Thirty minutes to choose your fighter jet: how the Shah of Iran chose the F-14 Tomcat over the F-15 Eagle

Feb 11 2013 - 38 Comments

Despite all the skepticism about the actual airworthiness of Iran’s new stealth fighter “Qaher 313”, one thing is certain: Iran is still flying the iconic Grumman F-14.

More than 6 years after its last flight with the U.S. Navy, the Tomcat is still in service in a small number of examples with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF), to such an extent, Iran has recently tested a brand new air-to-air missile dubbed “Fakour”, for the combat plane made famous by Top Gun.

In fact, 80 F-14s were ordered by the Shah and 79 were effectively delivered. The procurement of the Tomcat to Iran was very important not only for Grumman, which was facing serious cash flow problems due to the difficult development of the aircraft, but also for the future of the fighter itself, since at the time F-14’s program was affected by schedule slippage and cost overruns.

When the Shah announced his intention to replace the old F-4 Phantoms in service with the Imperial Iranian Air Force, it was clear that both the USAF’s new F-15 and the Navy’s F-14 would have had the same opportunity to become Iranian’s main fighter.

So, after briefings held by USAF and Navy personnel in the Shah’s palace in Tehran, Iranian officials decided that it would have been the flight demonstration at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington DC, scheduled in July 1973, to determine which one between the two fighters, would be the best to satisfy the then Imperial Iranian Air Force’s requiremens.

The flight demonstration was scheduled not to exceed 30 minutes from the first take off to the landing of the second aircraft.

The base was closed for that short time in which at the presence of the Shah, the two U.S. fighters had to fly their demonstration: it was decided  that the USAF’s F-15, piloted by Irv Burrows (McDonnell Douglas’ test pilot), would have performed first, while Don Evans and Dennis Romano (Grumman’s test crew) with their F-14, would wait their turn after the Eagle.

While the F-15 taxied onto runway, Don and Dennis started engines of the Tomcat ahead of the schedule and burned down fuel in the warm up area during the Eagle demonstration, to reduce the difference in thrust to weight ratio between the two fighters. However F-15’s demonstration was spectacular, not only for the raw power of the aircraft but also for pilot’s skills: Burrows was a great pilot and that day, he showed all his ability.

Flagship departs

The flight demonstration was the same for both aircraft: it consisted in a sequence of maneuvers beginning with a high performance take off followed by an Immelman turn and climb-out, then a descent to a high speed fly-by, two high-g low altitude turns followed by a slow speed fly-by in the landing configuration and last, the landing.

Since the F-15 has a higher thrust to weight ratio than the F-14A, the Eagle performed a really impressive flight profile during which it pulled an incredible 7-g 360 degree turn.

After the F-15 had finished its display, everyone was waiting for the underpowered F-14A demonstration: the Tomcat’s TF-30 engines would have not given to the aircraft the same thrust to weigh ratio of the Eagle.

However, during the F-15’s performance, Evans and Romano burned down a great quantity of fuel and now they had only 2,500 pounds of remaining gas: while this little quantity was only sufficient to accomplish their flight demonstration, 2,500 pounds was also one eight of the Tomcat’s  internal fuel capacity and thanks to this fact the Tomcat had the same thrust to weight ratio of the Eagle.

At this point the F-14 had one thing that the F-15 didn’t have: variable geometry wings that would have made the difference for the grace of the flight demonstration.

Don and Dennis pushed both throttles to full zone five afterburner (which was the maximum afterburner thrust setting for TF-30 engine) and took off to perform the same demonstration of the F-15: the sequence of the maneuvers was just like the Eagle’s one, but the Tomcat’s crew, during the knife-edge pass, decided to sweep the wings from fully swept to fully forward and then they executed a turn at the maximum Tomcat’s performance, producing a large cloud of vapor off the wings due to the shock wave.


Then approaching the mid with the wings swept at 40 degrees, the Tomcat went into a full afterburner 360 degree 8 ½ g turn accelerated to 400 knots, very impressive to see. To end the demonstration, Evans and Romano added a touch-and-go landing: when the main landing gears came in touch with the runway they inserted full zone five afterburners and the Tomcat climbed in vertical. At this point, while they had almost ran out of fuel, they made a spectacular carrier landing approach and they fully stopped in one thousand feet of runway.

Once the show ended, the Shah literally ignored the Eagle and walked directly towards the Tomcat speaking for some minutes with the crew still sat in the cockpit of the fighter: he’d chosen the Tomcat, saving the Grumman and assuring a future to the F-14.

Image credit: Grumman/IRIAF, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy

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  • ghensel

    The Perfect Sales Pitch. Great Story. Thanks for Sharing.

    • Dario Leone

      Ghensel, thanks to you for reading. If you are interested in F-14 Tomcat, read also my other posts on my Aviationist page.

    • Dario Leone

      thanks to you for reading! If you want to read more about F-14 visit my page on Aviationist.

      • actually, it wasn’t quite that simple.. the f-14 phoenix weapon system (ability to shoot 6 bogies at the same time outside 60 miles) had a lot more to do with it.

        the f-15 had little more than the phantom as far as the weapon system capability was concerned at the time.

        ed flanagan

        • Dario Leone

          Hi Ed, thank you very much! The F-14 Phoenix system showed all its quality during Iraq-Iran war 1980-1988. The Phoenix was the first missile to introduce the “fire and forget” concept for the medium-long distances.

  • arthur dayne

    you should at least report that some parts of this article (i.e the last paragraph), are taken from this book:

    Paul T Gilchrist
    Tomcat!: the Grumman F-14 story
    Schiffer Publishing

    • Dario Leone

      Thanks for reading, yes I have read that great book and it was of inspiration for this post! But I wrote it by myself!

    • Me too. Watching them take off from the waist cat on Connie at night was always a thrill. Anytime, Baby!!!

  • Sigh… God I love the Tomcat! Plastic Bugs just don’t have the grace or the beauty. I still think they were retired too soon and the Bombcat could have been a fantastic addition to carrier airwing strength.

    • Dario Leone

      Yes it’s so sad it’s gone away! I really miss its beauty and sheer power!

  • Greg Warneford

    How the Tomcat got its name

    Sec Def McNamara directed that the AF and Navy study the development of a single aircraft that would satisfy both services requirements. He then attempted to foist the F-111B on the Navy. During the congressional hearings for the aircraft, Vice Admiral Thomas F. Connolly, then Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare sitting next to McNamara, responded to a question from Senator Stennis Armed Forces Committee Chairman, as to whether a more powerful engine would cure the aircraft’s woes, Adm Connolly responded “There isn’t enough power in all Christendom to make that airplane what we want!”, The rest they say is history…

    • Dario Leone

      Yes Greg you are right and Tomcat history it is beautiful as much the F-14 is!

  • A really good description of the events of the day. A couple of very minor observations:
    We burned down to about 4500 lbs of fuel which was consumed very quickly due to the copious use of Max AB at low altitude. We spoke with the Shah outside the aircraft after the flight demo.
    Incidently, the USAF was furious with us and attempted to convince the FAA to file a violation for doing low level acrobatics over a crowd. The FAA refused.
    Dennis Romano

    • Dario Leone

      Thank you very much for reading Sir and for adding infos. If you have got more of them please tell us!

    • Dongskie

      It was a flight DEMO, USAF jealous? :)

      • Dario Leone

        Hi Dongskie thank you very much for reading! I love the Tomcat! :-)

    • Anonymouse

      You have earned the title “hero.”
      Please comment on what you feel our Navy could have done with the 21st Century Advanced Tomcat.

  • parnav

    HI Mr. Dario ..i read it carefully thanks so much…always have happy landing.

    • Dario Leone

      Hi Parnav is always beautiful talkin’ with you dear friend!
      Thak you very much for reading and for leaving a comment!! I wish you a good flight!

  • Lin

    Nice description, however, I wasn’t aware that those planes were still flying. It was my understanding that Iran still had them, but were unable to do maintanance on them, and they were essentially museum pieces by now.

    • Dario Leone

      Hi Lin thank you very much, however a small number of F-14 is still in service in Iran..At least the mighty Tomcat is still flying today!

  • It’s a nicely written article which I’m sure captures the events of the day well. What shocks me is that the decision to defend Iran was based on nothing more than an air display. Still, dictators will do as they please …!

  • Wasn’t that also determined by deployment of MiG-25s in the area at the time, and the fact that Tomcat had Phoenix missiles that were believed to be capable of being a relevant countermeasure against Foxbats?

    • Dario Leone

      Yes you are right. In fact an Iranian Tomcat intercepted a MiG-25R for the first time in the August 1977 and from that time the Foxbats disappeared from the Iranian skies.

      Even if it wasn’t fired any Phoenix, its only presence was a great deterrent.

      • Still the Americans knew nothing about the Foxbat until September 1976 when Belenko defected…

        • Dario Leone

          They only knew that several Foxbats flew recce missions over the Iran and the Shah needed a fighter good enough to face it and the Tomcat did it very well!

  • Jaybird

    I’ve posted a home video of Don Evans flying the #3 on YouTube. It’s a pretty similar routine to the one he performed at Andrews.

    • Dario Leone

      Thank you very much, maybe Dennis Romano could tell us if the one flew in this occasion it was similar to the display flew that day for the Shah.

  • Takumi_Fujiwara

    What is the max G that a tomcat can reach?

  • Anonymouse

    The Shah was intelligent and picked the best ever–F-14. Too bad he was screwed over by Carter. Our Navy now could’ve advanced to the 21st century F-14 with Stealth. Practically a new plane but having the best of all capabilities.
    Instead they fly the dog F-18 Stupor Hornet. No range, no dogfighting,.. Similarly, no advanced A-6 either. Bad decisions to save maintenance and space on a carrier resulted in very poor capabilities.
    The Navy catapulted billions of $$ right into the ocean.
    The F-35 doesn’t appear, it it ever will be certified, to match Tomcat in all categories (except front/side stealth).
    We have a new Cold War w/Russia & Red China, but no Tomcat. We don’t learn from our past mistakes.

  • Chiefy707

    Tom Cooper’s Iranian Tomcat book states the Shah had already decided on the Tomcat and that the demo flights were “just because”.

  • aero

    Hell, we should invade Iran and take the Tomcats away from them. Tomcats. I love Tomcats.

  • Voice_of_Reason

    So Grumman defrauded the Shah and Iran bought a less capable fighter.

    Good for us, now that the Shah is gone and those evil Mullahs are in charge of Iran.

  • huehue

    Interesting article, but the title seems a little wrong.

  • AW2002

    That’s not why the F-15 is still operational outside of Iran. It’s operational because it got the political support and funding necessary to keep it relevant. The flight profile the USN and USAF used for the combat radii you probably looked at are very different. The 500nm radius you probably saw on Wikipedia for the Tomcat includes either a subsonic flyout with a specified loiter and multiple 360 degree turns at maximum afterburner to simulate combat, return with normal a hold over the ship and then land with reserves for two bolters and a trap, or a Mach 1.5 fly-out and 1 hr loiter, then combat and return, or some other realistic flight profile. The F-14 has a combat radius of 766nm based on other flight profiles. The F-15’s 1,062 mi radius you probably saw is based on an “interdiction” mission with all the fuel tanks it can carry.

    F-14’s rate of climb and service ceiling are lower than the F-15’s, but the service ceiling you see listed for the F-14D of 50k is actually lower than its actual service ceiling, and the real rate of climb is most likely still classified.

  • EveryManBill

    Iran isn’t building a “qauher 313” stealth fighter rofl. They are building F-5s. You really think iran is that stupid? They have reverse engineered the tomcats. If they were really that dumb instead of tomcat reverse engineering they’d have put on pots and pans as replacement parts.

  • EveryManBill

    rofl. The F-15A had like 35-40 hours of maintenance per hour of flight. They managed to fix this later on with the bs and cs and Es but it was a hangar queen just like any other. The tomcat on the other hand is the first 4th generation jet, and because of the lack of funding, the tomcat never got the electrical system upgrades it was supposed to get, which tangled up many a mechanical in it’s many spiderwebs of electrical wires. Of course, back then navy birds spent more time in the hangar because of the violent arrested landings. But go ahead, pretend your agenda-21 pushing eagle is better.

  • EveryManBill

    saddam wasn’t power hungry either. Never did a damn thing to us. Never killed his own people or gassed innocent kurds, he only killed terrorists and that he did well. Hangings galore. We murdered him for no reason. he was just a terrorist hunter and now Iraq is a shithole. Good job marines.