“That’s right, Iceman. I am dangerous.”
Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell
Some parts of the 1986 movie Top Gun starring Tom Cruise as Maverick are downright cringe worthy, but the flight sequences and lingering pans over the gorgeous F-14 more than make up for it.
In this Youtube video, former Northrop Grumman VP Mike Ciminera describes the seven “white rabbits” of the F-14 Tomcat design and how they resulted in a fighter that was able to deliver a high top speed, outmaneuver smaller jets, stay in the air without refuelling for long escort missions and pack a punch with guns, missiles and bombs.
Variable sweep wing
To accomplish its multiple roles, the F-14 needed long range cruising for carrier escort duty, the ability to reach Mach 2.4 for intercept, and low stall speeds for carrier take off and landing.
These competing requirements dictated a variable sweep wing, so that at low speeds it could have high lift, and at high speeds it could have low drag. This arrangement also meant that the plane took up little space on the carrier deck with its wings folded back.
Automatic wing sweep
The sweep of the wings is computer-controlled, factoring in altitude, speed, etc to ensure maximum lift to drag ratio. This also reduced pilot workload.
Wing pivot selection
As the wings sweep back the centre of lift moves aft. By making the wings shorter and relying more on the lifting body they could reduce this. This reduced the need for the rear control surfaces to push down, thus reducing trim drag and stress on the airframe.
Deflected leading edge slats, flaps
An F-14 in air combat maneuvers resembles a bird, with all the small adjustments made to its wing geometry. These dynamic control surfaces contribute to the F-14’s low stall speed (making landing and take-off easier), high top speed, long endurance and high maneuverability.
Small delta vanes extend from the wing gloves (the “shoulder” where the wings join the fuselage) dynamically. This moves lift forward like a canard when the plane is at high speed and the centre of lift moves back on the wings. They can also be deployed for greater maneuvering.
Wide spread nacelles
An early decision in the development of the F-14 that paid many dividends was moving the engines outboard. This impacted the wing pivot described earlier, and also meant that there was a channel between the engines for the weapons rails.
Because the wide body of the plane contributed lift, it meant less load on the wings allowing for higher angle of attack maneuvers during combat, and took strain off the mechanism that swept the wings, allowing them to sweep quickly as the need arose.
Tucking modular weapons rails under the aircraft between the engines reduced drag relative to wing mounts. It also meant that the mounts didn’t need to swivel as the wings swept.
The F-14 is saturated with systems that adjust to different circumstances – the swept wings, the glove vanes, the slats and flaps, even adjustable intake ramps to ensure smooth airflow to the engine compressor.
Whereas many fighter aircraft mount the majority of ordnance on the wings, the F-14 is designed with a wide belly for weapons rails. This keeps the wings free of additional weight and complexity.