‘Air Warriors’ Honors the Real Star of ‘Top Gun’: The F-14 Tomcat!

F-14 Tomcat
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Maverick and Goose had the need for speed. Thankfully, there was an aircraft that could give them one hell of a ride: The F-14 Tomcat.

Perhaps coinciding with the recent celebration of Top Gun Day on May 13, the season premiere of Smithsonian Channel’s “Air Warriors” (Sunday, May 21 at 9pm ET/PT) documentary series looks at the fighter jet that got the Hollywood treatment in the 1986 Tom Cruise classic Top Gun.

Developed in the 1970s to be the U.S. Navy’s post-Vietnam replacement for the aging F-4 Phantom II, the two-seat Grumman F-14 was designed as a long-range, high-speed fleet defense fighter/interceptor. The Tomcat’s primary Cold War mission was to destroy Soviet bombers and their fighter escorts from a relatively “safe” distance. Thankfully, it never had to perform that duty in an actual war.

With a max speed of Mach 2.4 and its variable “swing wings,” the Tomcat was an awe-inspiring aircraft and an impressive symbol of U.S. naval air power. The F-14 served prominently in the Middle East during operations against Libya, in defense of U.S. interests and vessels in the Persian Gulf, in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, in the Balkans in the mid 1990s, and in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. Upgrades and modifications over the years made the Tomcat a formidable air-to-ground fighter/bomber toward the end of its service.

The Tomcat saw its last operational duty with the U.S. Navy over Iraq in 2006. Sadly, most retired Tomcats were thoroughly scrapped to avoid the risk of spare parts falling into Iran’s hands.

In the late 1970s, the U.S. sold 80 Tomcats to the Shah of Iran to counter the Soviet-made MiGs used by Iraq. The 1979 Iranian Revolution left these Tomcats in the hands of Ayatollah Khomeini and an Iranian government that quickly grew hostile to the West. The Tomcat was notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain, and Iran has kept their F-14s flying for decades with whatever parts they could cannibalize from other aircraft and make for themselves.

The Top Gun: Maverick film gives a wink to Iran’s Tomcats (while never actually identifying the adversarial state targeted) and Maverick’s former fighter in that film’s climactic scene.

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