The last fully operational flying day of the Tomcat

Philip Stevens and Frank Grealish report on the last fully operational flying day of the Tomcat aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) in the Aegean on February 21, 2006.

On meeting Lt. William F. Kuebler, Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) at the port of Marmaris, Turkey, I asked what could I expect to see aboard the aircraft carrier the following day. His reply will remain in my memory for years to come. "Tomorrow [February 21, 2006] is a fully operational flying day, in fact the last ever for the Tomcat". He went on to say that the main event was a 19 aircraft launch involving all aircraft types that make up Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW-8).

The Final Tomcat Cruise
Everyone loves the Tomcat, the crew giving some final love and affection for an old friend. The F-14 requires 50 hours of maintenance for every flight hour, while the Super Hornet only requires five to ten hours of maintenance for every flight hour.

Everyone loves the Tomcat, the crew giving some final love and affection for an old friend. The F-14 requires 50 hours of maintenance for every flight hour, while the Super Hornet only requires five to ten hours of maintenance for every flight hour.

Despite being 30 years old the Tomcat is still a very capable aircraft, being subject to numerous upgrades to maintain its potency. Its life has been cut short due to its high maintenance costs when compared to the new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The F-14 requires 50 hours of maintenance for every flight hour, while the Super Hornet only requires five to ten hours of maintenance for every flight hour. The last combat mission flown by a Tomcat was ended on February 8 at 12:35 a.m. was flown by Capt. William Sizemore of VF-213 in 161159/AJ-204.

The F-14 was envisaged as an air superiority fighter and interceptor. It was designed to replace the F-4 Phantom II, its first deployment was onboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in September 1974. The upgraded F-14B was introduced in 1987 with the more powerful General Electric F-110 engines each producing 28,200 lbs. of thrust, and negating the need for afterburners during catapult launches. It has a maximum speed of Mach 2.38 or 1,544 mph.

The F-14D followed entering service in 1990, with digital avionics and the new AN/APG-71 radar system. It was not until the 1990's that the Tomcats role changed from being that of solely air-to-air to having an additional air-to-ground role. The 'Bomcat' as it was named at the time, first dropped 'dumb' bombs in August 1990; laser-guided bombs were to follow. In 1995 considerable improvements were made to the new digital avionics and weapon systems, including Low-Altitude Navigational and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system for the delivery of laser-guided bombs and an improved Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS).

The Tomcat during its final deployment became the first US Navy aircraft to use the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receivers (ROVER) system in December 2005. ROVER, already having been used by the US Air Force, allows ground forces using laptops, to view video of their surroundings transmitted by the Tomcats high above them in real time.

'Felix 101' F-14D Tomcat (164603/AJ-101) of VF-31 the 'Tomcatters', the last Tomcat squadron, about to depart on its final fully operational sortie. :: © Philip Stevens 2010

'Felix 101' F-14D Tomcat (164603/AJ-101) of VF-31 the 'Tomcatters', the last Tomcat squadron, about to depart on its final fully operational sortie.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt (TR) and known as 'Big Stick' was returning to its home port of Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia after a six-month cruise to the Arabian Gulf. The Carrier Strike Group was supporting operations 'Iraqi Freedom' and 'Enduring Freedom' as well as conducting Maritime Security Operations (MSO) in the Gulf. Their aim was to deny international terrorists use of the maritime environment as a venue for attack or to transport personnel or weapons, we were told.

Often described as the most dangerous working environment on the planet, flight deck operations are held under a very strict safety regime. As a photographer I was escorted at all times once on deck. The equipment issued during my safety briefing was, a cranial, ear defenders, goggles and a life jacket. Prior to going to the flight deck, I was warned to stay within the certain areas. Also, to not cross-designated lines, otherwise a 'foul deck' would be declared and I would be taken below.

This final comment certainly focused the mind. Should we to be caught by jet blast, I was advised to not run away, but to get down on one knee. If blown over you are to lie flat and whilst the jet blast might be hot, apparently it would not burn. The life jacket had a small hole in the back designed specifically to enable you to be pulled back easily. We were also warned not to use flash photography on the flight deck, as it could be a distraction to pilots and crew. Night Vision Goggles (NVG's) are used extensively at night and flash will cause the crew considerable discomfort to say the least.

Fine, I was now ready to go. During flight operations, I was frequently pulled and pushed down and generally manhandled in a very reassuring way, to ensure my personal safety. On the flight deck during operations taxiing aircraft can surround you, as they position to their allocated catapults. The flight deck is also very noisy and so hand signals are used when radio communication is not available.

The F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet are set to replace the Tomcat. Above: F/A-18C Hornet (164643/AJ-302) of VFA-15 'Valions'. :: © Philip Stevens 2010

The F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet are set to replace the Tomcat. Above: F/A-18C Hornet (164643/AJ-302) of VFA-15 'Valions'

CVW-8 comprises of around 85 aircraft:
Northrop Grumman F-14D Tomcats of Fighter Squadron (VF) 31 the 'Tomcatters'
Grumman F-14D Tomcats of Fighter Squadron (VF) 213 'Black Lions'
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornets of Fighter Strike Squadron (VFA) 15 the 'Valions'
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornets of Fighter Strike Squadron (VFA) 87 the 'Golden Warriors'
Lockheed S-3B Vikings of Sea Control Squadron (VS) 24 the 'Scouts'
Grumman E-2C Hawkeye's of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 124 the 'Bear Aces'
Grumman EA-6B Prowlers of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141 'Shadowhawks'
Sikorsky SH-60F/HH-60F Seahawks of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 3 the 'Tridents'
Grumman C-2A Greyhounds of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) 40 Detachment 1 the 'Rawhides'.



Teamwork
The crew pride themselves on total teamwork. There are seven groups of people working on the flight deck for easy identification each group wears a different colour jersey.
After a recovery phase, everyone joins in an intensive Foreign Object Damage (FOD) check of the flight deck. :: © Philip Stevens 2010

After a recovery phase, everyone joins in an intensive Foreign Object Damage (FOD) check of the flight deck.

White shirts are landing signal officers and safety observers,
Yellow shirts are catapult, arresting gear officers and traffic directors,
Blue shirts are tractor drivers and elevator operators,
Green shirts are aircraft maintenance and arresting gear crews,
Brown shirts are aircraft crew chiefs,
Purple shirts are refuellers and are known colloquially as 'grapes',
Red shirts are weapons handlers and crash crews.

The flight deck is 1,092 feet long covering an area of 4.5 acres, however the landing area is just 750 feet in length, with four arresting wires. For the recoveries I moved to the Landing Safety Officer (LSO) platform and was positioned just in front of the first wire. The LSO is responsible for making certain that the flight deck is clear and ready to receive aircraft. To create optimal landing conditions the carrier is steered into the wind, for some of our recoveries it resulted in impressive near 180 degree turn just minutes before the first recovery. 25 to 40 knots is ideal, with weaker wind speeds the ships speed is increased to compensate.

The pilots when landing their aircraft slam the aircraft on to the deck aiming for the third arresting wire. Pilots will select full power on landing as a precaution, should they miss all four wires and need to go around again. All landings are marked by the LSO and entered later on a board for all to see in the squadron crew rooms. At the LSO platform you are less than a 20mm wide angle shot away from the recovering aircraft. Shutter speeds and lens apertures need to be carefully considered, to freeze the action and ensure a sufficient depth of field.

At the end of a recovery, the Air Boss who is in charge of flying operations announces "Recovery Complete, - Great Job!" A review of my images later in the day confirmed whether or not I had done a great job, the close proximity of the aircraft means that panning is no easy task.

The 'Scouts' Final deployment
S-3B Viking (160602/AJ-706) of VS-24 'Scouts' returning to 'TR'. The S-3 Viking is a multi-role jet offering day and night surveillance, electronic countermeasures and air-to-air refuelling.

S-3B Viking (160602/AJ-706) of VS-24 'Scouts' returning to 'TR'. The S-3 Viking is a multi-role jet offering day and night surveillance, electronic countermeasures and air-to-air refuelling.

Whilst the Tomcat has naturally taken all the limelight regarding it's final cruise and eventual retirement, it should not go unreported that VS-24 'Scouts' S-3B's are also making their final deployment aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt prior to their planned disbandment in 2007. The S-3 Viking is a multi-role jet offering day and night surveillance, electronic countermeasures and air-to-air refuelling. Like the Tomcat it has seen over 30 years service and is due to be withdrawn in 2009.

TR Returns Home
USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived home on March 10, and four squadrons flew to NAS Oceana with two others departing to NAS Chambers Field. A mass fly past of 22 Tomcats marked this momentous occasion. During it's six month cruise, 5,412 sorties were flown amounting to 19,362 flight hours all in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Maritime Security Operations (MSO). The Tomcats of VF-31 and VF-213 completed 1,163 combat sorties totalling 6,876 flight hours. This cruise was TR's ninth deployment since it was commissioned in 1986.

TR is powered by two nuclear reactors, which produces steam to power everything from the catapults, heating the water for the crew to powering the turbines which propel the ship of speeds up to 30+ knots or 34.5 mph The ship carries enough nuclear fuel to last for 20 years; consequently TR is nearly due for her first refuelling. Her crew totals 5,700 of which 2,500 are assigned to the air wing.

On returning to their home land base of NAS Oceana VF-213 will work up on the two seat F/A-18F Super Hornet in April and should be operational or 'safe-for-flight' in September 2006. VF-31 will remain operational on the Tomcat till transitioning to the single seat F/A-18E in October and should be 'safe-for-flight' in April 2007. Until then there new slogan is, "The Last Cat Standing".
F-14D Tomcat of VF-31 (164603/AJ-101) depart from Catapult 3 on its final operational sortie. Tomcats don't need to use afterburners for take-off, unlike the Hornets   F-14D Tomcat in an Aegean sunset.

F-14D Tomcat of VF-31 (164603/AJ-101) departs from Catapult 3 on its final operational sortie. Tomcats don't need to use afterburners for take-off, unlike the Hornets.

 

F-14D Tomcat in an Aegean sunset.
 
 



Special thanks must go to everyone who assisted us during the embark and to those who made it all possible, especially to Lt. Christopher Servello, Lt. Fred Kuebler and to Lt. Justin Cole.


 

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