The F-14 Tomcat prototype crashed on its maiden flight December 21, 1970, and ever since then questions about safety have dogged the Navy’s frontline fighter/interceptor. Five F-14s, four of them based at Miramar, crashed in a single month last September. The crash of a Miramar-based F-14 in Arizona on January 27 of this year, which killed the pilot and RIO, destroyed the 102nd Tomcat of the 576 built since Grumman started producing the plane in 1971.
After Congressman Jim Bates called for congressional hearings last fall to examine the crashes, he received a letter from H. Lawrence Garrett, undersecretary of the Navy, ostensibly defending the F-14’s safety record. “Since fleet introduction in 1973, the F-14 crash rate is 8.87 destroyed or lost aircraft per 100,000 flying hours,” Garrett wrote on October 6. “By comparison, 1988’s F-14 safety record has been excellent. Thus far this year, we have a rate of 5.65, a more than one-third improvement over the historical rate.” In other words, the Navy did well in 1988 because it only lost five instead of the usual six or eight F-14s.
Commander Bob Willard, the executive officer of VF-51 who has spent some 2400 hours flying the plane, believes the perception of the F-14 as accident prone is inaccurate. He says that compared to other high performance military jets, “we’re not losing an inordinate number of aircraft. There are periods of time when our accident rate has been excessive, and we may have to fall back and regroup and determine the reasons why. But historically, the F-14 is on a continually improving trend in terms of accident rates.”
So far, no pattern has been identified linking the six most recent crashes. In response to a question about the causes of the mishaps, Lieutenant Commander Bill Clausen replied, “The planes are getting old. A couple of the crashes involved system failures the crew wasn’t aware of. That one over El Cajon (last September 12) just had a total hydraulics failure, which hasn’t happened before. And a couple of the crashes resulted from just plain stupidity.”
The F-14, for all its advancements in avionics and weaponry, is still essentially 1980s technology. It’s considered a difficult plane to look good in because it is probably the last and most powerful fighter that will ever be built with an old-style mechanical system. Newer jets, such as the F-16, and the F/A-18, utilize a “fly-by-wire” system that connects the pilot’s controls to the aircraft control surfaces electronically, rather than mechanically. The newer jets have computerized override systems that won’t allow the pilot to push the plane far outside its flight “envelope.” The F-16’s joystick isn’t even between the pilot’s knees; it’s on the right side of the cockpit and looks very much like the joystick of a video game. Some aviation experts believe a “smart” system like this could save some F-14s and the men who fly them.
“First of all, the F-14 is a great airplane,” remarks Cdr. Willard, who will take over as commanding officer of the VF-51 this summer. “It performs well without a fly-by-wire system. But there are some arguments that it would be a safer airplane to employ at extremes within the envelope were it to have a smart system retrofitted into it. And there’s probably a pretty good argument for that happening. It would be expensive, though.” Interestingly, when the Soviet Union unveiled its newest fighter, the MiG-29, at the 1988 Farnborough Air Show in Great Britain, aviation authorities were surprised to discover that the jet did not employ a fly-by-wire system.
VF-51 will take delivery of the next generation Tomcat, the F-14D, within the next two years. The plane will have 21st-century avionics and more powerful, fuel-efficient engines, enabling it to take off from aircraft carrier catapults without the use of afterburners. In the meantime, while the squadron is between deployments, its jets are being modified. A part that has been cracking on the landing gear is being replaced, as is a turbine that helps pressurize the cockpit. And the planes are getting the “tough wing” modification by installation of stronger tubing connecting flaps and slats in the wings, which will increase the jet’s maneuvering capabilities.