officer are seated. The seats are Martin-Baker GRU-7A ejection seats. Flight controls are hybrid analog-digital type with the pilot being the one only in charge of controls. The avionics within the cockpit comprise of a Kaiser AN/AVG-12 HUD along a AN/AVA-12 vertical and horizontal situation display, communications and direction-finders embedded in the AWG-9 radar display, the Central Air Data Computer (CADC) made by GarretAiResearch with a MOSFET-based Large-Scale Integration chipset MP944. This is reportedly one of the first chip microprocessors in history. In addition, a Northrop AN/AXX-1 Television Camera Set (TCS) for long-range target identification, mounted in the undernose pod and having two cockpit selectable Fields of View (FOV), which replaced the original AN/ALR-23 IRST with idium antimonide detectors. This device allows pilots to visually identify and track objectives within distances of 97 km (60 mi). Information gathered from the pod can be recorded by the Cockpit Television System (CTS). An AN/ALR-45 radar warning and control system, a Magnavox AN/ALR-25 radar warning receiver, a Tracor AN/ALE-29/39 chaff and flare dispenser device, which is installed at the very rear, and a Sanders AN/ALQ-100 deception jamming pod. The canopy is a bubble-shape that provides 360° view, being beneficial in air-to-air combat, which is complemented and enhanced by a set of four mirrors for each crew member.
The wings do not carry any weapon stations, but the wing pivot point beneath the wing glove and the fuselage itself are the areas where the payload is carried. The normal configuration of weaponry was 4 AIM-54 Phoenixes, 2 AIM-7 Sparrows and 2 AIM-9 Sidewinders, but this configuration varied depending of operational needs. In addition, bombs such as Mk-80 free-fall iron bombs, Mk-20 Rockeye II cluster bombs, JDAM precision bombs and Paveway laser-guided bombs were also part of the payload, mainly in case of CAS and strike/attack missions. AGM-88 HARM and AGM-84 HARPOON were tested and deemed possible for use in the Tomcat. For close-quarter-combat, the F-14 is fitted with an internal multi-barrel M61A1 Vulcan Gatling gun of 675 rounds, located at the left area of the nose. TARPS pods for reconnaissance, LANTIRN targeting pod and 2 external fuel tanks are also among the payload that the Tomcat could carry in missions.
The F-14 Tomcat owes its exceptional performance to the combination of powerplant, avionics, the swept variable wings and the fuselage. For instance, the relatively wide airframe provided the Tomcat with 40-60% of its aerodynamic lifting position in conjunction with the wings, thanks to the structure’s components that reduced weight while increasing resistance to G forces. In addition, the range, payload, acceleration and climb were enhanced by these factors. The engine gave the Tomcat remarkable acceleration, speed and climbing characteristics, with a maximum speed of 1,584 mph (2548 km/h). The wings also provided good capability, such as variable speeds, enabling the Tomcat to accomplish a wide array of missions, and better capacity to hold at a designated area for a prolonged period of time. Agility is also a strong suit for the Tomcat, being able to perform high-performance maneuvers, thanks to the pitch authority resulting from the design of the airframe. The deadly and spectacular characteristics of the F-14 are complemented by the very capable and advanced avionics systems that enabled it to carry out its missions, enhanced by the aforementioned improvements in this area. The Hughes AN/AWG-9X radar with integrated Identification Friend-Foe (IFF) can track up to 24 targets thanks to the Track-While-Scan (TWS), Range-While-Search (RWS), Pulse-Doppler Single-Target Track (PDSTT), and JAT (JAT). 6 targets located within distances of up to 97km (60 mi) can be engaged through the TWS while devising and executing fire control solutions for these targets. While the Pulse-Doppler mode allows firing of cruise missiles thanks to the same radar detecting, locking and tracking small objects at very low altitude. For self-defence and situational awareness, the F-14 is fitted with electronic countermeasure (ECM), Radar Warning Receivers (RWR) which could calculate direction and distance of enemy radars and even to differentiate between the varied types of radars, chaff/flare dispensers, a precise inertial navigation system, and fighter-to-fighter data link. These were complemented later by the installation of a GPS device to enhance navigation. Upgrades in avionics allowed the F-14 to depend less on USAF AWACS or other air assets with target designators, as during Desert Storm and the interventions in the Balkans the Tomcat depended of other air assets to identify its targets.
The Tomcat’s capacity to receive upgrades along its flight and combat capacities were made evident during its service time, as new avionics were fitted in the early 90’s, and as the Tomcat in American and Iranian hands was capable of scoring and outperforming adversarial air assets, let alone their capacity to damage and sink naval assets and AA assets of the adversary. It even managed to avoid missile fire and to retaliate under US Navy service, with the exception of the one unit that was shot down during Desert Storm.
A legendary and fearsome cat beyond the screens: naval power in the air
Grumman has had a tradition of designing and building some of the most legendary and almost unmatched naval fighters in history, like the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The F-14 Tomcat was a continuation of such traditions, being considered the best naval interceptor built ever made. It also honored its predecessor, the venerable Phantom F-4 II, as it maximized US naval power by taking it into the air. Like an enraged cat protecting its territory and even fighting back, it was able to defend the aircraft carrier groups and the airspace it was ordered to defend, and even to strike back against its aggressor when needed. Its sole presence was so imposing that after Iraqi air assets suffered heavily at the hands of the Tomcat with both the U.S. and Iran, they usually elected to flee when Tomcats were detected. But like a cat ambushing its prey, the enemy air assets fled from the Tomcat only to be destroyed by other fighters. The Libyans and Syrians who opened fire with their SAM missiles against the Tomcat had to watch in shock how the Tomcats paid them back either by attacking the AA themselves or by directing fire against such positions. What is more astonishing is that losses from SAMs were almost zero, with only one F-14 lost during Desert Storm. In other incidents, the missiles never scored a hit. The Tomcat also let its might to be felt during the series of crises between the US and Libya in the 80’s, destroying 4 fighters and delivering a heavy blow to Libyan naval assets and AA artillery. Even downgraded versions of the Tomcat, facing limited supplies and logistics, managed to yield very impressive performance. During the Iran-Iraq War it scored a large number of air kills with few losses of its own, evidencing that even with trimmed claws, it was able to terrify and eliminate its prey.
But the F-14 was also able to impose itself without firing a single shot. When not hunting, it was able to guard the skies and waters it was tasked to protect. It managed to monitor the surroundings of a hijacked cruise line ships, and to force an airliner carrying the terrorists who hijacked the vessel to land in a base where they were apprehended. It also enforced the no-fly zone over Iraqi skies after the First Gulf War and punished the Serbians hard along with other air assets during the Kosovo intervention. It also intercepted aircraft that were a serious threat for its aircraft carriers. The Tomcat was also an avid sentinel, as it executed very effective and successful surveillance of enemy territory and assets.
The Tomcat was further immortalized in the movie Top Gun, where it was the main star of the film. Despite this well-deserved fame and exceptional performance, the Tomcat saw service only until the early days of the 21st century, as it was deemed “outdated” given its age, and was admittedly very expensive to maintain, operate, and upgrade. Like the F-15, it was a product of the experiences the US faced during the Vietnam War. Considering the performance the Tomcat had and its very active service throughout its career, it fulfilled its purpose. If the Tomcat were further modernized with the proposed versions by Grumman, it could have been an overhauled Cold War-era air asset still able to deliver a powerful punch in the modern era. Yet financial restrictions and the emergence of new technologies doomed this fighter to be retired from service sooner than its half-brother the F-15. The mark it left in aviation and history will be hardly matched in the future: many remain as monuments or museum pieces, as a memory from a bygone era. The remaining Tomcats still in service are those of Iran as of this writing.
F-14 Prototypes (YF-14A) – The first 12 F-14A were used initially as prototypes. Two were lost during trials.
F-14A – It is the first basic version of the Tomcat, powered by two Pratt & Whitney TF-30-P412A turbofan engines, and equipped with the AWG-9 radar for the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles originally intended for the F-111B. This version received upgrades in electronics, such as AN/ALR-67 Countermeasure Warning and Control System (CWCS), a LANTIRN pod and Programmable Tactical Information Display, improved engines, and a Digital Flight Control System which enhanced flight safety and control in the 90’s, and new precision strike munitions. 478 F-14A models were delivered to the US Navy, with 79 delivered to Iran. The 80th F-14A intended for Iran was delivered to the US Navy instead. There were plans for replacing the TARPS pod with a TARPS Digital Imaging System.
F-14B (or F-14+ / F-14B Upgrade or “Bombcat”) – Both an upgraded version of the F-14A and also a very limited new-built version of the same airframe, initially denominated as F-14A+. The previous engine was replaced with new General Electric F-110-GE-400 engines, enhancing capability and maneuverability while eliminating throttle restrictions or engine trimming, and even the need for afterburner launches. The avionics were similar to that of the F-14A except in the newly acquired advanced ALR-67 Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW). Further avionics were fitted during a life extension and upgrade program, including: Fatigue Engine Monitoring System, AN/ALR-67 Countermeasure Warning and Control System, Gun Gas Purge redesign, Direct Lift Control/Approach Power Compensator, AN/AWG-15F Fire Control System, Engine Door Tension Fittings and an Embedded GPS Inertial (EGI) navigation system. Other upgrades comprised a MIL-STD-1553B Digital Multiplex Data Bus, programmable multi-Display indicator group, another AN/AWG-15H fire control system, a AN/ALR-67D(V)2 Radar Warning Receiver, and Mission Data Loader, among others. It took part in the 1991 Gulf War. Further upgrades packages made the airplane to be denominated also a F-14B Upgrade “Bombcat”. 48 F-14A airframes were upgraded to the F-14B standard, while 38 new F-14B examples were manufactured. The upgraded airframes were denominated as F-14B after a proposed enhanced F-14B interceptor was rejected.
F-14D Super Tomcat – This was the final version of the legendary Tomcat, after the F-14B version was restricted by the Navy, prompting further modifications and upgrades to existing airframes and building some new ones under this standard. It was powered by 2 General Electric F-110-GE-400 engines, which provides the fighter with a higher top speed, improved thrust and quicker response. It also provided more endurance and striking range, increased climb rate and no need to use afterburner, although safety concerns were the main reason for this. New avionics were installed in this version, including a more powerful AN/APG-71 radar, better controls and digital displays that facilitates better control and navigation by automation and simplicity, decreased Weapon Replaceable Assemblies (WRA), new signal processors, data processors, receivers and antenna. IRSTS and the Air Force’s Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) were installed, enhancing security of digital data and voice communication and providing accurate navigation capabilities. A proposed new computer software to allow operation with AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles was considered but not implemented. In the mid 2000’s, a Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER III) upgrade was fitted in some F-14D airframes. 37 new units were built and delivered, while 18 F-14A were modified to the new standard. This was the most capable and powerful version of the Tomcat.
F-14B interceptor versions and F-14C – The F-14B was intended to be an enhanced version of the previous F-14A with better Pratt & Whitney F-401 turbofan engines that was rejected. The F-14C was a proposed enhanced version of the F-14B (or F-14A+ for clarity) with better avionics and weapons, better radar and fire control systems. Although rejected, many of the intended improvements were later on incorporated in other operational versions. A proposed enhanced interception version based on the F-14B to replace the Convair F-106 Delta Dart was also cancelled.
F-14D Super Tomcat (proposed) improved versions
These were proposed versions of the F-14D by Grumman to the US Navy and Congress, which were ultimately rejected.
F-14D Quickstrike – A proposed enhanced version of the F-14D Super Tomcat fitted with navigational and targeting PODS, additional hardpoints and a radar with ground-attack capacities, intended to replace the then retiring Grumman A-6 Intruder.
F-14D Super Tomcat 21 – As the Quickstrike was rejected by the US Congress, Grumman proposed the Super Tomcat 21 version as a cheaper version to the Navy Advanced Tactical Fighter programme. Among the proposed improvements were a better AN/APG-71 radar, new and more powerful General Electric F-100-129 engines capable of providing supercuise speeds of up to 1.3 Mach and having thrust vectoring nozzles, along enhanced control surfaces and fuel capacity. They would have improved takeoff and landing approaches at lower speeds.
F-14 Attack Super Tomcat – It was reportedly the last of the Super Cat proposed enhanced versions, with even more improvements in control surfaces, fuel capacity and an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar from the also cancelled McDonnell-Douglas A-12 Avenger II attacker.
F-14 Advanced Strike Fighter (ASF) – Another rejected proposed version proposed under the Navy Advanced Tactical Fighter programme, as it was deemed too costly. The Navy then decided to pursue the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
United States of America
The US Navy was the main operator of the Tomcat, which began operating it in 1974 in squadrons VF-1 “Wolfpack” and VF-2 “Bounty Hunters” embarked in the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. It began operations during the American evacuation of Saigon, being also very active in performing fleet defence interceptions especially in the North Atlantic, escorting many Soviet bombers and maritime reconnaissance airplanes. During the Lebanese Civil War it executed combat air patrols and TARPS missions to detect targets for naval gun fire. Noteworthy to point out that it began its career also as a photo-reconnaissance platform, as it replaced the RA-5C Vigilante and RF-8G Crusaders in such missions. Tomcats were attacked by Syrian air assets and AA without any losses and often fleeing once engaged by the F-14s. It also had a very limited role during the failed operation to free the American hostages in Iran.
Libya and the Mediterranean Sea was one of the areas where US Navy-operated Tomcats saw intensive action, as incidents and tensions between the US and Libya were common during the 80’s. The F-14s contained and pushed back Libyan air assets, as they managed to shoot down 2 Sukhoi Su-22 Fitters and 2 MiG-23 Floggers, and even to outmaneuver 2 incoming MiG-25 Foxbats. They also managed to destroy two Libyan naval units and damage another two, whilst additionally taking out several SAM sites. It was during these incidents that the F-14 proved its value and capacities, by successfully defending the aircraft carrier group, avoiding enemy fire and even returning fire. The F-14s were also active in Somalia, where they were attacked by mistake, and in Grenada, where they supported intervention on the island. The F-14 also had a remarkable anti-terrorist action, as it monitored activity near the hijacked Italian cruise Achille Lauro, and then managed to intercept the Egyptian airliner carrying the terrorists that hijacked the cruise ship, forcing it to land at a NATO air base in Italy, where the terrorists were apprehended by Italian and American security forces.
The Persian Gulf was another area where the US Navy Tomcats saw a good share of action, with the combat air patrols and escort missions it provided to US air and naval assets, as well as with fighter cover during two retaliatory operations after Iran attacked and threatened commercial and US Navy vessels. With the First Gulf War, Tomcats executed combat air patrols protecting allied forces in the area and preventing a potential Iraqi incursion into Saudi Arabia, along with escorting attack aircraft, long range defence of naval assets, combat air patrols and TARPS patrols. Tomcats also identified individual SCUD missile-launchers. During this conflict, a single F-14 was shot down by a SAM missile, with one of the crew falling prisoner to the Iraqis. The F-14 managed to score a single air kill, a Mi-8 helicopter, as its sole presence usually prompted Iraqi air assets to flee, only to be shot by other American air assets in the area, such as the F-15. In the period between the 1990 and 2003 wars, it enforced the no-fly zone and took part in punitive air strikes against Iraqi assets as well, using advanced ordnance like GBU-24 Paveway III and GBU-10/16/24 laser-guided bombs, and making use of the LANTIRN pod and night vision technology for the first time. Further CAS and strike missions were executed during the Second Gulf War in 2003 and afterwards, using JDAMS bombs for the first time against important military and governmental targets, acting also as Forward Air Controllers for other warplanes. In Afghanistan they had similar missions, spearheading Operation Enduring Freedom and taking off from the Indian Ocean in some of the longest range missions for Tomcats.
And a final area where the Tomcats saw considerable action was in the Balkans, where they used laser-guided bombs, conducted combat air patrols, escorts, strike missions, Forward Air Controllers and TARPS missions. As they were not fitted with LANTIRN pods, F/A-18s had to assist in pinpointing the designated targets.
The first US Navy female pilot had her first flight in an F-14 Tomcat.
The US Navy retired the F-14 from service in 2006, with its role being taken now by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
Iran is the only foreign operator of the F-14 Tomcat, as it received 79 units in the late 70’s thanks to its strategic alliance with the US in the region during the Cold War and up until the Iranian Revolution of 1979. They saw extensive action in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, engaging Iraqi air assets on numerous occasions. It is reported that the Iranian Tomcats scored 160 air kills, which included: 58 MiG-23, 33 Dassault Mirage F-1, 23 MiG-21, 23 Su-20 and Su-22, 9 Mig-25, 5 Tu-22, 2 MiG-27, one MiL Mi-24 helicopter, 1 Dassault Mirage 5, 1 B-6D (Xian H-6), 1 Aerospatiale Super Frelon helicopter, and two unspecified aircraft. The only losses in combat were 3 Tomcats downed by Iraqi air assets and 4 losses from SAMs, 2 that disappeared and 7 that were lost to non-combat incidents. During this conflict, the F-14 Tomcat demonstrated its capabilities, at the point of intimidating and deterring the Iraqi Air Force, and despite being a downgraded version of the Tomcat in terms of avionics. By 2015, an estimated of 20-30 airframes remained on active duty with the Islamic Republic Iran Air Force (IRIAF), and were reported to escort Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers carrying out bombing against ISIS terrorists’ positions.
64 ft / 19.55 m (wings extended)
38 ft / 11.65 (wings swept)
62 ft / 19.1 m
16 ft / 4.88 m
565 ft² / 52.49 m²
2 x General Electric F-100-GE-400 afterburning turbofans
Maximum Take-Off Weight
74,350 lb / 33,720 kg
43,735 lb / 19,838 kg
61,000 lb / 27,700 kg
over 45,000 ft/min (230 m/s)
At high altitude: Mach 2.34 ( 1,544 mph / 2,485 kmh )
575 mi / 926 km for combat radius; 1,840 / 2,960 for ferry
Maximum Service Ceiling
50,000 ft / 15,200 m
2 (pilot and radar intercept officer)
1 X 20mm M61A1 Vulcan 6-barrel rotary cannon
10 hardpoints – six under the fuselage, two under the nacelles, and two on the wing gloves, all allowing up to 6600 kg (14,500 lb) of ordnance and fuel tanks. The payload was varied in deployment and type, usually being 6 AIM-7 Sparrow, 4 AIM-9 Sidewinder and/or 6 AIM-54 Phoenix (and MIM-23 Hawk in the case of the IRIAF). Up to 6622 kg (14,599 lb) of air-to-ground were also carried, including Mk 80 free-fall iron bombs, Mk 20 Rockeye II cluster bombs, Paveway laser-guided bombs, and JDAM precision-guided munition bombs. 2x 267 1010 l fuel tanks were carried as well.
The fighter/naval interceptor had avionics both part of its structure and carried in the hardpoints. Among those at the hardpoints were the TARPS and the LANTIRN targeting pods. Among its onboard avionics were a Hughes AN/APG-71 radar, an AN/ASN-130 inertial navigation system (INS), Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) and Track Control System (TCS). It also had a AN/ALR-45 and AL/ALR-67 (F-14D) RWR, a AN/ALQ-167 ECM pod and a AN/ALQ-50 towed decoy (the two last ones in the F-14D).
United States (1956) Air to Air Missile – Over 200,000 Built
The Sidewinder is a supersonic, heat seeking, air to air missile for use by fighter aircraft. The missile was originally developed for the U.S. Navy for fleet defense, but was subsequently adapted for wider usage by the U.S. Air Force. The AIM-9 achieved the first successful combat use of a guided air to air missile. It has become the most used missile by Western air forces, with it’s low cost and reliable track record. Its code word is “FOX-2,” which refers to the launch of an infrared guided missile. The Sidewinder is estimated to have 270 aircraft kills. An example of the current unit cost of one Sidewinder is $603,817 for one AIM-9X Block II (2015).
The AIM-9 Sidewinder is the world’s most successful short-range air-to-air missile, and will remain the U.S. military’s main “dogfight” AAM until at least 2055.
In the 1950s the United States Navy went about developing a short range air to air missile that could be used during combat. The missile was originally developed by the United States Navy at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California. William B. McLean were experimenting with proximity fuzes sensitive to infrared heat. Being involved in R&D, it was not officially sanctioned for their office to develop weapons. As such their ‘intelligent’ fuze was kept under wraps and developed by volunteers using spare parts for several years, with the ultimate goal of building a heat seeking air to air missile. The final design featured a gyroscopic mirror spinning at around 4,000 RPMs behind a glass cover on the front of the missile. It utilized a lead-sulfide detector as it’s ‘eye’ which kept the assembly focused on the infrared source of the target. Issues with roll and target tracking were overcome with the invention of ‘rollerons’ which were wheels mounted to the tail fins of the missile to stabilize it in flight. The guidance section utilized circuits comprised of 14 tubes and 24 moving parts, a remarkable achievement in the 1950s.
After it became clear that its new technologies offered superior performance over the USAF’s own AIM-4 Falcon, the Air Force began using the Sidewinder on most of its combat aircraft.
The first kill from a Sidewinder missile was on September 24th 1958, when F86 Sabers belonging to The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) ambushed a flight of MiGs belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PLAAF) during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis .
During this conflict, one AIM-9B struck one of the PLAAFs MiG-17s without detonating, enabling the pilot to safely bring the aircraft back to base. The Soviets used this to reverse engineer their own copy of the Sidewinder, dubbed the Vympel K-13 or AA-2 Atoll (NATO).
AIM-9s were used extensively in Vietnam by the USAF and the US Navy. The two services combined scored 82 air to air victories out of 452 Sidewinders fired, resulting in a kill probability of 18%. Sidewinders of this period often flew up into the exhaust of their targets before detonating just aft of the wing.
Today though various upgrades and variants the AIM-9 is being used by most Western countries, with many more equipped with the Soviet copied K-13.
The missile’s primary components consist of an infrared guidance section with active optical target detection, a high explosive warhead, and rocket motor. The principles of the infrared guidance allow it to ‘home in’ on a target aircraft’s exhaust heat signature. The missile’s seeker must be cooled to extremely low temperatures to achieve effective operation. This operation makes the missile a ‘fire and forget,’ and relatively immune to electronic countermeasures.
Early versions of the missile had to be fired at the rear of the target to maintain an effective lock. The seventies saw the introduction of the AIM-9L which was capable of “all aspect” usage, meaning it could be fired at a target from all directions. This even meant that a target could be engaged head-on, a factor that has since significantly impacted aerial combat doctrines.
The Sidewinder is also capable of being equipped to rotary wing aircraft, such as the AH-1 SuperCobra. AIM-9Xs have also been successfully tested against ground targets and have proven useful against light ground targets.
AIM-9B – The first joint service production version of the Sidewinder, utilizing an uncooled detector with thermionic (i.e. vacuum tube circuits) and possessing a top speed of around 1.7 mach, making its combat debut in 1958.
AIM-9D – The first Navy version implemented numerous changes and upgrades. The seeker head was now cooled and the warhead size was more than doubled to 25 lbs. The 9D and all other subsequent models could achieve speeds of 2.5 mach or above. The 9D also achieved dozens of kills during Vietnam.
AIM-9E The first USAF version, utilizing a peltier electronic cooling device for its seeker head, meaning that the seeker could remain in continuous operation during flight. It also integrated a few solid state components into the guidance section. The canards were changed to a square tip double delta arrangement to improve angle of attack performance. Around 5,000 9Bs were rebuilt as 9Es. The 9E achieved six kills during the Vietnam period.
AIM-9G – The 9G was an upgrade of the 9D for the Navy, utilizing a Sidewinder Extended Acquisition Mode (SEAM) allowing the missile to be slaved to the onboard radar or helmet sight.
AIM-9H – This version was a further evolution of the 9G produced in the early 70s and seeing limited use during Vietnam. It retained the G’s optical system, but the electronics were upgraded to solid state. A thermal battery replaced the previous turbo alternator. It also had an increased tracking rate and stronger actuators. The 9Hs fired in Vietnam reportedly had the best kill rate of any missile of the period.
AIM-9J – The Juliet was developed from the 9E for use by the USAF in the early 70s, and saw changes to the forward canards, offering incremental improvements in maneuverability, speed, and range. 6,700 built and widely exported.
AIM-9L – The first ‘all-aspect’ Sidewinder. With the introduction of the Lima in 1976, the missile was once again a joint-service model, developed from the 9H and capable of hitting a target from any direction, including head on. Characterized by a now standard natural metal finish on the guidance control section, it first saw combat with 2 US Navy F-14 Tomcats shot down 2 Libyan Su-22 Fitters in the Gulf of Sidra in 1981. In the Falklands conflict it saw large scale use by the United Kingdom, achieving an 80% kill ratio as compared to the Vietnam era versions with around a 15% kill ratio.
AIM-9M – An evolution of the Lima with upgrades only to the guidance section, improving capabilities against infrared countermeasures and ‘background rejection.’ The Mike was first deployed in 1982. Subvariants of the Mike include versions for the Navy and Air Force and were the mainstay of the USAF and USN short range AA capability from the 80s to the introduction of the 9X.
AIM-9R – The 9R was a prototype project that began in the late 80s that aimed to introduce digital imaging and programmable software into the guidance section allowing for aiming of the vulnerable area of a target. The R was being developed by the Naval Weapons Center and had flown live fire trials until the early 90s when its funding was cut in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
AIM-9X – In the mid eighties the Soviet Union developed and deployed successful infrared countermeasures (IRCM) that reduced the effectiveness of existing Sidewinders. After various stalled efforts in the late 80s, the U.S. began working with Raytheon and Hughes on the 9X during the 90s. Upon introduction in 2003 the 9X ushered in Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) compatibility, allowing a pilot to lock on to a target simply by looking at it. This capability drastically increases combat effectiveness, along with “Lock-on After Launch” capability which allows for use in internal launch bays such as the F-35 and F-22.
The F-15 Eagle is beyond any doubt one of the most famous air superiority fighters of the second half of the Cold War, and a worthy successor of the also famous McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom. For instance, its predecessor was designed to be a fighter with attack capabilities for any weather condition, and the same concept was taken into account when developing the Eagle, only that it was intended mainly for air superiority. Interestingly, and despite the F-4 being a naval plane for most of the part, the F-15 would be a combat eagle on use by the USAF. There is also another thing both planes have in common, despite being the Phantom already in combat and the Eagle yet to be developed: the Vietnam War. As it happens, high number of casualties made the US Navy and the Air Force, along with the influence of Secretary of State Robert McNamara, to look for new models to replace the existing ones, including the Phantom. The introduction of the Mig 25 Foxbat provided the final argument in favour of the development of a new aircraft for air superiority. And with while the Navy would ultimately incorporate the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the USAF decided to go for its own fighter, resulting in the F-15, being the counterpart of the Tomcat and taking the Mig-25 as inspiration in terms of performance, to say the least.
The F-15 Eagle is single-seat – or double seat in tandem in certain versions – twin-engine all-weather tactical fighter/air superiority fighter with attack and bombing capabilities, with cantilever shoulder-mounted wings. As it was briefly mentioned, the Vietnam War gave way for its requirement given the high losses to soviet-made aircraft (often old models) back in 1964, with 1968 being the year of requirements issuing and 1969 the year when development of the Eagle began. The main requirement was for the new fighter to be of air superiority and having secondary attack capacities. McDonnell Douglas was the company that awarded the requirements, thus developing the Eagle from the abovementioned year and flying the first prototype in 1972. NASA, in addition, came to take active part in the development of the F-15, especially on its mission requirements, at the same time of the development by the industry contractors.
The Eagle became to be one of the most advanced fighters of the times, clearly fulfilling its mission as it is considered the best air superiority fighter. The secret of its effectiveness and resilience lies on its structure, which is made of metal and then titanium at most of its components, and the empennage made of composite materials – twin aluminium/composite material honeycomb – and the vertical stabilizers made of boron-composite skin. This allowed the tails and the rudders to be very thin yet resistant. The wing also plays its role in bestowing the flying and combat capabilities of the F-15, as this has a cropped delta shape with a leading-edge sweepback of 45 degrees. There are no leading-edge flaps, and the trailing edge – or posterior area of the wing – is having ailerons and a simple high-lift flap. As a result, the wing’ low loading allows the F-15 to be very manoeuvrable without sacrificing speed in the process. The powerplant (two Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-100 turbofans engines with afterburners) and the avionics also play a role in providing the F-15 with its exceptional qualities: The former by bestowing speeds of up to 2.5 Mach and a good time/altitude ratio, the latter by allowing the crew to track and engage targets at distanced up to 160 km (87 miles) and targets at very low and high altitudes.
The F-15 has proven to be a platform capable of receiving structural and avionics/electronics improvements, further enhancing its combat and flight capabilities, with new radars, computers, weapons controls and armament type, powerplants (Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW-220), warning and navigation systems. The F-15 could even receive low visibility technologies, proving the adaptability and capacity of the aircraft to incorporate the latest technologies, as it is the case of the proposed F-15SE Silent Eagle, where its weapons carrying capabilities are proposed to be equally upgraded. This version could co-operate with 5th generation air assets, let alone to almost operate like one.
The F-15 has witnessed action not only in the air campaigns waged by the USA in the Middle East, the Balkans and Central Asia, but also with other air forces, being the Israeli Air Force where the F-15 have had similar combat intensity, and the Saudi Air Force making some considerable use of their F-15s. With the USAF, the F-15 on its different configurations achieved air superiority by shooting down many air assets of Iraq in air-to-air combats or in the ground, as well as to inflict a serious damage to Iraqi military and governmental infrastructure, contributing at a great extend to the sound victory of the Coalition in 1991. The F-15 even managed to destroy a low flying helicopter with a laser guided bomb. The F-15 kept a watch in enforcing the established no-fly zones after this conflict. The Balkans were another scenario where the F-15s made their presence to be felt, by pounding Serbian ground targets and even scoring 4 enemy kills (Serbian Mig-29s). The Second Iraq War, Afghanistan and strikes against ISIS saw the F-15E mainly in action, attacking important targets on these three scenarios, and even providing Close Air Support (CAS) for the troops in the ground.
With the Israeli Air Force, it achieved its first air-to-air kill, establishing then Israeli air superiority over the skies of Lebanon and against Syrian air assets. It had seen use also as a long-range striker and as a platform for attacking specific targets. Saudi Arabia also had some air kills in the 80’s and during Operation Desert Storm, using the F-15s nowadays to strike important targets in Yemen.
As of now, the F-15 is still in service and production (by Boeing, as McDonnell Douglas was absorbed by this company), with the USAF considering to operate with this fighter until 2025 or 2040 at the latest, and production to be maintained until 2019. So far, 1074 units have been produced (by 2012).
The F-15 is an all metal (later on aluminium) semi-monocoque fighter with a shoulder-mounted wing, powered by two engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW-100 (F-15A, F-15B and F-15C) or F-100-PW-220 (F-15DJ and F-15 J), or F-100-PW-229 (F-15E). Two engine air intakes are located at each side of the fuselage, starting from the half area of the cockpit with a intake ramp configuration. The wings have a characteristic shape of a cropped delta shape with a leading-edge sweptback of 45 degrees, starting at nearly half of the wing. It lacks of manoeuvring flaps at the leading edge, having only a simple high-lift flap and ailerons at the trailing edge. As the wing has a low loading with high thrust-to-weight ratio, the F-15 can perform tight turns without any loose of speed, capable also of sustaining high G forces. Noteworthy to point out that the airfoil thickness has a variation of 6% at the wing root, to 3% at the wingtip. The empennage is made out of metal, with the two vertical stabilizers made out of honeycomb twin aluminium and composite materials covered with boron-composite skin, allowing them to be thin but very resisting. This means that the F-15 has two tails, the same way as the Grumman F-14 and the Mig 25. The horizontal stabilizers also have a remarkable characteristic of their own, as they have dogtooth within their structural shape, being able to move independently thus increasing control. The aerodynamic brake is located on the top of the fighter’s structure, behind the cockpit. The landing gear is a retractable tricycle. Noteworthy to point out that the F-15E lack of the typical exhaust petals covering the engine nozzles.
The cockpit is placed high in the frontal part of the aircraft, featuring a one-piece windscreen and a large canopy, allowing a full 360 degrees visibility for the pilot. In most F-15 variants the canopy is designed for one pilot. However, the F-15B, F-15D, F-15DJ and F-15E have a canopy designed for a crew of two: a pilot and a weapons officer in the case of the F-15E, and the student and instructor in the case of the training versions.
The wings and the same structure of the fighter allows it to carry a large number of weaponry and other devices. Among the weaponry normally carried by the F-15, there are AIM-7F/M Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAM, AIM—9L/M Sidewinder, as well as the M61 Vulcan Gatling gun at the right wing root. Other armament the F-15 is usually armed with are a varied array of free-fall and directed bombs, rockets, air-ground or anti-ship missiles, such as the AGM-84K SLAM-ER, AGM-84H Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles, AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile JASSM, AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles, and AGM-154 JSOW missiles. ECM pods, external fuel tanks and low-drag conformal fuel tanks (CTFs), which are attached to the sides of the air intakes and cannot be dropped, are usually among the additional equipment carried by this fighter.
The avionics of the F-15 allow an optimal operationalization of the armament carried by this fighter, as well as its navigation and combat-electronic performance and multi-mission capabilities. Among the avionics of the F-15, it could be accounted: Heads Up Display (HUD), the advanced pulse-Doppler Raytheon radars APG-63 and APG-70, the AN/ASN-109 Inertial Guidance System, the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), ECM pods, Hazeltine AN/APX-76 or Raytheon AN/APX-119 IFF device, Magnavox AN/ALQ-128 Electronic Warfare Warning Set (EWWS), Loral AN/ALR-56 radar warning receiver and a Northrop-Grumman Electronics System ALQ-135 internal counter-measures system. All of these comprise the electronic brain of the fighter, which in combination with the powerplant, the aerodynamics and the weapons systems, makes of the F-15 an outstanding air asset that can achieve supreme control over the skies it operates.
As the design of the F-15 allows adaptation and upgrades, all of the versions were receiving gradual upgrades in avionics and engines, being the F-15E the most prominent. Yet some versions operated by other air forces, such as the Israel Air Force and the Republic of Korea Air Force can receive electronic and avionics components developed by those nations, proving that the Eagle is entirely adaptable to receive technology other than of its country of origin. And its versatility allows combat conversions, explaining why a single airframe can have air superiority, attack or electronic warfare missions, deciding the outcome of any campaign either in the skies or the ground.
An Eagle Not to Mess With
The F-15 has proven to be a very powerful asset and a though adversary for those obliged to face it, feeling the powerful strike of the F-15. It has a suitable name that makes honour to its combat capabilities, which have been proven in action from the year it was unleashed. During the 1991 Gulf War and the aftermath, the F-15 achieved air superiority and delivered hard blows to the Iraqi military assets, by scoring 32 fixed-wing aircraft as confirmed kills (Iraqi fighters, fighter/bombers, transport airplanes and trainers that fell under the claws of the F-15), and 4 helicopters as kills. Many of these kills were achieved in air-to-air combats or simply by attacking the Iraqi air assets on the ground, being involved also in the hunt for valuable targets or by watching the skies over Iraq and the Balkans. In the hands of Israel and Saudi Arabia, the F-15 Eagle scored 41 and around 4-5 air kills respectively. With Israel, the F-15 left a deep impression on those that were targeted by its bombs. In the Balkans, the F-15 scored four air kills and equally contributed to pound the Serbian military facilities at Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo.
The Eagle began the 21st century with more capabilities to increase its striking power, as well as seeing more combat in the light of the 9/11 attacks and the campaigns against terrorism. During the Second Iraq war of 2003, the Eagle once and again delivered precision strikes that decimated Iraq’s combat capacities. During the Afghan campaign, it attacked key Taliban and terrorist targets, at the point of even supporting the troops on the ground, and in recent years, it contributed at weakening the military power of Libya during its own Arab Spring, as well as striking important targets in the anti-terrorist campaign over Syria, Libya and Iraq. The F-15 Eagle has been on active duty basically during its entire operational life, being at the very first line.
The Eagle, as a last, could be able to destroy the eyes above the skies, as it was used for experimental tests where it fired a two-staged anti-satellite missile, proving capable for doing so. It has more than fulfilled the requirements set for its development after the nasty experiences of the Vietnam War, war that gave birth to one of the most powerful and memorable birds in all the history of aviation, being the Eagle a milestone by itself.
F-15 Prototypes Series – These series comprised at least 12 different airframes (2 F-15A-1; 3 F-15A-2; 2 F-15A-3; 3 F-15A-4; 1 two-seat F-15B-1 and 1 two-seat F-15B-2), each having a specific purpose during development, like testing the engines, the avionics, the structure, armament and fire control systems, external payload, electronic warfare systems, and even test and demonstrations tasks.
F-15A – The first series and operational version of the Eagle, being a single-seat all-weather air superiority fighter version. 384 units delivered.
F-15B – Two-seated training version that received once the denomination TF-15A. 61 units delivered.
F-15C – An improved version of the single-seat and all-weather superiority fighter version, receiving the last 43 units AN/APG-70 and AN/APG 63(V)1 radar. 483 units delivered.
F-15D – Another two-seat version for training purposes. 92 units delivered.
F-15E Strike Eagle – The all-weather strike version, as its name indicates, and equipped with conformal external tanks. Optimized for ground attacks, it was one of the main air assets used by the Coalition in Iraq in 1991, by NATO during the Balkans campaigns, the USAF in the second Iraq War, and on neutralizing combat capacities of terrorist groups. introduced in 1987.
F-15J – Japan Air Self Defence Force version of the single-seat and all-weather air superiority fighter. 2 units made in the USA, and 139 built under license in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
F-15DJ – Japan Air Self Defence two-seat version for training purposes. 12 units built in the USA, and 25 built under license in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
F-15SE Silent Eagle – A proposed version with stealth capabilities by reducing the radar cross-section, having also new and specific avionics to be incorporated. This version has given way to the following versions:
F-15I Ra’am – Version for Israel and thus operated by the Israeli Air Force with the name of Ra’am or ‘Thunder’. It has two seats and is for ground-attack missions, fitted with Israel-made electronics, including Sharpshooter targeting pods for night-time attacks, Elisra SPS-2110 radar warning receivers, a new central computer and GPS/INS system. Furthermore, the Display and Sight Helmet (DASH) allows the incorporation of all sensors, enhancing targeting. The APG-70I radar allows access to hard targets on the ground, capable also of detecting airliner-size target at distances up to 280 km (182 miles) and a fighter-size target at 104 km (64 miles). It will receive structural reinforcements, AESA radar and new weaponry. Around 25 units.
F-15K Slam Eagle – Version for the Republic of Korea (South Korea), with 40% of the airframes comprised of South Korean-made components, including wings, fuselage, avionics, electronics and licence-built engines, with Boeing in charge of final assembly. A first batch was received in 2005 with 40 fighters received, followed by a second batch of 21 units ordered in 2008, having the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engines. This version has its own particularities, just like the F-15I, with an AAS-42 infra-red search and track device, a customized Tactical Electronics Warfare Suite aiming at reducing weight and enhancing jamming effectiveness, cockpit compatibility with NVG, and VHF/UHF radio with a Fighter Data Link system. Moreover, it is fitted with an advanced APG-63(V)1 mechanical-scanned array radar, upgradable to AESA radar, and having a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System. The armament is pretty ‘unique’ as well, as it carries AGM-84K SLAM-ER, AGM-84H Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles, and AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile JASSM (a low observable standoff and long range cruise missile).
F-15S and SA – Variant supplied and developed for Saudi Arabia, with the F-15S having the AN/APG-70 radar and General Electric F110-GE-129C. The F-15SA will incorporate fly-by-wire flight control technologies (that will allow the carriage of weaponry on the unused wing stations, APG-63(V)3 AESA radar, digital electronic warfare systems, infra-red search and track systems and a redesigned cockpit.
F-15SG (or F-15T) – Version operated by the Republic of Singaporean Air Force (RSAF) with 24 units. These units operate with AIM-120C and AIM-9X missiles, GBU-38 JDAM bombs and AGM-154 JSOW missiles, complemented with NVG and Link 16 terminals, powered by General Electric F110 engines.
F-15QA – 72 units that will be delivered for the Qatar Air Force.
F-15H Strike Eagle – A proposed version for Greece (H stand for Hellas, the Greek name of the country) that did not advanced further, as the Greek government chose instead Mirage 2000-5 and F-16.
F-15G Wild Weasel – A proposed two-seat version to replace the F-4G in Suppression of Enemy Air Defences tasks, but the F-16 received such capabilities, and the F-15E was capable of carrying anti-radar missiles, like the AGM-88 HARM, thus performing SEAD roles.
F-15N Sea Eagle and F-15N-PHX – A carrier capable version proposed in the early 70’s as an alternative to the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The F-15N-PHX was also a proposed naval version for the US Navy, capable of carrying the AIM-54 Phoenix missile. As naval versions, these featured structural reinforcement at the wingtips, the landing gear and a tailhook for carrier operations. These versions would never see action as the US Navy decided to carry on with the Tomcat.
F-15 2040C – A proposed upgrading programme for the F-15C to enable co-operation with the F-22, with characteristics similar to those of the F-15SE and having more air capabilities and combat power. Infra-red search and track, instalment of quad racks (increasing the missile carriage up to 16), Passive/Active Warning Survivability System, conformal fuel tanks, upgraded radar (APG-63(V)3 AESA, and a Thalon HATE communications pod for co-operation with the F-22 are among the proposed upgrades.
F-15 Streak Eagle – A research unit without painting and avionics, which broke time-to-climb records. Now part of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
F-15 STOL/MTD – Another experimental unit for short-take-off/manoeuvre technology demonstrator, incorporating canards before the main wings, thrust-vectoring nozzles, and vectorised engine thrusts.
F-15 ACTIVE – A modification of the F-15 S/MTD with thrust vectoring nozzles for advanced flight control research. The acronym ‘ACTIVE’ stands for Advanced Control Technology for Integrated Vehicles. NASA, Pratt & Whitney, United Technologies, the USAF, West Palm Beach and McDonnell Douglas Aerospace are in charge of the program. This unit is powered by Pratt and Whitney F-100-PW-229 engines fitted with modified axisymmetric vectoring nozzles
F-15 IFCS – Conversion of the F-15 Active into a research aircraft for intelligent flight control systems.
F-15 MANX – Intended tailless variant of the F-15 Active that was never materialized.
F-15 Flight Research Facility – Two F-15 A acquired by NASA (Dryden Flight Research Center) for Highly Integrated Digital Electronic Control, Adaptive Engine Control System, Self-Repairing and Self-Diagnostic Flight Control System, and Propulsion Controlled Aircraft System experiments.
F-15B Research Testbed – Used by NASA (Dryden Flight Research Center) for flight tests.
United States of America The F-15 is operated mainly by three services or institutions in the United States. One is the USAF, which operates around 255 F-15 of the C/D versions, with the Air National Guard being the second service and operating 140 of them. In addition, the USAF operates 213 F-15E. Many of USAF F-15 saw extensive action in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Iraq in 1990 and 1991. On these operations, F-15 of C and D versions gained air superiority, killing 5 Iraqi Mig-29, 2 Mig-25, 8 Mig-23, two Mig-21, 2 Su-25, 4 Su-22, one Su-7, six Mirage F1, one Ilyushin Il-76 cargo airplane, one Pilatus PC-9 trainer, and 2 Mil-8 helicopters. In the 1999 Kosovo campaign, four Serbian Mig-29 were scored as kills by the F-15C.Meanwhile, the F-15E’s hunted SCUD launchers, engaged against Iraqi Mig-29 fighters and even shot down a Mil-24 Hind with a bomb, losing only two units. Iraqi air assets were also destroyed by the F-15E, as well as enemy armoured assets in Kuwait, engaging also in operations intended at killing Saddam Hussein. Operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch, which followed in the aftermath of the Gulf War, saw the F-15E enforcing the no-fly zone, managing to cause one Iraqi helicopter – a Hind – that was attacking a Kurdish site to crash. They also destroyed SAM sites and radars, as well as command and control sites, radio communications and relay stations, and radars. They also executed surveillance and reconnaissance, mission practicing and even strikes against the Iraqi Republican Guard and Baath Party HQs (Operation Southern Watch).In the Balkans, the F-15E were used to strike Serbian targets in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo mainly against armour, logistical, and air defences weapons and facilities targets of Serbia, where it executed for the first time, stand-off attacks with the AGM-130 missile. Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom saw the deployment of USAF F-15E for the second time in Iraq and in Afghanistan, following the 9/11 attacks. In Afghanistan, the F-15E engaged in strikes against Taliban and terrorist targets – military structures, supply depots, training camps, and caves – as well as in CAS missions, where they gave support fire to a SEAL team whose helicopter was shot down. In Iraq, in turn, the F-15E attacked key military and governmental sites, airfields – 65 Migs destroyed – and decimating 60% of the Iraqi Medina Republican Guard.Libya, Syria and Iraq are the areas the USAF F-15E are currently in action, attacking ISIS terrorist training camps, facilities, command and control facilities and even vehicles and trucks. But the USAF utilization of the F-15 did not stopped there, as in fact made the Eagle capable of firing anti-satellite missiles from 1984 to 1988, although on an experimental basis.The older F-15C and F-15D models are to be upgraded and to be operated beyond 2025, while the A and B versions were retired after being operated by the Air National Guard. They are intended to be gradually replaced by F-22 and F-35.NASA is the third US operator with a single unit for experimental purposes.
Israel Israel is another operator of the F-15, which have seen extensive action with the Israel Air Force since 1977. Among its inventory, Israel has F-15A, F-15B, F-15C, F-15D and F-15I, where the F-15 scored its first ait-to-air kill over the skies of Syria by Israeli ace Moshe Melnik. They also saw extensive action over Lebanon, taking down 13 Mig-21 and 2 Mig-25 of the Syrian Air Force. They also escorted the F-16I during Operation Opera, an Israeli strike against an Iraqi nuclear plant, and during the Lebanese Civil War, the Israeli F-15 scored 23 Mig-21, 17 Mig-23 and one Gazelle SA.342L helicopter as air kills. They also attacked a terrorist headquarters in Tunis in 1985, as Israel was the first one in exploiting the air and ground capabilities of the F-15 as well as its range. The F-15I, in turn, can operate Israeli-made infra-red homing missiles in coordination with a helmet mounted sight, as well as air-to-air missiles.
Japan Japan is another prominent operator of the F-15, as it has license-built version that fulfil its own requirements. The Japan Air Self-Defence Force therefore operates 12 F-15DJ for training purposes, and nearly 155 F-15J for their standard role of air superiority and ground-attack.
South Korea The Asian nation has enrolled 58 F-15K Slam Eagle, defeating very capable fighters such as Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Sukhoi S-35 during the selection program process for a new fighter. The Korean F-15 incorporate many electronics and avionics components made in South Korea, as well as enhanced radars and other equipment, being mostly assembled in South Korea.
Singapore 40 F-15G are operated by the Republic of Singapore Air Force.
Saudi Arabia The Middle East Kingdom received 75 F-15C and F-15D, seeing action for the first time in 1984, shooting down two Iranian F-4E Phantom II during an aerial skirmish. The Saudi F-15 would also see action in the 1991 Gulf War, killing two Mirage F-1 of the Iraqi Air Force, losing one during the conflict. Later on, Saudi F-15S have co-operated with Saudi Panavia Tornados in strikes against Houthi insurgents in Yemen, as part of Saudi-led efforts against this group, concentrating on air defence sites, army HQ, airfields, ballistic missile depots and launchers. A single F-15S was lost during the operation’s early stages. This nation has also received F-15SA.
13,05 m / 42 ft 10 in
19,43 m / 63 ft 9 in
18,6 m / 13 ft 5,63 in
56,5 m² / 608 ft²
2 X Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW-100 or PW-200 or PW-229 afterburning turbofans
Maximum Take-Off Weight
30845 Kg / 68,000 lb
12700 kg / 28,000 lb
20200 kg / 44,500 lb
more than 50,000 ft/min (254 m/s)
At high altitude: Mach 2,5+ (2665+ km/h / 1,650+ mph), At low altitude: Mach.1,2 (1450 km/h / 900 mph)
1967 Km / 1,222 miles for combat radius; 5550 Km / 3,450 miles on ferry
Maximum Service Ceiling
20000 m /65,000 ft
1 X 20mmM61A1 Vulcan 6-barrel rotary cannon
11 hardpoints – two under-wing with each having a pair of missile launch rails, four under-fuselage, and a central pylon station – that could allow up to 7300 kg (16,000 lb) of payload and provisions. This payload could be carried in combination of: 4 X AIM-7 Sparrow; 4 X AIM-9 Sidewinder; 8 X AIM-120 AMRAAM; or 3 external fuel drop tanks of 2300 lts (600 US gallons) or 1 MXU648 Cargo/Travel pod to carry personal belongings or maintenance equipment.
Among the avionics of the fighter, that complements its armament and allows a maximization of use and combat, the F-15C has: Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS); Raytheon AN/PG 63 or AN/PG 70 radars; Northrop-Grumman Electronics system ECM pod; Hazeltine AN/APX-76 or Raytheon AN/APX-119 IFF device; a Magnavox AN/ALQ-128 Electronic Warfare Warning Set (EWWS); a Loral AN/ALR-56 radar warning receiver; a Northrop-Grumman Electronics System ALQ-135 internal counter-measures system; and chaff/flares.