March 6: A retired Navy F-14 fighter plane sits on the tarmac at Chino Airport in Chino, Calif.
The Tomcats were not properly demilitarized before being transferred to private parties, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which worked with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in a 17-month investigation.
Under the rigorous demilitarization process, navigation, radar and other sensitive equipment are disabled so they can no longer perform military functions, said Cmdr. Dave Werner, a U.S. Navy spokesman.
"In this case, it seems (the jets) didn't formally undergo the process," Werner said.
Two of the jets were at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California, another was at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, and the fourth, which was acquired by Paramount Pictures, then resold to a scrap dealer, had been stored at a facility operated by Southern California Aviation at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California.
None of the jets were currently flyable, but one in Chino still has its engines and was at least superficially in very good condition, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice. The other three do not have engines but were otherwise essentially whole, she said.
There was no indication any of the hardware fell into the wrong hands "but it does present a vulnerability," Kice said.
After-hours calls to curators at the Yanks Air and Planes of Fame museums were not immediately returned Tuesday. Efforts to reach Mark Thomson, the scrap dealer who bought the F-14 from the producer of "JAG," were unsuccessful.
The Navy added F-14s to the fleet in 1972 and retired the last of them in 2006.
Iran, which acquired F-14s in the 1970s when it was an ally of the United States, is the only country trying to keep the jets in the air.
With little ability to produce parts on its own, Iran is aggressively pursuing several avenues to obtain U.S. spares, including contacting American aerospace supply companies or using U.S-based "front companies" to broker deals, according to an affidavit filed in support of the F-14 seizures.
"The aircraft, therefore, present an extreme safety hazard to the public, with potential liability on the part of the United States Department of Navy," ICE special agent Joshua Barnett wrote in the affidavit.
The four seized jets were retired from active service at the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu, California in the late 1990s. A former Naval Chief Warrant Officer told investigators he sold the F-14s to a scrap dealer without verifying they were properly demilitarized and expected the fighter jets to be destroyed, the affidavit said.
"The same thing that makes these planes a source of interest for aircraft enthusiasts, their relatively pristine condition, also makes them desirable for those with less innocent motives," Robert Schoch, special agent in charge for the ICE office of investigations in Los Angeles, said in a statement.
"The strict regulations governing the transfer of military aircraft are designed to reduce the likelihood that sensitive equipment and technology might fall into the hands of individuals or countries seeking to do us or our allies harm," Schoch said.
The jets will be partially dismantled and taken to the military's Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center in Tucson, Arizona, for storage and final demilitarization.