Tony Scott, Hank Kleeman, Kara Hultgreen and the F-14 Tomcat: three (tragic) stories and a legendary plane

Sep 01 2012 - 26 Comments

Few days ago, Dario Leone, a long time reader and a huge F-14 Tomcat fan, sent me an email to point out what he had noticed about the date Tony Scott, the famous director of “Top Gun”, chose  to commit suicide.

He had observed that Aug. 19 was the 31th anniversary of the day when two F-14s downed two Libyan fighters in 1981 (something that Scott, most probably, didn’t even know) and provided some interesting news about the fate of the two Tomcats involved in the dogfight and their crew members.

“Top Gun is the film that made the F-14 famous all around the world. Downings and crashes aside, aircraft depicted in the movie were true and they were driven by real pilots of the U.S. Navy belonging to VF-51 Screaming Eagles […] In a certain way, Tony Scott brought on the big screens what had happened on Aug. 19, 1981,” Leone wrote to me.

On that day, two F-14A Tomcats belonging to the VF-41 Black Aces and launched from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68 ) were attacked on the Gulf of Sidra by two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 and shot them down with two AIM-9L air-to-air missiles just 45 seconds after the first Libyan fighter opened fire (Rules Of Engagement were the same as in the film, namely: “do not fire until fired upon”).

Image credit: U.S. Navy

One of the two aircraft was the BuNo 160403, callsign “Fast Eagle 102″, with Cdr. Hank Kleeman and RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Lt. Dave Venlet on board.

“Kleeman is famous in the Tomcat community not only for being the first pilot to score a kill with the F-14 but also for getting  the Secretary of the Navy’ s approval for the F-14D four years later. Unfortunately he died in a landing accident (plane hydroplaned off the side of the wet runway, then flipped over) at NAS Miramar on an F/A-18A Hornet (BuNo 162435).”

The other Tomcat involved in the Aug. 19, 1981 dogfight was BuNo 160390, callsign “Fast Eagle 107″, piloted by Lt. Larry “Music” Muczynski and Lt. Dave Anderson as RIO.

“That plane earned the headlines again on Oct. 25, 1994 when, piloted by Lt. Kara “Revlon” Hultgreen, U.S. Navy’s first female F-14 pilot, crashed into the sea while landing aboard USS Abraham Lincoln, off San Diego. While her RIO, Lt. Matthew P. Klemish, ejected safely she didn’t survive the ejection.”

As a consequence of the incident, two separate investigations were conducted.

“The Judge Advocate General (JAG) cited a technical malfunction as the root cause of the crash whereas the Navy Mishap Investigation Report (MIR) came to the conclusion that it was a pilot error to induce the fatal left engine stall.”

Until the latter was leaked, the JAG version was Navy’s official position on the mishap.

The video below includes footage of Kara Hultgreen’s incident.

“There are dates that seem to mark the path of the life of people and their destiny. In this case, August 19th has not only marked in a way or another one the fate of some people, but also the history of a legendary plane, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.”

  • decrescendo

    And, as far as I’m aware, that Lt David Venlet is now the Vice Admiral David Venlet who is PEO of Joint Strike Fighter.

  • Jupiter

    “One of the two aircraft was the BuNo 160403, callsign “Fast Eagle 102″, with Cdr. Hank Kleeman and RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Lt. Dave Venlet on board.”

    Fast Eagle 102 ….. http://oi49.tinypic.com/mkywcx.jpg

    David ‘DJ’ Venlet ….. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/bios/navybio.asp?bioID=288

  • http://theavionist.com Lee Griffin

    I was a Navy fighter pilot for 21 years. You might want to get the FULL story on Hultgreen before you adorn you site with a tribute to her or her ability. Her RIO is dead because of her

    • http://theaviationist.com/ David Cenciotti

      I think the article already says a lot about the story and it’s far for being a tribute. The video is not to “adorn” the site but because it is the only one I’ve found including the footage of the accident.
      I didn’t know her RIO perished because of her: all the sources I’ve found say he survived the mishap. Can you give us more details?

      Anyway, I know her abilities have been much debated but I know thousand incidents involvig pilots that could be blamed for the loss of their RIO/WSO or wingman. As an experienced fighter pilot do you think that her ability was only her fault? Don’t you believe all those who trained her and checked her proficiency in the U.S. Navy were responsible as well?
      Don’t forget the USN wanted the official version to be the mechanical failure….

    • Bill G.

      Kara’s RIO got out, she didn’t. For sure, any blog posting of Kara Hultgreen is going to be controversial. Her story is the perfect example of what happens when you shove a person to the head of the line because of they fit a demographic. Selections should be made on merit, not because it would be stylish.

    • toukon

      How were you a Navy fighter pilot for 21 years and don’t know “Klemdog” made it out?

    • CG23 Sailor

      Lee, Look up Stolen Valor.

      1: A Navy Fighter Pilot wouldn’t call himself that. He’d call himself a Naval Aviator

      2: No one I know of would spend a full 21 years “in the Cockpit” they’d have long been moved on to desk jobs, though they sure as hell would try to stay in the cockpit. Flying fighters is a young man’s game.

      3: and if you really were a part of the Naval Aviation community (or even just done your research…) you’d know her RIO survived.

    • tham58

      The F-14’s wide engne spacing, fundamentally flawed, along with the ”widow maker” engine, the disastrous TF30, caused the crash, not this excellent flyer.Her RIO is alive. Kara shot 4,000 feet into the bottom of the sea,

      Has those been Rolls-Royce Speys, which was submitted as an entry for the
      TFX and rejected in favour of the first ”All-American” military turbofan, she, and all those other dead Tomcat crews, would still be alive today.

  • http://theavionist.com Lee Griffin

    The story I heard, collaborated by numerous fellow aviators, was that she was given a fleet naval aviator disposition board,(FNAEB) convened at the behest of the flight surgeon, of all people, while assigned to VAQ -33, N.A.S. Key West.
    She was selected to fly F-14’s in spite of this huge black mark. You can guess why she, (the operative word being SHE) got F-14’s anyway. I heard the fact of the board was covered up. Admirals are as political as anybody else. Mechanical….yeah right. This is not the way to respond to the loss of an engine. Watch the video of the attempted carrier pass and come to your own conclusions. I never knew her, but many Fri night Happy Hour discussions are replete with sea-stories of the facts leading up to the crash. I don’t blame the system or her instructors. Political correctness clearly could share in the blame. Speaking of which Auburn Callaway’s instructors tried to raise the warning flag but they too were ignored by the system, and we all know what happened there. In any event,thanks for your web site. It’s good to see someone who appreciates aviation and tries to get the story right.

    • tintruder

      Lee, you were a mean son of a gun in Meridian!
      Never zipped up that damn flight suit either…they would kick you out for that these days.
      How are you old man?

      • heggarty

        IP match. 2 years later and you try and blag your way out of being found out as an imposter. hilarious.

    • tham58

      How would you have responded to the loss of an engine at that altitude, attitude and airspeed, and in such a fundamentally flawed airframe design ?

      Without afterburner on the remaining engine, the underpowered,
      heavy plane would go down for sure.

      With afterburner, but without lift on the left wing, those widely spaced engines would roll you over really fast, whether you kicked full right rudder
      or not, which she did. At altitude, you’d go into an irrecoverable flat spin.

      Any better ideas apart from ejecting, which obviously trying to get airborne again and not realizing she was piloting a ”widow-maker” which had vicious
      flying characteristics, she just did not think of doing so in those few seconds ?

  • Martin Jones

    Klemish has written about the event. His decision to eject when the aircraft went below the deck was prudent. He survived but with injuries.

  • http://twitter.com/WinstonCN WinstonCN

    Interesting

  • geronl

    ““That plane earned the headlines again on Oct. 25, 1994 when, piloted by
    Lt. Kara “Revlon” Hultgreen, U.S. Navy’s first female F-14 pilot,
    crashed into the sea while landing aboard USS Abraham Lincoln, off San
    Diego.”

    The unqualified pilot earned the headlines. The plane was fine.

    • “Mad Dog”

      Word was she was signed off against the objections of her flight instructors so the Navy could have the first female fighter pilot.

    • tham58

      The pilot, and the many other dead Tomcat pilots/RIOs, were all fine.

      The engines were unqualified (forced into service despite the far more
      reliable Rolls-Royce/Allison AR.168 Speys), and the aircraft’s wide engine
      spacing, not to mention difficult flying/landing characteristics, were flawed.

      Read above.

  • tham58

    ” … they did not know what caused Commander Bates’s
    second crash, or why his squadron had lost so many
    F-14 Tomcats.

    Twelve F-14 fliers have died in training accidents
    since 1992. (Just four years to 1996.)

    After screaming up through the clouds, the F-14 then
    came straight down, exploding into a huge fireball. ”

    http://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/31/us/jet-aviator-killed-in-nashville-had-earlier-crash-navy-says.html

  • tham58

    ” … The F-14A flown by Major Alireza Bitaraf crashed
    while fighting with at least 12 Iraqi jets. ”

    ” Bitaraf suffered an engine stall during a dogfight
    over the Persian Gulf, and that the aircraft then fell
    into an irrecoverable flat spin at low level.

    This would not be surprising given the problems …. ”

    http://books.google.com.my/books?id=ZMlRwNEAuAcC&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=F-14+CREWS+KILLED+FLAT+SPIN&source=bl&ots=FCRIiqqhVB&sig=Dju_Rv6TYfgV0kRQvqwBGVrATsI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ILZeVPO3ApSquQTigYG4Dg&ved=0CFcQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=F-14%20CREWS%20KILLED%20FLAT%20SPIN&f=true

  • tham58

    ” My understanding was that no Su-27 derivative had ever
    successfully landed on one engine, because the wide engine
    spacing with such powerful engines caused very high yawing
    torque from the remaining engine at any throttle setting able to
    (keep) the plane in the air. ”

    http://www.f-16.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=55&t=14519&start=405

  • tham58

    ” John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy, told Congress
    that the F-14/TF30 combination was “probably the
    worst engine/airframe mismatch we have had in
    years” and said that the TF30 was “a terrible engine”,
    with F-14 accidents attributed to engine failures
    accounting for 28% of overall losses. ”

    ” The TF30 engines were also extremely prone to
    compressor stalls, which could easily result in
    loss of control due to the wide engine spacing,
    which causes severe yaw oscillations and
    can lead to an unrecoverable flat spin. ”

    http://www.aviationexplorer.com/F-14_Facts_History_Photos.html

  • tham58

    ” …. a history of problems, including a flight-control
    system that caused it to spin out of control and a
    tendency for its engine to stall at low speeds.

    Six aviators were killed in 31 crashes caused
    by flat spins between 1976 and 1993.

    Witnesses said it appeared the aircraft slowed
    down after a “wave-off” landing maneuver, then
    fell to the ground on its tail.

    The embattled aircraft fell under such scrutiny that
    congressional hearings were held the same year. ”

    http://articles.philly.com/2000-06-19/news/25602282_1_fourth-crash-mike-maus-f-14

  • tham58

    ” The TF30 turbofan was an extremely fussy engine,
    and had to be treated with great care by the pilot if
    compressor stalls were to be avoided. Compressor
    stalls could occur at just about any altitude/airspeed
    combination, but most often they happened at high
    altitudes and low speeds, when lighting or unlighting
    the afterburners, or after firing the missiles. ”

    If not corrected immediately, the aircraft would begin
    to yaw rapidly back and forth and the aircraft could go
    into an uncontrollable spin from which the only escape
    was generally for the crew to eject. ”

    http://www.joebaugher.com/navy_fighters/f14_8.html

  • tham58

    For the many here who have been unfairly
    blaming this poor girl without knowing the facts.

    ” The Tomcat can be quite a handful during carrier landings.
    Unlike the F-4 Phantom, the F-14 aircraft is not stable nor
    smooth during the glideslope while coming in for a landing.
    It has relatively high pitch inertia and tends to float.
    Its high residual thrust enforces the use of relative low
    engine throttle settings during the approach, resulting in
    poor engine response which makes recovery difficult if
    something goes wrong. The poor lateral control makes
    precise heading control difficult. ”

    http://www.joebaugher.com/navy_fighters/f14_8.html

  • tham58

    A no-win situation.

    Compressor stall > Flameout > Irrecoverable flat spin/roll > Crash.

  • Bill. G.

    When selections are based on meeting a demographic and/or political goal instead of merit, the results are obvious.