F-111: Australia's Big Stick

By Jeff Rhodes Posted 3 December 2015

The operational career of the F-111 came to an end on 3 December 2010 at RAAF Amberley, near Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, as a crew in an F-111C (serial number A8-125) of the Royal Australian Air Force touched down for the aircraft’s last landing. The RAAF had operated the F-111 since 1973. A8-125 was the first F-111C to land at Amberley that year. This feature originally appeared in the Volume 24, Number 1 (2009), issue of Code One.

“The Royal Australian Air Force ordered the F-111 in 1963 before the first aircraft was even built. If you think about it,” explained Sqdn. Ldr. David Riddel, the executive officer of 1 Squadron at RAAF Amberley. “We ordered this aircraft just eighteen years after the end of World War II. We thought the F-111 would go through the 1960s and well into the 1970s. A short while ago, we were talking about them serving through 2020. The idea has always been to go a long way and drop a big payload. The F-111 is one heck of a capability for a small air force.”

With 32,500 pounds of internal fuel, the Australian F-111Cs can carry more than 12,000 pounds of ordnance on a high-low-high mission profile more than 1,100 miles at dash speeds of up to Mach 1.2 at night, in weather, using terrain-following radar down to altitudes of approximately 250 feet. “No other tactical aircraft can do what this one can,” Riddel added.

“The RAAF has had a policy of deterrence for many years. The F-111 is the main part of that,” said Wing Cmdr Michael Gray, commanding officer of 1 Squadron. “The aircraft is the government's Big Stick.”

“Unfortunately, in an era of true look-down, shoot-down radars on enemy fighters, the F-111 is also an aircraft that can't defend itself well,” added Riddel. “Flying it, the crews really have to sweat the small stuff. The cockpit has no head-up display, so the crews really have to work to the best of their abilities. The aircraft is old. It requires 187 maintenance man-hours per flight hour. The time has come to move on.”

The RAAF has plans to move on from the F-111 and eventually transition to the F-35 Lightning II. That transition is part of a larger recapitalization effort. “We have the C-130J. We are considering the F-35 and we are developing the Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft. We are the first international operator for JASSM [AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile],” notes Riddel. “We'll have our new tankers [KC-30B] up and running as we enter the last twelve months of F-111 operations. Effectively, all our aircraft will be changed out in the next decade.”

RAAF Amberley, about thirty miles southwest of Brisbane, is the RAAF's largest base. It will also be the beneficiary of the recapitalization effort. The new Australian C-17s are based there, and the country's new tankers will be based there as well. To protect all the assets at Amberley, the base has erected a higher fence around the flightline to deter the local kangaroo population.

Only Operator

Australia ordered twenty-four of the swing-wing F-111s in November 1963, thirteen months before the aircraft was first flown. Picking the F-111 was seen by many as a bold move, but the government felt the RAAF needed a very long-range strike aircraft.

“We had always operated bombers, like the Lincoln and Canberra,” noted Gray. “Our Air Force was looking for a replacement aircraft. They did a worldwide evaluation — [British] TSR.2; [French] Mirage V; and the [US] F-4, A-5, and F-111. The F-111 was still in development, but it offered range and payload. The F-111 had a lot of innovations, such as an afterburning turbofan engine and fully automatic terrain-following radar.”

A series of mishaps during the US Air Force's first combat deployment with the F-111 in Vietnam in 1968, followed by another accident in the United States, revealed a design weakness and a subcontractor manufacturing defect in the aircraft's wing carry-through box, the complex internal structure that holds the pivots of the wings.

The Australian government decided to delay delivery of its F-111s until the issue was fully resolved and to obtain F-4 Phantom IIs as an interim combat aircraft. The RAAF F-111s were put in storage at the then-General Dynamics facility in Fort Worth, Texas, where the aircraft were manufactured.

The solution to the wing issues was an improved, stronger wing carry-through box. The new structure was installed in the F-111Cs along with a host of other improvements. Cold-proof load testing — a ground test in which the entire aircraft is cold-soaked and acoustic sensors on the structure are used to listen for cracking — was also conducted, a process that is still continued in Australia.

The first six F-111Cs arrived at RAAF Amberley on 1 June 1973 making Australia the first — and, as it turned out, only — international operator to ever fly the aircraft. The US retired its F-111s in 1996 leaving Australia with the last flying F-111s in the world today.

Unique Variant

The Australian F-111Cs are, as one pilot described them, a “bit of a Frankenstein aircraft.” The RAAF opted for the longer wings, sturdier undercarriage, and bigger brakes of the FB-111 nuclear-capable bomber version of the aircraft ordered by the US Air Force, but retained the inlets, engines, and avionics installed in the F-111A. The RAAF also opted for the self-protection system equipment of the later F-111Es. The Air Combat Officers — weapons systems officers who sit in the right seat — have a control stick on their side of the cockpit and are taught to land the aircraft in case of emergency.

Affectionately and universally known as Pig — for its ability to conduct missions at night with its nose in the weeds, thanks to the terrain-following radar — the F-111Cs have been continuously updated over their career.

“We had four aircraft modified for reconnaissance in the early 1980s,” noted Gray. “We used a wet film-based camera suite with high- and low-scanning cameras and an infrared line scanner.” Those aircraft were designated RF-111Cs. The film cameras were later converted to digital imaging equipment.

In 1986, the Pave Tack infrared and laser targeting system was added to the aircraft, along with the capability of launching the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship standoff missile. In the mid 1990s, the Avionics Upgrade Program incorporated digital flight controls, digital mission computers, multifunction displays, and a new terrain-following radar. In the 2000s, the aircraft received electronic warfare updates, including a new jamming pod, are fully modified for night-vision goggle operation, and are capable of firing the AGM-142 Popeye TV-guided standoff weapon.

The aircraft are still being modified. “We have a 256K data transfer card in the cockpit. It is a big box that doesn't hold much information,” Riddel noted. “We have started using an electronic kneeboard computer that connects into the cockpit. The kneeboard is a commercial product modified with FalconView for mission planning and includes mission rehearsal and review. We also use it for moving map situational awareness and targeting information.”

“On the flightline, we're to the point of needing a lot of hours to produce a sortie,” said Sqdn Ldr Stan O'Donnell, senior engineering officer for 82 Wing, the base's host unit. “The aircraft is labor-intensive. For example, we have individually rigged components in the wing that require more time to install versus a part that can be plugged in. But the guys love working on the Pig and then admiring the jet in the air. We'll go to Nellis [AFB, Nevada] for a Red Flag exercise, and we'll have old US Air Force chiefs come over and ask if they can touch the jet again. Not a lot of aircraft generate feelings like that.”

Finish Line In Sight

“We are getting ready to go through a lot of changes,” noted Gray. “We are merging 1 and 6 Squadrons, our two F-111 squadrons, late this year. We'll merge maintenance in advance of that.” After the merge, 6 Squadron will operate the remaining eighteen F-111s until 2010. When it is retired, 6 Squadron, which had been the crew conversion training squadron, will have flown the F-111 for thirty-seven years, the longest serving of its twelve previous assigned aircraft. The squadron itself dates back to 1917.

Much like what happened with the F-4 prior to the introduction of the F-111 forty years ago, the RAAF will obtain twenty-four two-seat F/A-18Fs to serve as an interim capability until the F-35 Lightning II comes online. 1 Squadron, which dates back to 1916 and is the RAAF's oldest squadron, will re-form and will then start flying the F/A-18F. Crews will again go through 6 Squadron, which will serve as the Super Hornet conversion unit. Both units are scheduled to convert to the F-35 around 2020.

In the meantime, F-111 operations continue. “We only have a small number of crews. But they have to be proficient in all roles,” noted Gray. “There is strong integration on the crews. A seamless crew is fundamental to the operation of the aircraft. Both crew members need to understand what is going on during the mission.”

In addition to its roles of long-range land and maritime strike, F-111 crews also practice close air support and air defense. “We can carry twelve Mk. 82 [500-pound] low-drag bombs 350 nautical miles to the target, engage in ninety minutes of CAS, and fly back 350 nautical miles — all in 3.5 hours,” said Riddel. “We can use the AIM-9 [Sidewinder air-to-air missile] in a limited air defense role. We can shoot any maritime patrol aircraft shadowing our ships. We can dash out to the fleet and hustle the enemy away.”

“We regularly participated in large joint force maneuvers like Exercise Pitch Black, where we recently flew 103 out of a planned 106 sorties,” said Gray. “Overseas, we'd go to Red Flag every two years. We also go to Butterworth, Malaysia, in support of the Five-Power Defence Agreement twice yearly. We have participated in Cope Thunder in the Philippines and in Alaska, and we go to New Zealand for maritime exercises.”

But the end is, indeed, in sight for the F-111. The F-111Gs the RAAF obtained from the US were retired in 2007. These aircraft were the former US Air Force FB-111s, but the aircraft didn't have the Pave Tack targeting pod or Harpoon capability. “We used them mostly for conversion training,” noted Gray. “Those aircraft, because they were nuclear capable at one time, will have to be scrapped by treaty.” There has been strong sentiment to give the remaining F-111Cs to museums.

But the F-111 will not go quietly. Crews will undoubtedly be asked to perform the F-111's signature maneuver, the dump and burn, several times before the aircraft is retired. “The dump and burn maneuver is a fluke of the aircraft's design,” Gray noted. “The fuel dump vent is between the engines. You go to full afterburner and dump the fuel. That maneuver is regularly requested at airshows and civic events. We do it every year at the Brisbane Riverfire. We fly pretty low level through the suburbs and pull up into a steep climb to 2,800 feet. It's quite a thing — sight, vibrations, sound, and the smell of kerosene.” The dump and burn maneuver was used to punctuate the closing ceremonies to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

“The F-111 has stayed in the hearts and minds of people in and out of the air force,” observed Gray. “The Pig is well-loved. It is an icon in Australia.”

Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.