By: Michel Perkins
Both aircraft were amazing fighters, superior in almost every respect to anything else in the air at the time. The F-14, especially, was a superb airframe, extremely well adapted to its chosen role as a naval long range interceptor, one of the fastest combat aircraft to ever enter service, and despite its large size it was a fairly capable dogfighter. Even today, the F-14 would be a very useful asset to any air force just because of its incredibly powerful radar.
I mean, look at it. That just screams “Power”.
The problem with the F-14, though, was that its capabilities as anything except a long range air superiority platform weren’t really developed. In the last decade of its service, it did start to undertake attack roles, where it proved to be a stable bomb truck and a quite capable weapons delivery platform. Doubtless, if it had stayed in service and been further developed it could have become a very powerful ground attack and strike aircraft, much like the F-15E.
But there were various issues that meant its days were limited. It was an expensive aircraft both to procure and to operate; for much of its operational life, the entire fleet was badly underpowered with the troublesome Pratt & Witney TF-30 turbofan; and there were political machinations between the White House and Grumman that virtually ensured the end of the F-14 by the mid-1990s.
The F-4 was also a phenomenal aircraft, like the F-14 initially designed as a long range naval interceptor and air superiority fighter. Within a year of its introduction in 1960, it had set a number of world records and performance achievements, including the highest achieved zoom climb (98,557ft), sustaining a top speed over 900 mph at an altitude of under 125 ft, a series of time-to-altitude records, and the world absolute speed record of 1,606.3 mph over a closed 20-mile course.
It also had the benefit of being introduced not long before the outbreak of a major war, which virtually ensured that there would at least be some experimentation with different weapons configurations and mission types. From BVR interception, dogfighting, precision bombing with Paveways, general ground attack with regular bombs, Close Air Support, to Wild Weasel missions against enemy radar, the F-4 proved to be more than adequate to almost any mission the USN, USAF or USMC threw its way. It had a 56-year career with the United States, and is still in use by several air forces today – Greece, Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey (who is still using it in active combat against ISIS).
For that reason alone, the “Best Fighter Jet” trophy has to go to the F-4, simply because it was given the chance to amply prove its capabilities. It was an athlete who went through his career with a haul of gold, silver and bronze medals, championships and world records, and a long and successful career as an instructor and mentor to the next generation. The F-14, meanwhile, was a potential world-beater who almost reached the heights, but through no fault of its own sustained a career-ending injury, and crashed and burned hard. It will, sadly, always be a case of “what might have been…”