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The indisputable 'Top Cat'

Paul Tiller and Jeremy Gould were at Oceana to welcome the Tomcat home one last time

After their six month deployment to the Persian Gulf onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), the fighter and attack squadrons of Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW-8) returned home to NAS Oceana to be greeted by their families and friends who were eagerly awaiting their homecoming.

10 March 2006 was a day of mixed emotions for many of those gathered at NAS Oceana. The families and friends of the homecoming crews were clearly excited at the prospect of being reunited with their loved ones and, inside each respective squadron hangar, tables, chairs, refreshments and entertainment had been put in place for all the pending squadron parties. The children of the crews had made their own homecoming banners, which they intended to hold aloft and wave with great excitement at the sight of seeing their mums and dads. But, for some, it was also the day when the last two operational F-14D Tomcat squadrons, VF-31 'Tomcatters' and VF-213 'Black Lions', would complete their operations with this much-respected aircraft and the final curtain on its service life was almost drawn.

VF-213 will begin transition to the F/A-18F Super Hornet immediately and become VFA-213; VF-31 will continue their Tomcat operations, although some of their current eleven aircraft need to be replaced as they are almost out of airframes hours - these replacement aircraft will be ex-VF-213 aircraft that still have airframes with lower hours. The remainder of VF-213's Tomcats will be disposed of, with some going to museums, a few put into storage whilst the others will go into SARDIP (Stricken Aircraft Reclamation and Disposal Program).

There is also a strong possibility that VF-31 will fly one or more of their aircraft at the NAS Oceana Airshow on 9-10 September 2006 - although this airshow appearance rumour is not confirmed, it would be a fitting end to the Tomcat's career to make one final flyby at a public event. VF-31 is expected to participate in the 'Tomcat Sunset' events to be held on 22 September, where they will make the final Tomcat flight and it is believed that 'Tomcatter 111' (BuNo 159600) will be the airframe - the significance of this aircraft is that it is the oldest airworthy airframe in the squadron and by maintaining its airworthiness it will be a testament to the serviceability and capability of the aircraft that has served the US Navy for thirty-six years. Following this event VF-31 will then say farewell to its Tomcats and in October will become VFA-31 when it begins its transition to the F/A-18E Super Hornet, with these aircraft being transferred to their charge from another squadron, VFA-22. The legendary Grumman F-14 Tomcat will then pass into history.

VF-213

On a day with unusually warm temperatures for early March and with winds gusting up to 30 mph, at approximately 09:50 the first squadron appeared in the Oceana skies. The eleven F/A-18Cs of VFA-15 'Valions' approached the base from the north-east in formation. With faces turned to see them and fingers pointing, the formation made its fly-by to the cheers and clapping of the those gathered at the hangar. The arrowhead formation then split into smaller three and four jet formations which each made another flyby - then each jet peeled away to make its approach for landing. One by one each jet touched down on the runway and after a brief wait taxied to the ramp, parking in pairs. The ground crews had been in position on the ramp awaiting the jets for some time and slowly, one by one, each jet parked up. Interestingly, some of the jets were carrying armaments on their pylons and noteworthy were those aircraft carrying SLAM-ER, AGM-88 HARM, AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. With all the squadron jets parked up, engines were shut down and canopies were opened. As the crews unstrapped themselves and began to exit their jets, they were greeted by their families and friends who rushed onto the ramp, again reunited.

The next squadron to return was VFA-87 'Golden Warriors'. At approximately 11:15, the nine aircraft of the squadron over flew Oceana in a diamond formation and again the families and friends present in the squadron hangar cheered and clapped as the jets passed overhead. The arrowhead formation split into smaller formations and each section made another flyby as one by one the jets again peeled away for finals for landing. Due to the location of the squadron hangar and the time delay in getting the jets to taxi back to their ramp, it was not possible to witness the reunions because the word was that the Tomcat squadrons were now en-route to the base and, with the Tomcat squadron hangars located at the other end of the base, it was to be a quick dash to get there in time for their arrival.

Upon arrival at the Tomcat hangar - Hangar 500 - it was evident that this was the place to be as a large number of people had gathered there, and consisted of not just families and friends but also people who had been involved with the Tomcat since it first entered US Navy service in 1974. Some aircrew from VFA-103 'Jolly Rogers', another ex-F-14 squadron, had positioned themselves on top of their hangar to get a better view of events, and amassed outside the Tomcat hangars were some local TV crews who were preparing themselves for live broadcasts of the event, whilst other media types jostled to get a good position to witness what was about to happen - the atmosphere was electric.

VF-31

Parked inside the hangar of VF-213 was an example of the squadron's future mount, the F/A-18F Super Hornet, resplendent in the markings of VFA-213. For some though, the feeling is the 'Super Bug' lacks soul compared to the Tomcat, so for those Tomcat crews transitioning to the Super Hornet they will hopefully bring and give the jet the soul it needs to become one of the great Navy aircraft.

At 12:00 all eyes were again searching the skies to the east of the base. An airband radio of one enthusiast crackled into life as the Tomcats made contact with Oceana tower and reported they were forty miles from the base. The next radio call was thirty miles from the base, then twenty miles, ten miles and then someone was overheard saying "Wow, here they come… Awesome!"

Awesome it was and what a truly incredible sight… all twenty-two Tomcats of CVW-8 were together in one large formation, all with their wings fully swept back, a formation which could have been called 'the wedge formation' - it was a sight that everyone knew would never be seen again. A strange silence seemed to have befallen the gathered crowd as they looked at the approaching jets, a silence that was to be shattered as the formation roared past its hangars, where it was greeted with cheers, applause and the sound of the photographers' camera shutters clicking away, taking continuous pictures of the jets, all of which were muted by the sound of the engines. Outside the base there was also a lot of interest in wanting to see the Tomcats, many people had also gathered at vantage spots along the Oceana Boulevard road to witness this memorable event.

The formation was led by Captain William G. Sizemore III, Commander CVW-8, flying the VF-31 jet 'Tomcatter 100' painted with the black tail and large yellow 'Felix' squadron insignia tail markings - he was flanked by the two 'showbird' jets of VF-213, 'Black Lion 200' with dark blue markings on the right, 'Black Lion 213' with pale blue markings on the left, and behind them was the VF-31 jet 'Tomcatter 101' with the red-tail and black 'Felix' markings. The formation then separated for landing and made fly-bys of formations of three or four aircraft before making the break to land. Tomcats landed on both the parallel runways and then taxied to a holding point on the far side of the airfield in front of their hangars. The final Tomcat to land was VF-213's 'Black Lion 213'. When the final jet was in position on the taxiways, the jets that had been holding on the far side of the airfield began to move forward to taxi to their parking positions on their respective ramps.

One by one the jets were called forward, an aircraft from each squadron in turn. As each aircraft was parked up the engines were left running. The sound of the engines whining and howling was deafening and became even more so as the last Tomcats, the CAG/Show Birds, parked up with all forty-four General Electric F110-GE-400 afterburning turbofans running. This noise seemed to last an eternity but then, at 12:15, with one radio call to all pilots the engines were simultaneously shutdown. Both squadrons' crews then opened their canopies in unison and the crews began to leave their jets and assemble in front of them. The crew of VF-31 aircraft 'Tomcatter 105' held up the Stars and Stripes ensign from the cockpit as a sign of pride for their families, pride for the Navy and pride for the Tomcat. With all the jets declared safe, the families and friends ran to greet the crews. The Tomcats were safely home.

Throughout The Tomcat's thirty-six year service history, it has undergone numerous upgrades and modifications, all necessary to meet the demands of the Navy and to keep it the premier carrier-based multi-role strike fighter. For the crews who keep the jets operational and the pilots who fly them, the retirement of the Tomcat was a hard, but necessary, decision to accept. "It is one of the greatest fighter planes in history," Lt. Chris Rattigan, a pilot with VF-31, said. "When you think of naval aviation, you think of the Tomcat." Cdr Richard La Branche, VF-31 commanding officer said "I will miss flying the Tomcat very much. Saying goodbye to the Tomcat will be like saying goodbye to an old friend, but in the best interest of our people, it must be done."

So long, BABY!

The authors would like to extend special thanks to Troy R. Snead, PAO NAS Oceana; Cdr. Richard "Corky" Erie NAS Oceana Air Operations Officer; all the members of the PAO teams who helped on the day; all the pilots and crews of VFA-15, VFA-87, VF-31 and VF-213 for making this article possible.

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