F-111 Retires From Service

By Eric Hehs Posted 3 February 2011

The operational career of the F-111 came to an end on 3 December 2010 at RAAF Amberley near Brisbane, 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.

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 by the RAAF, but the Australian government viewed the aircraft as the right solution for its need for a long-range strike aircraft.

Delivery to the RAAF was delayed by a series of mishaps during the US Air Force’s first combat deployment with the F-111 in Vietnam in 1968. It was also delayed by structural problems. The first six F-111Cs arrived at RAAF Amberley on 1 June 1973, making Australia the first—and, as history showed, the only—international operator to ever fly the aircraft. The US retired its F-111s in 1996.

The Australian F-111Cs were unique to the RAAF. They had 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 the F-111C 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. Air Combat Officers—weapons systems officers who sat in the right seat—had a control stick on their side of the cockpit and were taught to land the aircraft in case of emergency.

Four F-111As were added to the RAAF fleet in 1982. These aircraft, all veterans of Vietnam operations, were modified with the longer wingtips and heavier landing gear of the F-111Cs.

The RAAF acquired another fifteen US Air Force F-111s beginning in 1993. These aircraft, called F-111Gs, were all former FB-111s operated by Strategic Air Command and modified in the late 1980s with digital avionics for tactical duties. The aircraft were used by the Australians mostly for conversion training and spare parts. The F-111Gs were retired by the RAAF in 2007.

The F-111—affectionately and universally known in Australia as Pig for its ability to conduct missions at night with its nose in the weeds, thanks to the terrain-following radar—was continuously updated during its service.

Four aircraft were modified for reconnaissance in the early 1980s. These versions, designated RF-111Cs, used a wet film-based camera suite with high- and low-scanning cameras and an infrared line scanner. The film cameras were later converted to digital imaging equipment.

The Pave Tack infrared and laser targeting systems were added to the aircraft in the mid-1980s, 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 its last decade, the aircraft received electronic warfare updates, including a new jamming pod. They were also modified for using night-vision goggles and for firing the AGM-142 Popeye TV-guided standoff weapon.

The last RAAF unit to operate the F-111 was 6 Squadron at Amberley. The squadron flew the aircraft for the entire thirty-seven years the aircraft served in the RAAF.

Overall History

General Dynamics won the US Department of Defense contract in 1962 to develop a supersonic aircraft under a program called TFX. This airplane, later designated F-111, would be the first in history to incorporate specific design features to make it capable of performing in multiple roles.

The F-111 is the first production airplane with a variable sweep wing—a wing configuration that can be changed in flight. The wing provided outstanding aerodynamic efficiency. With wings fully extended, the F-111 could take off and land in as little as 2,000 feet. With wings fully swept back, it could reach supersonic speeds at high or low altitudes. At high altitudes, the F-111 could fly more than 2.2 times the speed of sound. At low altitudes, the F-111 could fly supersonic speeds hugging the ground with its terrain-following radar. The F-111 could also fly transoceanic distances without refueling.

The F-111 set a record for the longest low-level supersonic flight (172 miles at less than 1,000 feet altitude) on 9 November 1966. It was also the first tactical aircraft to cross the Atlantic from the United States to Europe without refueling (in May 1967).

The F-111 first went into combat over Vietnam beginning in the late 1960s, being flown as a penetrating bomber in both high- and low-altitude missions. Nearly two decades later, US Air Force F-111F crews from RAF Lakenheath, England, used the highly accurate Pave Tack laser-guided bombing system against terrorist targets in Libya during Operation El Dorado Canyon.

In January 1991, the F-111 went to combat again, in the initial bombing raids of Operation Desert Storm. A total of 110 F-111s participated in nearly 5,000 sorties in the Gulf War in strategic bombing, ground attack, and electronic warfare missions. With its Pave Tack system, the F-111F attacked factories and other high-value military targets. F-111s were also credited with destroying more than 1,500 tanks and armored vehicles—operations that were known as “tank plinking.”

F-111 crews operated almost exclusively at night in the Gulf War. The aircraft dropped the bombs that stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf after Saddam Hussein opened pipelines to wreak environmental damage during the war. An unarmed EF-111 earned the first aerial victory of Desert Storm when its defensive maneuvering caused a pursuing Iraqi fighter pilot to fly into the ground. The F-111 was also used to drop the first GBU-28 bunker-busting 5,000 pound bombs. Those weapons had been developed in a matter of weeks to meet a critical need.

The F-111 was flown for the first time on 21 December 1964. In October 1967, the first version was delivered to the USAF Tactical Air Command at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Two years later, the first production bomber version was turned over to the Strategic Air Command at Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, Texas. A total of 562 F-111s were built. The first rolled off the production line on 15 October 1964. The last was produced in 1976.

Associate Editor Jeff Rhodes contributed to this article.

Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One.