After 3 decades, Navy retires top fighter plane

The Baltimore Sun

NAVAL AIR STATION OCEANA, Va. -- When Navy Lt. Cmdr. David "Supafly" Faehnle flipped on the engines of his F-14 Tomcat, the 2,000 or so people sitting nearby jumped to their feet.

Some trotted across the flight line to get closer to what has been the Navy's premier jet fighter.

A few held up their digital cameras, using the zoom tool as they would binoculars to get a better look.

They all watched as the canopy closed, sealing in Faehnle and his radar intercept officer, Lt. Cmdr. Robert "Fitz" Gentry.

The two officers of the VF-31 Tomcatters squadron returned sharp salutes to the mechanics on the ground.

The crowd went wild.

Seeing an F-14 at the Navy's master jet base in Virginia Beach isn't anything new. But this was a moment in history.

It wasn't actually the final flight of the Tomcat -- a few will fly out in the coming days to the military's war reserve in Arizona and to various museums -- but it was the official retirement of the fighter jet that has been part of the Navy for 36 years.

By early October, all the squadrons will have begun the transition to the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

There were no tears, though, at this military goodbye, called a "sunset ceremony." Instead, there were memories.

During the half-hour ceremony, dignitaries and military officers addressed the crowd of families, former Tomcat pilots and mechanics, and veterans of some of the plane's milestones.

The Tomcat made its first flight Dec. 21, 1970. On its second flight came the first crash. By Oct. 8, 1972, pilots and mechanics were trained and ready to deploy with the new fighter.

The first deployment wouldn't come until late 1974, when it embarked aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise and helped support the evacuation of Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1975.

On Aug. 19, 1981, the Tomcat logged its first air-to-air kill in waters off Libya. This year, during support of the war in Iraq, Feb. 7 marked the last time that a bomb was dropped from the fighter.

"Not too many programs ever achieve" greatness, said Northrop Grumman Vice President Scott Seymour, who was involved in the fighter's first testing.

"The Tomcat has gone above and beyond."

Partly from its feature role in the 1986 movie Top Gun, the Tomcat is likely the most widely known jet in the military's arsenal, Seymour said.

Adm. John Nathman, commander of the Norfolk, Va.-based Fleet Forces Command and a former Tomcat pilot, said, "If I knew I'd be in a tough fight, I wanted to be in the Tomcat."

It was a challenging plane to keep up and running, Nathman acknowledged. It required a lot of maintenance hours and a tremendous amount of dedication on the part of the mechanics.

"Luck and skill played a part in the thriving and surviving in the Tomcat," he said.

The Tomcat is all that Petty Officer 1st Class Ken Tangredi knows. It's the plane he loves and the fighter he calls "the sexiest in the skies."

It's all that he's worked on in the 15 years that he has been a mechanic in the Navy.

Life without it, he said, "will be rough. It's family. It's part of us. Each of us have, at one time, bled in it trying to fix her."

True to form, Faehnle and Gentry weren't actually able to fly their plane away. It developed mechanical problems after taxiing away from the crowd.

The Navy, however, had placed another Tomcat at the end of the runway, just in case.

The crowd never knew the difference.

A Tomcat sped down the runway in front of them, springing into the air. It looped back around for a fly-by. Then, in an instant, it disappeared into Friday's blue skies. For a moment, all that was left was the thunderous echo of the engines.

"A sunset ceremony is not the end," Seymour had said. "Tomorrow, a sun will rise on its legacy."

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