MotoArt owner Dave Hall’s quest to find his Holy Grail dropped him and the company right into the middle of the biggest media sensation to hit Hollywood and the aviation community. Read about the derelict F-14 Tomcat Hall found and how the team made it into something new and lasting.
The Grumman F 14 Tomcat is an American carrier-based, supersonic fighter designed for fleet air defense, ground attack, and reconnaissance. They were developed to replace the McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom and served with the U.S. Navy from 1972 to 2006. A total of 712 were built during the production years between 1969 to 1991. It remains in service with the Air Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The distinctive appearance comes from the variable-sweep wing and twin tail fins; the wings go from 20° for take-off, loitering and landing, to a maximum sweep of 68° to aid its high subsonic to supersonic speeds, to 75° for aircraft carrier stowage.
The need for a new fleet defense fighter became apparent after advancements were made in Soviet aircraft. The U.S. Navy began a search for an advanced carrier-based fighter and at first it seemed that the General Dynamics F-111B, with its many commonalities with the Air Force’s F-111A, would be the natural choice, especially with modifications made to meet Navy requirements. However, the F-111B was too heavy for carrier based operations and the search continued.
In July 1968, the U.S. Navy (NAVAIR) set out the requirements and RFP for aircraft for its Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX) program. The requirements called for a tandem, two engined, two seat air-to-air fighter with a max speed of Mach 2.2. Although several manufacturers submitted bids, General Dynamics and Grumman were the main contenders and were selected as finalists. In January 1969, Grumman’s Model 303, with its variable geometry, two seat design built around the Hughes AWG-9 weapons system, was selected. The Tomcat made its first flight in December 1970, and the first F14As were delivered to the U.S. Navy in June 1972.
The F14 Tomcat served aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carriers from 1974 to 2006, providing combat air patrols and photo-reconnaissance, with considerable duty performed in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Enjoy this video on the history of the F-14 Tomcat
Manufacturer: Grumman Corporation
Crew: 2 (Pilot And Radar Intercept Officer)
Wing Span (Unswept): 64 Ft 1.5 In
Wing Span (Swept): 38 Ft 2.5 In
Length: 62 Ft 8 In
Height: 16 Ft 0 In
Range: 1730 Nm
Cruise Speed: 550 Kts
Ceiling: 55,000 Ft
Empty Weight: 40,104 Lb
Max Takeoff Weight: 72,000 Lb
Rate Of Climb: 30,000 Ft / Minute
Engine: 2x Pratt & Whitney Tf-30-P-414a Turbofans, 20,900 Lb Static Thrust Each
Top Gun is arguably one of the most iconic movies of the 80’s. It was inspired by an article that appeared in California Magazine in 1983 called Top Gun , about the hot shot F-14 crews training at Top Gun, the Navy Fighter Weapons School at Miramar. Just like in the movie, it was where the top 1% of U.S. Navy aviators were trained in the advanced aerial combat maneuvers. The movie itself was a work of fiction, the story of Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, played by Tom Cruise, who strives to prove himself as the best pilot, while winning the girl and the respect of his colleagues.
By PH2 Michael D.P. Flynn, U.S. Navy - Public Domain, Link
Top Gun was released on May 16, 1986 and over the next 7 months it set box office records, grossing more thаn $357,469,522 in worldwide sales. It became a recruitment video of sorts, making military service attractive again after years of suffering with the stigma of Vietnam. It also brought the F-14 into focus for a new generation of aviation enthusiasts.
Top Gun producers were given tremendous assistance by the U.S. Navy and Pentagon, access to Naval aircraft and aircraft carriers, received expert guidance and training in water survival and everything to do with the Tomcat, by some of the best combat pilots. In exchange, they also reviewed the script and requested changes in the interest of national defense as well as morale.
Top Gun: Maverick was already in the can and had its premiere date set when Hall found his F-14. The film’s release date was near May’s vintage aircraft release date for PlaneTags. Hall’s first question was whether to release the F-14 PlaneTags in time for the film or put it in another slot for a future release. “There were some concerns,” explains Hall. “But ultimately we decided to go for it. Why wouldn’t we?” The team began researching the origins of this ghost plane, following leads to dead ends or to more puzzlement. Ultimately, through much research, they deduced who this plane really was.
BuNo 159611 was built as an F-14A in 1975, and delivered to the U.S. Navy on September 7, 1975. It was the last production F-14 to feature a 7-hole gun vent; subsequent F-14s were fitted with a 2-hole gun vent.
Photo by Scott Van Aken, used with permission
‘611 served with the VF-124, the Navy’s Pacific Fleet Training Squadron, for most of its career. It also served with the VF-24 in 1976 and 1979, and finished its Navy career with VX-4 at Point Mugu before being struck off charge April 30, 1994.
Though its Navy career was over, its life was not over by a long shot. Like some other F-14s of the time, ‘611 found itself in Hollywood. It was used in Surface To Air (1998), JAG (1995–2005), and most recently was leased to Paramount Pictures for the filming of Top Gun: Maverick .
“For years there have been rumors in the industry of a ghost F-14,” recalls MotoArt owner Dave Hall, discussing the aircraft that he had long sought after - the crowning achievement. “Not only have I dreamed of this plane for years, but it's probably the most requested plane, next the SR-71.”
Hall recalled vividly the moments he realized he might have finally found it. He had been invited by a colleague he had worked with before to see his collection of planes. "He wanted to see if there were any aircraft we were interested in. Some of them had been used in movies and TV shows, which got me thinking and hoping maybe we’d see something really incredible. Which we did.” It was an F-14 cockpit, tucked away in the very back. “It was an incredible moment.” He also had a F-14 flight simulator which had been used for the interior cockpit scenes in the original Top Gun starring Tom Cruise. Pima Air & Space Museum secured the F-14 flight simulator and MotoArt ended up with the actual cockpit from BuNo 159611.
Here is the team delivering the training cockpit to Pima Air and Space Museum in May 2022.
MotoArt was able to save the original skin from BuNo 159611. Watch this time lapse dismantling of the F-14.
Creating a worthy aviation collectible from an F-14 was something that Hall and the team took very seriously. It was important to perform the research on the plane, but to Hall just as critical to get the packaging and presentation perfect. Like the SR-71, the MLP-2, and the thick L-1011, manufacturing PlaneTags out of something with unusual textures or material was beyond the normal manufacturing. Because of the aluminum honeycomb throughout the plane, the team had to cut and polish them in a way that retained the texture somewhat visibly on the PlaneTags.
The Tomcat PlaneTags have landed at planetags.com . They are numbered in a series to 5,000 . For this release we are offering two different versions, based on where the material was taken from.
The exterior PlaneTags are made from the outer fuselage skin, which is light-weight aluminum. Some of the exterior tags will feature the aluminum honeycomb core that was sandwiched between the external and internal skins. Because the material from this area is more scarce, there will be fewer exteriors available. They will initially be offered in two variants:
The team decided to do something extra special for the exterior F-14 PlaneTags. They created a different design and packaging for them, which includes a small, branded box which will hold an Exterior F-14 Tomcat PlaneTag and additional materials. The special packaging and presentation will delight both the serious PlaneTags collector and F-14 Tomcat fan.
The interior F-14 PlaneTags are created from the internal structures and skin, which are mostly light weight aluminum. Some of the PlaneTags will even feature the internal, full-depth aluminum honeycomb core. They will be attached to a display card with the plane’s information and will be initially available in the following variants:
These will be the centerpiece in any PlaneTags collection, or make the perfect gift for a USN or USAF pilot or fan of the Top Gun film series.
The F-14 Tomcat is in great company. Take a look at a few of the esteemed group of fighters MotoArt has had the honor of working with:
In case you missed these related blogs, check them out.
While some of the aircraft MotoArt uses have very detailed information and history, some planes like this one require a lot more time, research, and dedication. Thank you to the following individuals for helping us identify this historic F-14!
Special thank you to Keith “Sven” Svendsen, Lt Col, USAF (Retired) for the use of his photos of BuNo 161165. Svendsen was in the Air Force at the time the photos were taken. He had the opportunity to fly an F-14 as part of an aircraft suitability familiarization course. The images of '165 on the USS Ranger were taken during his Test Pilot School class visit to the carrier to observe carrier operations. Although our research found this was not our F-14 after all, his photos and experience helped tell the story. Thanks!
From Rob Schneider: Yvonne Proni, Nick Foster, Nick Veronico (Air Classics), Dave "Bio" Baranek (author, former F-14 RIO, and TOPGUN Instructor), David F. Brown (author of Tomcat Alley ), and lastly Matthew Lawlor (Aviation Historian) 100%, we couldn't have worked through this puzzle without their determination and dedication to ensuring the true identity of this F-14 was established.