Salvaging a Crashed F-14 Tomcat

An F-14D Tomcat from the USS John C. Stennis was salvaged on May 7-8, 2004 after crashing off the coast of Point Loma, California. You can read the details of the crash here, but the BLUF is that the aircraft suffered a mechanical malfunction and attempted to divert to Naval Station North Island but failed to make land. The crew successfully bailed out and was treated at a local hospital before being released back to their unit. The U.S. Navy’s deep submergence unit was tasked with recovering the crashed F-14D Tomcat.

On May 8, 2004, the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit salvaged the fuselage section of a crashed F-14D Tomcat from the Pacific Ocean off California. The air frame came up in several pieces but the bulk of the aircraft was recovered. U.S. Navy Photo

When a military aircraft crashes, it will be recovered if it can be recovered. Land based crashes are more common and easier to recover as personnel can walk the scene and sweep the area for parts. This was exemplified in 2007 when a U.S. Navy Blue Angles’ pilot lost orientation and was killed during an air show at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. The Department of Defense was tasked with recovering what remained of the F-18 Hornet which broke up over a residential neighborhood and destroyed several homes. Over a period of several weeks, the bulk of the air frame was recovered and removed.

Most water crashes occur with U.S. Navy aircraft and usually one of three options are exercised when an aircraft is lost at sea. Option one is to salvage the aircraft, two is to destroy the aircraft, or if both those fail, three is to abandon the aircraft in place. Abandoning an aircraft is a measure of last resort and usually only reserved for when the aircraft is lost in extremely deep water. If the aircraft is carrying classified or sensitive equipment or information, the Navy will attempt to destroy an aircraft in situ to prevent any release of that information. There is precedent of the Navy going to great lengths to destroy lost aircraft all the way back to the 1950’s when explosives were used to demolish a lost B-36 Peacemaker bomber off the coast of California. The Department of Defense is always fearful of a foreign entity gaining access to a lost aircraft though and will salvage the aircraft if it can.

The U.S. Navy’s Super Scorpio remote operated vehicle. U.S. Navy photo

A deep sea recovery is difficult and expensive, but the U.S. Navy can operate at extreme depths with the Deep Submergence Unit. The Deep Submergence Unit’s primary mission is submarine rescue operations but with a lack of lost submarines, the Deep Submergence Unit maintains its proficiency by carrying out deep water operations such as salvaging lost naval aircraft. By May 2008, the Deep Submergence Unit was off the coast of California and deployed their Super Scorpio remote operable vehicle (ROV) on the F-14d tomcat wreck site. The ROV was used to attach recovery cables to the largest portions of the F-14 and it was pulled up in multiple pieces. While the F-14 Tomcat could not be restored to flying status, the salvage removed the possibility that elements of the air frame could be evaluated or recovered by a foreign entity.

The recovered tail section of the lost F-14D Tomcat sitting on the deck of the salvage ship. U.S. Navy Photo

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