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

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”).

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.”

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. ” …. 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. ”

  2. ” 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. ”

  3. ” 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. ”

  4. 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. ”

Comments are closed.