Today I would like to talk to you about naval aviation
. I am an expert on this topic because I have broadband Internet, and that is why. The F-14 Tomcat is a naval interceptor
aircraft that is rapidly passing into museums and memory. It has gone sproing
off the deck of an aircraft carrier for the last time. The whys and wherefores
are well covered by the informative, technical writeups above mine. I shall write about the F-14 as well, but I shall do so in my own special way
But first I would like to talk about art. I do not care for the art in art galleries. Art is the domain of the good-looking and the well-spoken and the well-dressed. It is a meniscus on the surface of high society, a membrane that exists to please people I do not like. It is an artificial missile to the future, a broken sperm fired into the womb of tomorrow. It does not connect with the real world and has no impact on everyday life. It exists to inspire other artists and it is inbred and it cannot swim. It is twisted and wrong and the world would be no poorer if it was destroyed and all artists burned with it. If you want to see a man-made object that inspires passion and emotion within my soul, that encapsulates an art, and a time and place, that says something about the world in which it was born, then I give you the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. It was designed by engineers, not artists. It was designed by practical people, men with big strong hands. Grumman did not select its engineers because they were good-looking or well-spoken. It selected them because they had big strong hands. Hands that held new-born lambs, babies, Winchester rifles and women's breasts. And men's breasts, because there were women engineers as well, even in the 1960s.
The F-14 was designed and built by several committees. It is the work of many people. It is a functioning aircraft, designed for a purpose - to kill - and it is also a large metal object. It is beautiful, unintentionally beautiful. It has inspired children and adults, and designers and stylists and model-makers. Japanese animation and the Japanese toy industry would be poorer if the F-14 had never been built. Tom Cruise would be poorer too. Even though it does not look like a woman, it is a sexual object. Every day, men on aircraft carriers act out a complex lovemaking ritual with F-14s, inserting tubes into it and polishing it and sitting in it. I do not know what women feel in their loins when they contemplate the F-14, perhaps it is jealousy. When I contemplate the F-14 I imagine the Internet porn star Vanessa Blue sitting on my face. And that pleases me. My mind tells me that the F-14 is an aircraft. It looks like an albino crow, or an umbrella, with its wings furled up. But my loins and nipples tell me that it is a woman. Not a real-life woman, but a woman like the women on television or in a film, or on the Internet; a fantasy of a woman, better than the reality.
Art is preserved and given artificial prominence. The modern art of galleries today has no interface with real life, but in the future people will think that it did, because it is preserved and given an artificial prominence that it has not deserved. The people of 2085 will look back at 1985 and assume that Howard Hodgkin was our leader. He was not our leader in 1985 and he is not our leader today and I would like you to repeat that phrase. Howard Hodgkin is not my leader. He is not your leader. I would like you to write that phrase on your clothes and on walls. Art is a means of shaping the future incorrectly. To quote Martin Keller, art is "an audio nightmare cartoon gross-out of the skull", albeit that he was reviewing The Brak Album for Amazon.ca whereas I am destroying the art world with naval aviation.
The F-14 is a fantastic toy. It is the reason why people join the US Navy, or become President of the United States. The President owns all the F-14s, just as the Queen of England owns all the mute swans. I cannot tell you who designed the shape of the F-14. Modern military aircraft are designed by large teams of people. The wings and fuselage and tailplanes and cockpit area and jet intakes and outlets and electronics are designed by different teams of people, by teams of teams. If you want a picture of a modern military aircraft, imagine a giant pyramid of human beings, except that the pyramid is upside-down, and it is coated with metal and it can fly.
The F-14 was a happy accident, and I must warn you at this point that many of the sentences in this article will begin with the words "The F-14 is/was a something". A man called Robert McNamara wanted the US Navy to use another aircraft instead, the General Dynamics F-111. The F-111 was a low-level strike aircraft whereas the F-14 was a dogfighting interceptor, but in the 1960s it was felt that aircraft were just delivery platforms for long-range missiles and the ability to dogfight was unimportant. In the late 1950s the US Navy had toyed with an aircraft called the Douglas F6D Missileer, a machine that was designed purely and simply to raise missiles into the air, carry them for several hours, and if need be point them in the direction of the enemy and launch them off. It resembled a WW2 fighter plane with jet engines and it was an intriguing concept that did not catch on. Robert McNamara had nothing to do with the Missileer. His big idea was that all branches of the US military should use the same aircraft, which meant that the US Navy should fly a navalised version of the F-111 called the F-111B, which would be armed with super-long-range missiles and a big radar. Robert McNamara is the old man in the Errol Morris documentary "The Fog of War". He was alive in the 1960s and he is still alive as I write these words, unless he has died in his sleep in the morning and the news media has not been alerted.
The F-111 looked like a bat. And very few people loved it. It was conceptually similar to the F-14, with two engines and swing-wings. The original F-14 design even had a single-piece tailplane, like the F-111, but it was decided that two short tailplanes would be more practical in an aircraft carrier than one tall tailplane. But the F-111 did not have the oomph, the little spark of beauty that glowed within the F-14. It was ugly. And the US Navy did not want an ugly aircraft. Grumman had gained some experience of modern-day carrier operations whilst helping General Dynamics with the F-111B, and the F-14 design was rushed in as a replacement and everybody liked it. It was the Audrey Hepburn of carrier-based aircraft, the Katarina Witt of carrier-based aircraft, the Mr Rogers of carrier-based aircraft. Can you see how we all have a will to beauty, an impulse to protect and nurture the good-looking and the well-spoken and the cute? The graceful and the swan-like? But how to explain the John Prescotts of this world, the Lyndon Johnsons of this world, the Golda Meirs?
The F-14's design is recognisably of a certain era. It is a reflection of design trends that were current in the late 1950s and 1960s, and it is cut from the same cloth as the North American A-5 Vigilante, Russia's MiG-25, and McDonnell Douglas' F-15 Eagle. It has twin tailplanes, two engines - at the time this was a must for carrier designs, in case one engine failed - angular air intakes that are mounted at the side of the fuselage, tricycle undercarriage, a pointy nose, a seat for the pilot, brakes, etc. Throughout the 1970s, the F-14 gradually replaced the McDonnell Phantom II as the US Navy's premier top-notch first-class-passenger killer air toy. The Phantom was as clumsy as it was ugly. It was fast and it had a lengthy career, it sold well abroad, including to the RAF and Royal Navy, but it was not a dogfighter. It was not Top Gun. Tom Cruise would never have become famous flying a Phantom. Comic book heroes did not fly Phantoms. There are oodles of WW2 combat flight simulations, and there are quite a few games in which you can fly modern combat jets, but there is no significant market for simulations of the Phantom. Take off, accelerate to Mach 2, fly in a straight line towards the target, fire, turn around, fly back.
Perhaps I am being unfair to the Phantom. The F-14 was designed with much the same mission profile in mind. Its AIM-54 Phoenix missiles had an exceptionally long range of over 100 nautical miles, five times the range of its most obvious modern-day equivalent, the AIM-120. And it is true to say that there is no significant market for simulations of the F-14 either, because for most of its life its sole mission was the aerial defence of aircraft carriers, a mission which involved flying over featureless ocean for hours. The F-14 is the only aircraft that can carry the AIM-54 Phoenix and I imagine that, when the very last F-14 leaves service for the last time, the pilots will fire off all the remaining AIM-54s and then go to the bar and drink themselves into a stupor.
I would like you to imagine that it is 1988 again. Imagine you have come into some money and you want to set up a software development company. What are you going to call it? You are going to call it Variable Geometry, because it is 1988 and the words "variable geometry" seduce you with their high-tech allure. Variable geometry was a popular phrase in the aviation world in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. It is a more formal way of saying "swing-wing". Numerous swing-wing aircraft designs entered service all over the world in the 1960s and 1970s, and most of them subsequently left service in the 1980s and 1990s, and now only a very few remain.
It is quite hard to design an effective carrier-based aircraft, and I should know because all of my designs have been rejected by the Royal Navy and also by the navy of Chile. I do not know whether Chile has a Royal Navy or whether it is just a Navy. I know very little about Chile. A carrier-based aircraft has to perform as well as a land-based aircraft, but it also has to be strong enough to withstand carrier landings and it has to be rust-proof and it has to be small enough to fit into an aircraft carrier's hangar decks and its lifts etc. Naval aircraft often have folding wings so that they can be made even smaller.
It is a very hard thing, to land an aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and I should know because I have never landed an aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It is only possible if the aircraft can approach the carrier at dead slow speed, and if the pilot can see the deck whilst he is doing so. If the aircraft cannot fly at a slow speed it will smash its undercarriage on the deck, and rip out its landing hook. If the pilot has to approach the carrier with his aircraft tilted at a steep angle, he will be unable to see the deck and will miss and crash into the sea and be eaten by sharks. The US Navy's leading carrier-based interceptor of the 1950s, the Vought F-8 Crusader, solved this problem with a novel tilting wing, whereby the entire wing could tilt so that its leading edge rose above the fuselage, thus giving it a high angle of attack whilst keeping the fuselage level. Both Britain's Buccaneer and the US Navy's Phantom II used a technique called Boundary Layer Control, whereby some of the engine exhaust was redirected in order to increase airflow over the wings. Russia's Yak-38 Forger could even take off vertically, like the British Harrier (which was at the time of the Yak's introduction a purely ground-based aircraft).
Vought is a lovely name. It sounds manly, but not boorish. I picture a blue-eyed cowboy with stubble on his strong, manly jaw. A strong, sensitive man whose hands have held a new-born lamb, a Winchester rifle, and a woman's breast. The real Vought was a man called Chauncey Milton Vought, a man who was given to pronounce that growth has its seasons, and that as long as the roots are not severed, all is well in the garden. He died in 1930 and did not get to see what happened to the company that bore his name. As of writing, Vought is now owned by the Carlyle Group and makes parts for other aircraft. During its long history it has been bought and sold and part-bought and part-sold, and all because of the name. Vought. It sounds manly, but not boorish. I picture a blue-eyed cowboy with stubble on his strong, manly jaw.
The F-14 was not made by Vought, it was made by a company called Grumman which is now called Northrop Grumman, although by the time it became Northrop Grumman the F-14 was old news. The F-14's wings did not tilt. Instead, they swung backwards and forwards. By a physical process that is simple to understand but very, very hard to explain, this allowed the F-14 to travel very, very quickly and also very, very slowly, but not at the same time. With the wings swept back, it could exceed the speed of light and thus travel backwards in time to the Big Bang. With the wings swept forwards, it could travel slower than the speed of absolute zero degrees Kelvin and thus create a cube of diamond-hard super-ice. The F-14 had a further trick up its sleeve, in that the fuselage also generated a certain amount of lift. Furthermore, the F-14 was generally painted white and latterly grey, which is pleasant.
The F-14 was not the first aircraft to use variable geometry wings. The United States was actually beaten by the Soviet Union, several times, on the soles of the feet, with the Sukhoi Su-17 and the MiG-23 amongst others. The F-14 was considerably more attractive than either of those designs, however, and it remains by far the most attractive swing-wing aircraft of all time, and one of the most attractive aircraft period, and that is what matters. In common with most aircraft of its generation, the F-14 had a melancholic military career - the war it was designed to fight did not happen - and all that remains is photographs and film footage, as the F-14 was scrapped from US service in 2006. The Iranians still fly the F-14, and perhaps the dry desert air has kept them in good condition, but they cannot fly for much longer.
Variable geometry was a wave that passed through the aviation world and passed through and away and it is now gone. Britain's Royal Air Force still flies the swing-wing Panavia Tornado, and some third world nations fly the MiG-23 and other old Russian designs, but there have been no new swing-wing aircraft for decades. The technique never caught on in the civilian world, and the weight and complexity of swing-wing machinery is a critical limitation in modern military forces. I am unclear as to what kind of trick modern military aircraft use to land on an aircraft carrier. Perhaps the engines are better nowadays, or the wings are designed with better computers and can thus operate at greater extremes of speed. Perhaps the aircraft are hollow, or filled with cork. The modern age.
The F-14 is on the way out. The United States is well on the way to scrapping the last few F-14s, and Iran's aircraft are kept in service presumably to show off. The US replaced its F-14s with the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, and that has provoked a lot of controversy on the Internet. The US Navy does not care what people on the Internet say. No other nation used the F-14 and very few nations have aircraft carriers. The Royal Navy did not replace its modified Phantom IIs with a direct equivalent, instead choosing the subsonic Sea Harrier, which has recently been scrapped and replaced with helicopters because helicopters are better. The navies of India, Thailand, Italy and Spain also use naval versions of the Harrier. The French Navy uses a navalised version of the Dassault Rafale, and indeed it is the only navy in the world apart from the US to have a supersonic carrier-based interceptor aircraft. However, the world's navies are going through a major ship-building programme, and in a decade or so this could all change, albeit that swing-wing aircraft are as unlikely to be in service as aircraft with forward-swept wings, i.e. there is perhaps a minuscule chance. I love the word "minuscule", and I love the way that I know how to spell it without having to look it up.
Undermine your world.