VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (NNS) -- The "Tomcatters" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VF) 31 and the "Black Lions" of VF-213 arrived at Naval Air Station Oceana March 10, ending their six-month deployment with Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8 embarked on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), and closing the book on the Tomcat as an asset in the Navy's war fighting arsenal.
VF-31 and 213's "fly-off" marked the last operational flight of the F-14D Tomcat and the begining of the squadrons' transition to the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet. VF-213 pilots will begin F/A-18F training in April and VF-31 pilots, who are transitioning to the F/A-18E, will remain operational until September when they will fly the last Tomcat in the Navy's inventory from Oceana.
"Everyone has worked very hard, pulled together, and with purpose, to ensure we retire this naval aviation icon appropriately and commensurate with its long and proud legacy," said Cmdr. Richard LaBranche, VF-31 commanding officer.
The Navy decided to decommission the Tomcat and move to the Super Hornet to lighten the workload on its people after recognizing the excessive amount of maintenance needed to keep them operational.
"It takes about three to four times more maintenance man-hours per flight hour to maintain than the newer Hornet," said LaBranche. "Retiring the extremely relevant but maintenance intensive Tomcat was a way to save the exhaustive efforts of our people and better spend their labors."
For the pilots who fly them and the crews who keep them operational, the loss of the Tomcat hits close to home.
"I will miss flying the Tomcat very much," said LaBranche. "Saying goodbye to the Tomcat will be like saying good-bye to an old friend, but in the best interest of our people, it must be done."
Throughout its 32-year service to the fleet, the Tomcat has been synonymous with excellence. Since the first aircraft entered operational service in September 1974, the Grumman Aerospace Corporation-built F-14 has seen numerous upgrades and modifications to meet the demands of the Navy as the premier carrier-based multi-role strike fighter.
"It is one of the greatest fighter planes in history," said Lt. Chris Rattigan, a pilot with VF-31. "When you think of naval aviation, you think of the Tomcat."
The Tomcat saw its first major improvements to the initial design with the F-14B, introduced in November 1987, which incorporated new General Electric F-110 engines. In 1995, an upgrade program brought the Tomcat new digital avionics and weapon system improvements.
"The F-14 may be old, but with all the upgrades (over the years), there isn't anything out there tougher and more capable than the Tomcat," said Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class(AW) Michael Houlihan, of VF-31.
Improving on the already technologically advanced aircraft, the F-14D, flown by VF-31 and 213, delivered in 1990, was a major upgrade with F-110 engines, new APG-71 radar system, Airborne Self Protection Jammer (ASPJ), Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) and Infrared Search and Track (IRST). Additionally, all F-14 variants were given precision strike capability using the LANTIRN targeting system, night vision compatibility, new defensive countermeasures systems and a new digital flight control system.
"The F-14 isn't getting chased out because it can't keep up with the current fighters of the world," said Rattigan. "The reason is that our maintainers have to work two or three times as hard to get the jets ready to fly compared with the Hornet."
"During this deployment we've flown more sorties, with the highest sortie completion rate than any other Tomcat squadron in recent history," said LaBranche.
With a more than 99 percent sortie completion rate and a 100 percent on-target rate when ordnance was expended during this, their final deployment, VF-31 is confident they sent the Tomcat out on a high note.
"Our successes on this deployment have been huge," said Houlihan. "We accomplished more than we had set out to do. I honestly think that VF-31 has proved that these aircraft, despite the amount of maintenance required to maintain it, have a lot of life left in them," said Houlihan.
While deployed, VF-31 provided invaluable close air support to the troops on the ground, and together with VF-213, completed 1,163 combat sorties totaling 6,876 flight hours and dropped 9,500 pounds of ordnance.
"Our entire crew is acutely aware of the historic nature of being the very last Tomcat squadron," said LaBranche, noting the attention VF-31 is facing as they return from this final deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
"To see the Sailors of this command perform so magnificently throughout five months of arduous combat operations has been inspirational for me," said LaBranche. "Team 'FELIX' has met every challenge head-on, succeeded in every endeavor and left a legacy befitting our new slogan as 'The Last Cat Standing.'"
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