Thirty years ago, Tom Cruise took lead billing in the summer blockbuster “Top Gun” — but the real star of the film was another Tom, a wing fighter called the F-14 Tomcat that was built at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in Bethpage for the U.S. Navy. This plane served the military for more than 30 years before it was retired in 2006.
On Thursday, an F-14 Tomcat Tribute and Reunion will take place at the Cradle of Aviation in Garden City rounding up all the living architects, pilots and programmers who make up its history.
“The F-14 was designed as a fleet air defense fighter that would be deployed upon aircraft carriers and used to intercept incoming hostile targets such as big bombers or cruise missiles,” says Dennis Romano, 73, of Westhampton, a former Northrop Grumman vice president and F-14 radar intercept officer. “The idea was for it to get far away from the aircraft carrier and shoot down the bad guys before they could launch an attack on the carrier itself.”
ABOUT THE TOMCAT
The F-14 debuted in late 1970 as a revolutionary airplane because of its capabilities. It could fire six missiles to six different targets simultaneously and provide air-to-ground strike abilities with a radar range of 150 miles. And it was fast: Controllable wings allowed for swift maneuverability and travel at more than twice the speed of sound.
“The F-14 was truly untouchable in its day,” says Mike Ciminera, 78, of Port Washington, a former Northrop Grumman vice president who worked on the F-14 program. “It was a remarkable aeronautical achievement. The F-14 could have gone toe-to-toe with anything the Soviets had at that time.”
FLYING THE F-14
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in the cockpit, just ask pilot Winston Scott, 65, of Melbourne, Florida, who flew in an F-14 from 1980 to 1992.
“It’s a lot of force being exerted on again and off again to your body. Physically, it’s very taxing,” says Scott, who is also a NASA astronaut who flew two space shuttle missions. “You are always thinking ahead about what you are going to do next. It’s as much cerebral as it is physical.”
“Top Gun” showcased the F-14 in all its airborne action scenes with Cruise portraying the talented but cocky naval aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
“The film represented the aircraft’s ability to maneuver and do high-speed runs,” says Hank Janiesch, 82, of Center Moriches, the former F-14 Program vice president. “It was a great display of what the F-14 was capable of doing.”
Filming took place at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego and Vice Admiral Walter E. “Ted” Carter, Jr., 56, of Annapolis, Maryland, who is the current superintendent of U.S. Naval Academy and graduate of the Topgun U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, served as Cruise’s escort for his first day on set.
“Tom was very interested in what made us want to fly in a jet,” Carter recalls. “He fell in love with that speed and embraced the whole spirit of the environment.”
Flying an F-14 is a two-person job. The main pilot sits in front, and the second seat is for the officer who operates the radar and fire-control navigation systems.
“Air combat is very visual. The guy that loses sight, loses the fight,” says Romano. “Having four eyeballs looking out for the enemy plane is helpful.”
At the Cradle of Aviation, visitors can see F-14 on display in the hangar, which happens to be the very plane Romano few many years ago.
“It has my name on the canopy rail,” says Romano, who will speak at the dinner along with Carter, Scott, Janiesch, Ciminera and Mike Rabens, former Topgun pilot and Northrop Grumman flight test director. “I’m looking forward to seeing old friends at the reunion and telling some war stories. It will be a good time.”