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SEATTLE— An exciting “new” aircraft has recently taken up residence on the ramp of The Museum of Flight on Boeing Field/King County International Airport in Seattle. The sharply raked twin tails and vibrant skull-and-crossbones paint scheme of the Museum’s Grumman F-14 Tomcat have already caused many a taxiing pilot to slow down for a lingering glance.

The big fighter actually arrived at the Museum last December, having been flown in from NAS Oceana, Va., following its release from the Navy’s active inventory. At that time, it attracted relatively little attention—on purpose. This is because the Tomcat’s last Navy assignment had been as an “aggressor aircraft” at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon, Nev., better known as “TOP GUN” school. In that role, the aircraft had been painted in an all-gray, low-visibility livery designed to give as much trouble as possible to the Navy fighter pilots trying to “shoot it down.”

However, the Museum’s Tomcat (Navy Bureau of Aeronautics No. 160382) had enjoyed a much more flamboyant youth. Delivered to the Navy on April 8, 1977, at Grumman’s Bethpage, N.Y., factory, 160382 first went to sea that summer, serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz with VF-84, the famous Jolly Rogers. The “Jolly Rogers” squadron nickname and skull-and-crossbones motif have their origins in World War II, when VF-17 adopted the name in tribute to their mount, the Vought F4U Corsair. The proud “Jolly Rogers” name, symbol and tradition have subsequently been passed down through several Navy fighter squadrons, including VF-84, to today’s Jolly Rogers, VF-103.

Although Jolly Rogers airplanes—from the World War II Corsairs to today’s Tomcats—have all borne the skull-and-crossbones on their vertical stabilizers, this marking reached a peak of flamboyance in the late ‘70s, just as 160382 was entering service. This scheme—featuring black tails with yellow tips, a stark white skull-and-crossbones, and a bold yellow-and-black banner wrapping around the nose—was about as far from “low-visibility” as Navy markings ever got, and subsequent squadron colors have been much toned down. There was never much interest in applying any of these later color schemes to the Museum’s Tomcat.

The decision to go with the bold was cemented as research revealed that the Museum’s specific airplane was quite a celebrity in its initial VF-84 garb. In addition to being featured in the lithograph “Tomcat” by acclaimed aviation artist Jack Fellows and being the subject of a popular F-14 desk model, 160382 also co-starred with Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen in the 1980 United Artists motion picture The Final Countdown, in which the pirate-garbed Tomcat goes through a time warp and shoots down a couple Japanese Zeros on the eve of Pearl Harbor.

Museum collections technician Evan Elliott contacted maintenance personnel at VF-103, the present-day Jolly Rogers, who supplied the templates necessary to get 160382 out of its drab TOP GUN togs and into its late-’70s Jolly Rogers finery. A Boeing Co. crew under the enthusiastic leadership of manager Fred Morrison and supervisor Larry St. Laurent then got to work. Expertly spraying paint generously donated by PPG Aerospace–PRC-DeSoto International, the Boeing crew has returned the Grumman to stunning, like-new condition, making it one of the most eye-catching aircraft in the Museum collection. Although some of the paint work was accomplished as part of Boeing’s generous annual in-kind corporate donation to the Museum, much of it was also done after hours and on a strictly volunteer basis by the members of the crew.

The Museum’s F-14—like virtually all Navy aircraft in museums, regardless of vintage—is actually on long-term loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. Although it has been “de-militarized” through the removal of its 20mm M61A1/A2 Vulcan cannon and its ejection seat pyrotechnic charges, the Tomcat is otherwise in airworthy condition and could, in theory, be recalled to active duty. Meanwhile, the Museum has no plans to fly the aircraft, although many staff members and visitors have volunteered!


The independent, non-profit Museum of Flight is one of the largest air and space museums in the world. The Museum’s collection includes more than 135 historically significant air- and spacecraft, as well as the Red Barn—the original manufacturing facility of The Boeing Co. The Museum’s aeronautical library and archival holdings are the largest on the West Coast. More than 100,000 children are served annually by the Museum’s on-site and outreach educational programs—the most extensive museum-based youth aviation and space education program in the country. The Museum of Flight is one of only 750 museums in the nation and nine in Washington state that are fully accredited by the American Association of Museums.

The Museum of Flight’s Grumman F-14A Tomcat in its original squadron colors as flown with VF-84, the Jolly Rogers, circa 1977.

(Museum of Flight photo)

Note: This image is available electronically as a high-resolution TIFF or JPEG on request.