Last night I went to see Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 film Top Gun. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. But for those that don’t know, the first film starred Tom Cruise as a naval aviator, pilot, who flew around in F-14 Tomcats learning to become an expert dogfighter. Top Gun is the name of an actual school that instructs US Navy pilots.
Back in the 1980s, the F-14 was the premiere fighter jet used by the Navy. But the Navy retired the aircraft in 2006 and it’s been replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a larger and more powerful version of the F/A-18 Hornet. So no surprise that the new film features Super Hornets instead of Tomcats.
And so I wanted to compare the two.
The important thing to note is that the Tomcat flies farther and faster than the Hornet. The F-14 was designed to intercept Soviet bombers that were equipped with long-range missiles that could sink US carriers. The Hornet was designed more of an all-purpose aircraft. It can shoot down enemy planes, but it can also bomb targets on the ground. That’s the “/A” in the designation F/A-18. In the role of intercepting enemy aircraft, the F-14 was superior. It could fly well past two-times the speed of sound and it could fly combat missions over 500 miles away from its carrier.
In the interception role, however, the F-14 had another crucial advantage: the AIM-54 Phoenix missile. It was a long-range air-t0-air missile designed for the Tomcat. It does not work with any other US aircraft and so the Hornet uses the newer AIM-120 AMRAAM, a medium-range air-to-air missile.
There are plans to design a long-range version of the AIM-120, but it doesn’t exist yet and so the Hornet ultimately flies slower, less distance, and cannot engage targets at longer ranges.
However, dogfighting isn’t about long-range engagements with missiles. It’s about close-up twisting and turning to evade short-range missiles and gunfire. And even in that, the F-14 could use four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles whereas the F/A-18 carries only two on its wingtips.
By the 2000s F-14 was an older aircraft and while the moving, sweeping wings look cool, they cause maintenance problems. They were expensive to maintain and troublesome to keep in the air. But they are arguably superior to what the Navy flies today.
Moving forward, the Navy is beginning to introduce the F-35 Lightning II to the carrier fleets. Maybe I’ll need to a comparison between those three.
Credit for the piece is mine.