The Grumman F-14 Tomcat is one of the most iconic American fighter jets. Its appearance in Top Gun made the interceptor a pop culture icon forever associated with a need for speed into the danger zone. Naturally, when the US Navy began retiring the F-14 in the late 90s, museums and other parties were eager to acquire an example of the famous plane. However, some aircraft were decommissioned a bit too quickly. This led to the seizure of four F-14s by federal agents in 2007.
On March 6, 2007, customs agents and officials from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service seized four F-14s. Two were seized from the Yanks Air Museum and one was seized from the Planes of Fame Air Museum, both located at Chino Airport in California. The fourth F-14 was seized from Aviation Warehouse at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California. Notably, this last Tomcat was originally acquired by famed TV producer and Marine veteran Donald Bellisario for his hit show JAG. According to a federal court affidavit filed by ICE Agent Joshua Barrett, when the aircraft were retired at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, California, Navy officials failed to ensure that they were properly stripped of all military hardware.
The affidavit stated that the four jets were retired between 1996 and 1998. Although they should have been dismantled and discarded by an authorized contractor, the Tomcats were instead sold in "unauthorized deals" for $2,000-$4,000 each. The affidavit further stated that the proceeds from the sales went to the Morale Welfare and Recreation Fund for a unit stationed at Naval Base Ventura County, California.
The discovery of the improper disposal of the aircraft came from an undercover sting operation during an investigation into the potential black market sale of F-14 parts. Iran, the only nation still actively flying F-14s, was reportedly trying to acquire parts to maintain their fleet. Federal agents were working to prevent this from happening. "The investigation has not uncovered any evidence that these planes have been plundered for parts by people with nefarious motives," said ICE spokewoman Virginia Kice in a public release, "but the fact that they were not properly demilitarized certainly presents a potential vulnerability."
The federal affidavit stated that the F-14s were released "improperly and without authority" by the officer in charge of demilitarizing them. They were sent to California Public Recycling, a private company in Oxnard, California, to be disposed as scrap. However, the F-14 was specifically barred from scrap metal recycling programs according to the affidavit. Marc Keenberg, a consultant for the company, told Los Angeles Times that the planes were sold to another scrap yard and lost track of them.
Bellisario stressed that his F-14 was acquired through the proper military channels. "They didn’t sell us one. They gave us one, and they removed the engines," he told Los Angeles Times. "The Navy said to us, 'We can give you an old aircraft, but we have to demil [demilitarize] it before we can give it to you.' I just assumed that's what happened." Bellisario also noted that his F-14 had its back broken. That is, the Navy sliced the Tomcat's fuselage in half and welded it back together. This rendered the aircraft unable to fly but perfectly serviceable as a prop. Bellisario said that the aircraft had to be towed around on set.
In 2005, the JAG F-14 was sold to Aviation Warehouse Inc in El Mirage, California. Mark Thompson, the company's president, told Los Angeles Times that Aviation Warehouse also bought the other three F-14s for $15,000 from a middleman who facilitated the sale on behalf of California Public Recycling. Aviation Warehouse later sold them to the museums for $50,000 each. Federal officials noted that no documentation of the demilitarization of the planes existed. Following their seizure, the F-14s were dismantled and shipped to a military facility in Tucson, Arizona for storage and final demilitarization.