ESSAY- Tomcatting: A jet tail across the ocean

There's nothing quite like the roar of waves crashing on the beach to wipe away the cobwebs– unless it happens to be the scream of a US Navy F-14 Tomcat overhead. Whichever was loudest appears to have masked the moment a piece of combat aviation history fell to earth and ended up on a beach 3,000 miles away in Ireland.

An investigation is now under way to discover how part of the structure of the US Navy fighter jet was found washed up on a beach in West Cork by a retired Irish pilot. The piece, about the size of a family car, is one of the tail fins from a twin-tail F-14 Tomcat– the jet featured in the movie Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise.

Retired Aer Lingus captain Charlie Coughlan made the amazing discovery at Long Strand at Owenahincha, near Rosscarbery. I just couldnt believe it, he says. The paint is still perfect. It appears to have broken off the aircraft. I could see a spar inside its cracked, not cut.

The debris, which measures eight feet by four feet, is military grey and features a flying skeleton, the insignia of VF-101 squadron also known as the Grim Reapers who up until recently were the US Navys F-14 training squad.

It's quite a substantial piece; you would think it would have sunk, but the inside is layered with honeycomb material and that could have made it buoyant, says Coughlan. There are no barnacles on it, so I would say it has been in the water only a few months.

He notified the Irish Aviation Authority who in turn contacted the Irish police who handed the investigation over to Irelands Air Navigation Investigation Unit. A senior police source said there were no reports of any aircraft missing in the area. The US Navy seemed equally mystified at first. A spokesman at the Pentagon said he is not aware of any missing tail fins. We dont fly F-14s any more, says Lieutenant Jim Marks. They were decommissioned last year.

The mystery was finally solved by Tony Holmes, a British-based author specialising in the US Navy, who said the fin belongs to a plane that crashed off the Florida Keys on October 3, 2002. Holmes was able to match the fins registration number, 136, to plane records of the VF-101 squadron a training squad also known as the Grim Reapers to which the debris belonged.

According to the records, the F-14A Tomcat BuNo 162594 crashed during a routine training flight over the Gulf of Mexico. Both crew ejected safely and were rescued by helicopter.

Its an absolutely outstanding find, said Holmes, who has published nine books on the US Navy through Osprey Publishing. Theres no way the Navy would be dumping tail fins, so the only conceivable conclusion is that it has floated all the way across the Atlantic.As Coughlan correctly identified, it was cracked off rather than cut, and the honeycomb material inside it would have made it buoyant.

Holmes added that as the only recoverable piece of an F-14 outside the United States, the debris could prove to be a unique piece of history.

Apart from one piece of debris lying at the bottom of a lough in Scotland, this is the only piece of an F-14 outside the US, as they were decommissioned earlier this year, he says. Id be amazed to see what happens to it. The US Navy is usually very keen to recover lost parts of planes.

The F-14 Tomcat, with its distinctive swept wings, twin vertical fins and engines, and state-of-the-art technology, was one of the most formidable fighter jets in US combat aviation history. Designed primarily as a naval air-to-air fighter, the Tomcat also proved adept in ground attack capabilities, tactical reconnaissance, and precision strikes. The first prototype flew in 1970, and its first combat deployment began in 1972. Both the Tomcat and its fighter squadrons were finally mothballed after more than three decades of combat duty.

A sense of its history can be found on the US Navy website, and wannabe Tom Cruises can download a computer video game designed to test the mettle of those intent on a career with the force. Called the US Navy Training Exercise, the website declares it is being conducted to help us evaluate future recruitment benchmarks. Naturally, it has a code name: Strike & Retrieve.

The Navy website states: NTE: Strike & Retrieve presents a mental challenge that requires both sound reasoning and quick-thinking action on your part. At the Navy we know the missions of the future will be determined not by who is the strongest but by who is the smartest.

And, presumably, whoever manages to hang on to their tail-fins.

This story originally appeared in the Irish Times.