If you asked me in my pre-teen years, I am pretty sure I would have said the F-14 was the coolest of them all. Sure, maybe the F-15 was the king of the skies and maybe the F-16 was the nimble one that could fly circles around everything. And the F-18? Well, I guess some people liked the F-18.
Of all of the teen fighters, there was just something special about the Tomcat. It was more than a combination of speed, missiles, and swing wings. Or the fact that the gargantuan thing could actually land on a boat. There was a certain style or an aesthetic grace to that plane that the others simply could not match.
In all sorts of media, the Hind was the ubiquitous bad guy of the 1980s. But the Tomcat was the big Hollywood action star of the airplane world; right up there with Sly, Arnold, Norris and Willis. After a relatively quiet beginning in the mid-70s it made it’s feature film debut in 1980 and became the go-to fighter for toys, movies, shows, merch and video games.
The Tomcat was on lunchboxes and on tshirts. It was featured in Tom Clancy novels and was most definitely the marquee performer at all air shows. Hell, the Tomcat probably had as many posters as Brooke Shields! I had one featuring a big F-14 coming in for a carrier landing. Yup, I loved me some Tomcat.
And then? Well, this happened:
The F-16 may have had some intimate scenes with a cut Louis Gossett Jr. but the Tomcat starred in the biggest military themed summer blockbuster of all time. It shared screen time with a pre-insane Tom Cruise. A feat that’s impossible to achieve now. If you thought the F-14 was all that and a bag of jalapeño & cheddar potato chips before Top Gun; after that movie the Tomcat was a cultural phenomenon. Everyone loved it. And when it wasn’t doing red carpet interviews for ET, it showed ‘ol Mumar Gaddafi what was what in the Mediterranean. As far as Joe and Joanne Public were concerned, when it came to fighter planes there was the Tomcat and miles below it was everything else.
Except that events in the early 1990s through to the 2000s showed us that maybe, just maybe, the F-14 was a bit more Hollywood than true aviation hero when it came to air superiority. To understand why that might have been the case, it helps to know why the Tomcat was built.
The F-14 Tomcat: A purpose design.
Rising out of the ashes of the Navy’s involuntary participation in the TFX program, the new design F-14 eventually emerged as the best solution to a serious problem for the US Navy. Starting in the late 1960s the biggest threats to carrier groups were the ever improving Soviet long range maritime bombers carrying very fast conventional and nuclear anti ship missiles. The Tomcat was designed to intercept and destroy these bombers before they could launch their ship killing missiles.
Long range interception was the primary requirement of the Tomcat and it was perfectly designed to do it. However, the Navy also needed a plane that could escort strike aircraft and, you know, do all that air-to-air Top Gun stuff. It seemed the Tomcat could also do these things, as that fun loving Gaddaffi would tell you. In fact, there were a lot of very clever design features that went into the aircraft. Just take a look at the back of one and you will realize the entire plane is a flying surface. There is an excellent seminar on the design of the F-14 here. I highly recommend it.
That said, the Tomcat never seemed to get opportunities to really strut its stuff like the F-15 did (and still does to this day). Its for this reason there are some who feel that the reputation of the F-14 was never earned despite all of the fame and adulation. For instance, the F-14 took a back seat during the shooting portion of the 1991 Gulf War. But this was because the Navy was still very much a cold war force and had not yet developed systems to integrate with the Airforce and participate joint air operations. As well, due to the volume of friendly aircraft operating over Iraq and Kuwait, there were strict rules of engagement requiring positive identification before shooting. The F-15 had onboard systems to identify enemy aircraft but the F-14 needed clearance from E-3 Sentries. This limited the areas where the F-14 could operate. The F-15 was free to fly anywhere and scored almost all of the victories in the Gulf War.
So, yes, it may not have padded its stats like its Airforce cousin but the F-14 never really got the chance to do so either. It was designed for a different purpose and thankfully the Tomcat never fired a shot in this primary role. Because if it ever had do, we would have much worse things to worry about than which fighter airplane earned its fame or not.
The Tamiya F-14A Tomcat
As a kid I built several versions of the Tomcat starting with the Snap-Tite Monogram in 1:72 and the bigger Revell kit (or was it Monogram?). I thought that kit was bitchin’ because there were these little ‘vanes’ that popped out of the front part of the wing as you swung the wings back. This was a feature only on the very early A models of the Tomcat. Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of this early kit but I am almost positive this existed.
By the end of my building days as a kid I was far more interested in World War 2 props, but I can still remember eyeing a newish boxing of a Hasegawa F-14 in 1:72 that had “photo etch” parts in it! Lamentably in hindsight, there were other important things catching my eye at about that time and I left scale models for a long while. I can still remember that F-14 box though. I always wanted to build it.
Flash forward to 2016 when Tamiya released this bad boy. I only have a vague recollection of seeing the Final Countdown as a kid but I love that USS Nimitz paint scheme. Skulls, black tails and stripes? Yes please! Its like the Tomcat is wearing a tuxedo.
My strategy in finishing this kit was simple. I wanted to finish it in the very colours and in a style that I would have loved as a 13 year old kid: Clean with a just a hint of panel wash. Very much in the ‘Tamiya Catalogue’ style that I loved so much. I also stayed away from aftermarket. This was going to be an OOB experience.
The cockpit of this kit is as well detailed as I have seen for an out of the kit box. With some careful painting, you can get a very nice result. I used a combination of dry brushing and pin washes to bring out the detail of this cockpit. I also posted a video showing how I did it here. If I were to do it over again, I think I would splurge on some aftermarket bang seats. The kit ones are not bad, but a good resin bang seat complete with harnesses would be miles better.
Builders have some choice in which shape the burner cans will be on their Tomcat. I decided to go with the tried-and-true approach of “one of each!” I followed the colour callouts supplied in the instructions and I was reasonably happy with the ‘factory new’ looking results.
Painting and Finishing
I love the classic look of the high visibility airplanes of the US Navy. That warm grey over white with all those colourful decals. It may be cliché, but as far as I am concerned the VF-84 Jolly Rogers Tomcat is the most appealing Tomcat of them all. Its certainly the one I picture in my mind when I think F-14. I started with a coat of gloss white on the bottom and I masked with white tack for a “soft” cammo line. For the Light Gull Grey upper, I did not go with the callout in the instructions. Instead, I found a very nice Tamiya mix on the internet and I highly recommend it:
I used the decal sheet, a scanner and my trusty silhouette cameo cutter to help me create a mask for the black semi circle around the front of the cockpit. I have always had issues with Tamiya decals so this time I went with a sheet from Furball decals. These were very nice decals that conformed nicely but the stars and bars were transparent. This was only an issue because I had to place them over the colourful banners on the front fuselage. Masking over decals is a very risky thing to do and any conventional tape would damage them. I thought of getting some airbrushing frisket but after discussing it with Jim Bates over on A Scale Canadian, I went looking for Post It Notes with a large ‘sticky’ area. And wouldn’t you know it? They make one that is fully sticky and perfect for masking over decals. All I had to do was cut a circle with the olfa cutter:
After all the decals were on, I used a dark grey panel line wash from Mig Ammo Washes to bring out the detail of the panel lines. The flat coat was my standard Vallejo Matt thinned with Windex. The stuff works wonderfully. I have the last video in the Tomcat series here or you can click below:
As you may already know, jets are not really my thing. But I did enjoy the results of this cold war jet build. This is the exact model of the Tomcat I would have wanted back in the day. I finished it in the clean Tamiya Catalogue style that initially attracted me to this hobby. That said, I think this will be my last conventionally finished airplane model. I am going to go for some more challenging builds and painting and I am fully prepared to fall on my face a few times. Stay tuned, there may be some hilarity ahead.
There seems to be some credible evidence to suggest the F-14 may have a significant number of air-to-air victories after all. Of course, given who is making these claims there are varying opinions on the true figure. No matter what, they certainly add more to the handful the US Navy inflicted in its 30 years of Tomcat operations. So take that, F-15!
As for the Hollywood star that was the F-14 Tomcat, some might argue that Iron Eagle sequels just kept coming one after another well after Top Gun. I can’t argue these facts. However, I think most of these movies used non-unionized ‘C’ actors, recycled flying sequences and may have been direct to video. I remember seeing a crap ton of them in dusty boxes in the off-brand video rental stores I had to frequent as a student.
Which makes those movies seem even sadder.