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. 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.

  2. 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

    • 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….

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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?

    • 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 ?

      • Hey tham58, how many hours do you have in the Tomcat?
        You think by reading a little you know everything about it?
        What is your agenda in belittling the F-14, to deify Kara?

        The Tomcat was not a “fundamentally flawed design” nor “underpowered” on one engine. The rudders were highly effective in a deep stall. Hell, we fought them effectively stalled in flat scissors all the time using rudders only. Now if you used lateral stick in that scenario you would be upside down real fast. Roll was controlled by differential tail and assisted by spoilers. Good pilots would never ever rely on lateral stick for roll control when slow because of the negative effect of spoiler deployment.

        It was a great aircraft for those who were skilled enough to know how to fly and fight it. It was an honest airplane with predictable flying characteristics and certainly was never considered by anyone a “widow maker”.
        Please reserve that title for the B-26, F-104, AV-8B and the left main coronary artery of the heart

        Sure the F-14 had some issues early on, but what fighter does not? Turned out it was good enough to serve 35 years, which I think is a record for Navy fighters.

        I am curious why are you spreading revisionist propaganda and so voraciously defending Kara?
        In fact, she was widely known to be a well below average pilot who should not have been flying Tomcats.
        She was there only because the Navy needed a female Tomcat pilot to help defuse the public wrath following the Tailhook episode.

        Do some research, talk to real Tomcat pilots and LSO’s like me who have fleet experience, hundreds of traps and know the airplane.

        FYI, Hultgreen caused her own stall, never recognized it, never responded to LSO and RIO callouts, continued to let her speed degrade and untimely never effected a recovery.

        Those who wish to further their knowledge in this matter read these:

        • Not ”viciously defending Kara”. Setting the record straight.

          So how do you account for all the other dead Tomcat crews ? Pratt & Whitney people I talked to, agreed the
          TF30 was a hopeless engine, effectively rejected even
          for the F-111.

          What do you know about the Spey and its submission
          by Roll-Royce/Allison during the TFX prorgramme ?

          And what is your ulterior motive, VICIOUSLY attacking
          a woman even in death, not resting her soul rest ?

          What more do you want – for her soul, rather than YOURS, TO BURN IN HELL ?

          So how many ”hours” did you have in the Tomcat,
          apart from surfing the internet during your ”keyboard
          warrior dogfights” in game simulators,
          whose engine compressor stalls caused countless
          casualties, not only amongst US Navy crews during TAKEOFF as well as landing, but even Iranian crews as well dogfighting during the 8-year war ?

          Your personality and evil motives are bared for all to
          see in defending an inanimate machine, while gleefully and sadistically rubbing your hands with joy,
          at a human being who plunged 4,000 feet into the ocean.

          Like quite a few others, I believe you don’t like females in fighter cockpits.

      • LOL at your “fundamentally flawed” wide spacing of the engines. The Tomcat was an absolute masterpiece, and the “fundamentally flawed” wide spacing of the engines was later adopted by the Russian Mig-29 and SU-27, among many, MANY others.

        She was in a position she didn’t earn. It came as a result of “political correctness” and it’s getting people killed.

        • Agreed. However, we’re both a bit late to the party, so to speak. A recent VDARE article brought me here.

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

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