We thought this International Cat Day is the “purrfect” opportunity to highlight some of our flying, fighting “felines” in naval aviation’s history.
Is there anything that you would add to our list? Let us know by commenting at the bottom of this blog.
The F6F Hellcat went from the experimental stage to operational employment in less than 18 months. Its combat operations began in August 1943 in an attack on Marcus Island by Fighting Squadron (VF) 5 aboard USS Yorktown (CV 10). Outperforming the famous Japanese A6M Zero, the F6F accounted for 5,156 enemy aircraft destroyed, 75 percent of the Navy’s air-to-air victories.
The F9F Panther was introduced in November 1947, but it wasn’t until May 1949 that the first production models were delivered to the Navy’s Fighter Squadron (VF) 51. The Panther saw its first combat on July 3, 1950, flying strikes from USS Valley Forge (CV 45). During the Korean War, the F9F was used extensively by both Navy and Marine squadrons, notably scoring the first jet vs. jet kill in U.S. Navy history, Nov. 9, 1950.
The F9F-6 Cougar was introduced in 1953 as the swept-swing successor to the F9F Panther. The Cougar was intended for combat over Korea, but arrived too late for the war. The Cougar saw its sole combat in Vietnam, where four two-seat training versions of the aircraft served briefly as forward air control aircraft. On April 1, 1954, F9F-6s accomplished the first transcontinental flights to be completed in less than 4 hours; training variants of the aircraft were used until 1974.
Dating back to its initial combat missions during Vietnam and spanning to its most recent combat missions in the Persian Gulf, the F-14 Tomcat played a vital role in naval aviation.
The Tomcat entered operational service with Navy fighter squadrons VF-1 Wolfpack and VF-2 Bounty Hunters aboard USS Enterprise (CVN 65) in September 1974. The F-14’s purpose was to serve as a fighter interceptor, eventually replacing the F-4 Phantom II Fighter, which was completely phased-out in 1986.
Although its dogfighting superiority had already been made clear through simulated training missions, the F-14 was first tested in combat operations in August 1981. While on patrol outside Libya, two F-14As were fired upon by two Libyan Sukhoi SU-22s. The Tomcat pilots safely maneuvered from a defensive position to an offensive one before engaging and destroying both SUs.
Four years later in 1985, F-14s were called upon in response to the hijacking of an Italian cruise ship. The terrorists, who were from the Palestine Liberation Organization, attempted to make an escape after going ashore and boarding a Boeing-737 commercial airliner. Tomcats from VF-74 and VF-103 were launched from USS Saratoga (CV 60) to intercept the 737. The terrorists, realizing they were no match for the Tomcat’s air-to-air attack capabilities, allowed the airliner to safely land in Sigonella, Sicily.
In 1989, the Tomcat was once again challenged by Libya when two MiG-23 Floggers engaged two F-14As from VF-32 that were flying combat air patrol missions from aboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67). The MiG-23s were determined hostile and the eight-minute engagement resulted in the downing of both Floggers.
During its first 17 years of operational service in the Navy, the Tomcat played a vital role as an interceptor with its air-to-air capabilities. However, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, where there was more need for air-to-ground abilities, the need for the Tomcat’s air-to-air capabilities diminished.
Despite its many upgrades over the years, from the F-14A, to the F-14B, and finally the F-14D with its powerful GE F110 engines and more sophisticated weaponry and surveillance equipment, it appeared the Tomcat’s days were fading fast.
However, this state of uncertainty wouldn’t last for long. Shortly following the Persian Gulf War, Navy leaders decided to devise removable bomb racks for Tomcats to allow them to carry MK-80 “dumb” bombs. The Tomcats were also given the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) targeting system to allow for delivery of laser-guided bombs. With its new upgrades the Tomcat’s were soon dubbed “Bombcats.”
During the proceeding years, the F-14s took on a new, more effective role as a fighter-bomber.
In Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia, the Tomcats delivered laser-guided bombs while other aircraft painted the targets with lasers. The Navy was credited with 30 percent of the kills against forces in Kosovo as a result of the bombing performance of the Tomcat.
The F-14 also demonstrated its ground attack capabilities in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2002, VF-14 led the first long-range tactical air strike, flying more than 1,700 miles round trip to Mazar-e Sharif, destroying Taliban aircraft on the ground. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Tomcats lived up to their “Bombcat” nickname with their air-to-ground missions, continuing to save the lives of coalition ground forces.
The Tomcat’s long, storied chapter in naval aviation history came to a close July 28, 2006, with its final aircraft carrier flight operations after more than 32 years in the fleet, making room for F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.
The final aircraft carrier operational launch for Tomcats happened aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) when aircraft No. 112 from the “Tomcatters” of Fighter Squadron (VF) 31, piloted by Lt. Blake Coleman and Radar Intercept Officer Lt. Cmdr. Dave Lauderbaugh, made its way down catapult No. 3.