The first Mercury rolled out in December 1986 and made its first flight in February 1987. After initial flights with Boeing in Seattle, it was ferried to the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River for systems development testing. Operational test and evaluation was undertaken by VX-1 and initial deliveries to VQ-3 took place in August 1989. All 16 E-6As acquired were modified to E-6B configuration beginning in the late 1990s. Among other modifications, the E-6B is equipped with an airborne launch control system, capable of launching U.S. land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As mainstream as it now seems, the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor was among the stranger large aircraft programs at NAVAIR.
The V-22’s roots stretch back to tiltrotor designs of the 1950s and 1960s and specifically to the Joint-service Vertical take-off/landing EXperimental (JVX) aircraft program for which the Navy/Marine Corps took the lead in 1983. The first V-22 rolled out in May 1988, though the Army left the program that year. Despite funding and political challenges, prototype development continued through the early 1990s. Flight testing of four full-scale development V-22s began in early 1997 at NAS Patuxent River but fell behind schedule.
Sea trials were completed in 1999, but a pair of accidents in 2000 resulted in the loss of 19 Marines and the grounding of the Osprey. NAVAIR made numerous hardware, software, and procedures changes to the aircraft, however, and the V-22 survived to be fielded by the USMC in 2007. Software upgrades increased the maximum speed from 250 knots to 270 knots, increased the helicopter-mode altitude limit from 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet, and increased lift performance.
In 2015, NAVAIR tested rolling landings and takeoffs on a carrier in preparation for the Osprey’s role as a carrier onboard delivery aircraft.
If ever a missile was identified with the Navy, it was the AIM-54 Phoenix. Like the F-14 Tomcat that carried it, the air-to-air missile became famous.
The Phoenix’s long range (more than 100 miles) gave the F-14 the greatest standoff engagement capability of any fighter in the world for decades. Teamed with the Tomcat’s AWG-9 fire control system, it was the first operational radar-guided air-to-air missile that could be launched in multiple numbers against several different targets from an aircraft. In 1973, the AIM-54 set a benchmark with the first full-scale testing on an F-14 on NAVAIR’s Point Mugu Sea Range. Within 38 seconds, the Tomcat launched and simultaneously guided six Phoenix missiles to six separate targets 50 miles away, scoring four direct hits.
The Hughes Aircraft Company began development of the Phoenix in 1962, intending it for the F-111B. In 1966, an A-3A Skywarrior performed the first full-scale test over the Pacific Missile Range near San Nicholas Island, California. When the F-111 was abandoned by the Navy, the F-14 got the AIM-54, which debuted operationally in 1974. NAVAIR worked through the late ’70s to develop the improved AIM-54C, which joined the fleet in 1981. Though it never shot down enemy aircraft in U.S. hands, the Iranian air force, which had received F-14s and AIM-54s in the mid-1970s, claimed several Phoenix kills during the Iran-Iraq War. The AIM-54 retired in 2004, two years prior to the Tomcat.
NAVAIR has tested and developed many high-performance airplanes in 50 years, but none was as fast as the F-14 Tomcat. In relatively clean configuration and maximum afterburner, the Tomcat could achieve Mach 2.34 (1,544 mph @ 49,000 feet).