"Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

Words & Photography: Kevin Jackson
Additional photography by Andre Jans and Roger Kemp

This quote, from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, came to mind as, on July 28, at 4:42 pm, the steam cleared from catapult 3 on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the mighty roar of the last ever Grumman F-14D Tomcat to launch from an aircraft carrier slowly dissipated over the vast Atlantic Ocean.

After 32 years of service it will be hard to imagine a carrier flight deck without Tomcats, but time has caught up with her and with just a further seven weeks of service left before the final Sunset ceremony in mid-September this day of final carrier operations had an awful inevitability about it.

Fighter Squadron (VF) 31 deployed eight Tomcats to the ‘TR’ as part of Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW-8) on July 18, the first time the Air Wing had been back on the ship since returning from their last Combat Cruise in early March. The purpose of the mini-cruise was two-fold, for the first three days at sea the goal was to get the pilots re-qualified for carrier operations as the TR and her Air Wing are still on-call to deploy at short notice until mid-September. Following Carrier Qualifications, the TR participated in Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFEX) 06-2 "Operation Bold Step" until July 28th. JTFEX 06-2 served as the forward-certifying event for the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) Carrier Strike Group, and sustainment training for units from the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Carrier Strike Group and USS Bataan (LHD 5) Expeditionary Strike Group. JTFEX 06-2 also serves as a significant training milestone toward U.S. 2nd Fleet’s staff certification as a Joint Task Force (JTF) headquarters, planned for 2007.

For Cmdr. Jim ‘Puck’ Howe, the Tomcatters Commanding Officer the final months of F-14 operations leave mixed emotions: "Bittersweet is a perfect term for this, as a career F-14 pilot since 1992, I would be much happier flying the Tomcat until the end of my days in the Navy. But instead we have to enjoy this as long as we can."

Asked to comment on the significance of being the final fighter squadron ‘Boss’ in the Navy, Cmdr. Howe added: "I don’t think it has really sunk in yet, it’ll probably be something I’ll look back at later in my life. I look at it as an honour obviously but right now I’m stuck in the day-to-day running of the squadron and making sure that my people and my jets stay safe. The best thing about the F-14 is it has always been about the people, the spirit of the community, whether it’s the aircrew. The maintainers, you just have to work a little harder to make it a lethal plane."

Cmdr. Howe continued: "It’s a cold war icon with modern day lethality, it represents all that our country used to battle, it was designed to defend the fleet against the Bears and the Badgers flying over the Russian horizon and now it’s morphed into the Close Air Support machine of choice in operations in Iraq right now."

With the Navy citing the increased maintenance needed to keep the aging F-14 combat ready it is somewhat ironic that in its final days the hard working and ingenious maintenance crews of VF-31 are keeping the jets in tip-top shape with record-breaking Mission Capable Rates still being achieved.

Maintenance Master Chief AFCM (AW/NAC) Paul E. Waldrop oversees the final months of Tomcat wrench turning and is justly proud of his troops: "I’ve been in F-14 squadrons where you’ll average 45-50 maintenance man-hours for every flight-hour, in this squadron we’re down to 30-35 man-hours per flight-hour so we’re doing a whole lot better. If you look at the airplanes on the hanger deck you’ll see that they don’t leak. My troops have put in a lot of work to achieve that. Yes, we have had a better supply of spare parts as other jets were cannibalised but I believe it is through the hard work and dedication of our wrench turners that the aircraft is going out on a high note."

At around 1pm on July 28 the honour of landing the last Tomcat on the TR fell to pilot Lt. Chris Rattigan and RIO Lt. Paul Dort, flying aircraft No. 110. The significance of the day was not lost on Lt. Rattigan: "We’re proud to be the Navy’s last fighter squadron, and especially the last squadron flying the F-14. There is a lot of pride in the VF-31 ready-room, which is why I think we’ve done so well and our jets have done so well, because everyone in the organisation is just thrilled to be the guys to say ‘Hey, we were the last Tomcat squadron, and we took it out on top."

So it was at 2pm on July 28 that the first five F-14s launched with other elements of CVW-8 and performed a short air power demonstration and formation flyby for the assembled crew of the Roosevelt, with the undoubted highlight being a low-level supersonic flypast by CAG Commanding Officer William Sizemore at the controls of ‘Felix 100’. Cmdr Howe led the formation flyby in ‘Felix 101’. This left just three F-14Ds on the ship to depart, with aircraft 112- flown by Lt. Blake Coleman and Radar Intercept Officer Lt. Cmdr. Dave Lauderbaugh - given the historic honour of being the final ever Tomcat to launch with the unique Naval send-off of no less than seven yellow shirted ‘Shooters’ giving the signal to fire the catapult in choreographed unison!

Summing up the feelings of the now very small Tomcat community, Cmdr Howe has the final word as 32 years of F-14 carrier-borne aviation comes to an end: "The Tomcat is retiring at the top of its game, we’re not wimping into the sunset, we’re carrying a big stick right to the very end. The only sad thing is that I think we could have carried this big stick for a few more years yet."

Acknowledgements

We'd like to thank the Public Affairs personnel aboard the TR for their excellent support in covering this event. We'd also like to thank CDR Sims and Mike Maus for making this event possible and Dave "Hey Joe" Parson for his assistance.