Oceana Air Show, 2006. This was the last appearance of the Tomcat at the Oceana show. The aircraft was on her last legs by now, down to only a few squadrons as she was being phased out of service. Size, maintenance issues (even though practically all of these aircraft had low flight hours on them and were all D models – the very latest in the design,) a fundamental change in the strategic sea-based mission of the United States Navy, and just the desire to have a newer platform on the decks in the F/A-18 E and two-seat F aircraft meant the demise of the Tomcat was nigh.
The end of the Soviet Union 16 years prior was, in my opinion, the biggest reason for the end of the Tomcat. For so many years we had to be concerned about that opening in the North Atlantic called the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, or GIUK where the Soviet navy would come through in the event of Grand Hostilities between the forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. As such, carrier battle groups would be sent up into that North Atlantic region to handle any Soviet sortie of surface action groups. Protecting the carrier battle group was paramount, and the long range of the Tomcat coupled with the long range of the Phoenix missile system allowed us to hopefully “shoot the archers before they shot their arrows” – bag the Soviet aircraft/bombers before they could release their anti-ship cruise missiles.
This was called the “outer air battle” and was a core tactic for the US Navy and Tomcats for much of its life through the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s.
So, when the Soviet Union went away that particular tactic and need went away, as well. The Tomcat hung around for an additional 15 years, morphing into a Jack AND Master of all or many trades, especially after the end of the A-6 Intruder medium attack aircraft. The Tomcat, or “Bombcat” as it came to be known, turned out to be an excellent bombing platform, with powerful engines and a stable airframe that, when incorporating a laser designation system like the LANTIRN pod, could put a 2,000 lb laser guided bomb through a window pane of choice. Sweet.
But that wasn’t enough to save the Tomcat in a world that didn’t need such capabilities with the advancement of the upcoming Hornet airframes and models.
And, with the Imperial Iranian Air Force still flying Tomcats from the 80 (79 delivered) they purchased during the Shah years, no Tomcats were left flyable here in the US lest spare parts make their way to Iran through a black market. That means, unfortunately, you’ll never see a Tomcat fly again in the US, not at an airshow, not as some billionaire toy, not anywhere – unless we make nice with Iran and the Ayatollah again and they let us have one back.
Don’t hold your breath.