A chapter in naval aviation history drew to a close Feb. 8 aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) with the last recovery of an F-14 Tomcat from a combat mission.
Piloted by Capt. William G. Sizemore II, commander, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8, Fighter Squadron (VF) 213’s aircraft 204 was trapped at 12:35 a.m. and marked one of the final stages of the Navy’s transition from the F-14 to F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.
“It’s the end of an era and it just kind of worked out that I was the last trap,” said Sizemore. “This is one of the best airplanes ever built, and it’s sad to see it go away. It’s just a beautiful airplane. It’s powerful, it has presence, and it just looks like the ultimate fighter.”
Lt. Bill Frank, a VF-31 pilot, also took part in the last mission, and is credited with being the last pilot to ever drop a bomb from an F-14 Tomcat.
“We were called on to drop, and that’s what we did,” said Frank. “It’s special and it’s something I can say I did, but what’s more important is the work of the Sailors who made it possible. They have worked so hard during this cruise to make every Tomcat operational.”
The decision to incorporate the Super Hornet and decommission the F-14 is mainly due to high amount of maintenance required to keep the Tomcats operational. On average, an F-14 requires nearly 50 maintenance hours for every flight hour, while the Super Hornet requires five to 10 maintenance hours for every flight hour.
“I don’t think there is anything better than a Tomcat, but it’s probably a good time for it to go away,” said Senior Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate (AW) Gene Casterlin, VF-31. “The Navy is getting smaller and more efficient, and it will only get harder to maintain the Tomcat. But no matter what, the Tomcat is the sexiest airplane in the sky.”
The F-14 entered operational service with Navy fighter squadrons VF-1 Wolfpack and VF-2 Bounty Hunters aboard USS Enterprise (CVN 65) in September 1974. The Tomcat’s purpose was to serve as a fighter interceptor, and it eventually replaced the F-4 Phantom II Fighter, which was phased out in 1986.
During their final deployment with TR, VF-31 and 213 collectively completed 1,163 combat sorties totaling 6,876 flight hours, and dropped 9,500 pounds of ordnance during reconnaissance, surveillance, and close air support missions in support of OIF.
“As we near the end of the Tomcat’s last deployment, we are proud of our legacy and take solace in the fact that the Tomcat is going out at the top of its game, but also regret saying farewell to an old, revered and trusted friend," said Cmdr. Richard LaBranche, VF-31 commanding officer.
In keeping with its history of being adaptable to new challenges, the Tomcat soared to a new level during its last deployment when it became the first Navy aircraft to make use of the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receivers (ROVER) system in December of last year. The system allows for ground forces to view video via laptop computers which gives them the ability to view their surroundings from the aircrafts’ point of view in real time, and ultimately provides better reconnaissance and target identification, which are essential to combat air support missions in Iraq.
Previously, ROVER had been used by the Air Force, and with a few modifications from personnel of Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., and members from Naval Air Depot Jacksonville, Fla., it became one of the last great modifications to the Tomcat.
"From its inception, the Tomcat has been the icon of Naval Aviation with its striking appearance, speed, formidable lethality and versatility,” said LaBranche. “It is more capable today than at any other time during its existence because of the innovation, dedication, and tenacity of every maintainer and pilot who has ever been associated with it.”
VF-213 pilots who are making the transition to the Super Hornet will begin F/A-18F (double seat) training in April, and the squadron will be operational, or “safe for flight,” in September. VF-31 pilots who are making the transition will begin F/A-18E (single seat) training in October, and the squadron will be safe for flight in April 2007. This will make VF-31 the last official Tomcat squadron in the Navy.
Maintainers in both squadrons will be begin training to perform their specific maintenance job as it pertains to the Super Hornet, shortly following this deployment. Their training will last anywhere from six weeks up to seven months, depending on the type of maintenance skills involved.