Once one of the most controversial aircraft to grace the sky, the last operational variant of the first variable-geometry warplane went out of business back at the start of this month, with the very last flying example being cut up to be shipped to a museum.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has bid a final farewell to its last remaining F-111, which is being taken from Amberley base, west of Brisbane, to Hawaii.
The much-loved fighter bomber had its wings clipped ahead of its last journey to the Pacific Air Museum at Pearl Harbour.
Wing Commander Clive Wells has managed the disposal of all the Air Force’s F-111s.
“It’s quite an historic day from an Air Force perspective particularly for the guys who’ve worked on the F-111 … to see the last one just about to depart,” he said.
The RAAF originally purchased 43 F-111s.
Eight crashed, 23 were buried, and the remainder have been put on display in defence establishments and museums around Australia.
The F-111 was the plane which flew for the halting and jerky development of the precision-guided-weapon tactics that would win the initial phase of the US Afghan war. While its own night and all-weather bombing equipment was state of the art in the 1960s, by the 1980s F-11F crews, and their Australian F-111C and later -G counterparts, were working on beacon bombing and hitting targets marked with ground laser designators.
There was nothing quite like having an Aardvark go over your head at Mach .9+ and nought feet, on its way to pickle on your beacon or GLD paint. Its mighty turbofans shook the earth, and as it came off the target in burner it left streaks in the sky — these missions always took place at night. With relatively crude Paveway laser-guided bombs, and dumb bombs dropped on a beacon offset, the F-111 was a vital long-range, precision-strike weapon. The Australians one-upped the plane’s American inventors with a flaming fuel-dump display at airshows.
The F-111 had a troubled gestation, forced down the services’ throats by Robert S. Macnamara. The General Dynamics (ex-Convair) version of the design flunked every competitive evaluation against a Boeing competitor, but was selected, reportedly because Macnamara wanted to curry favor with LBJ: the President and General Dynamics were both Texans, after all. The jets’ first combat rotation in Vietnam ended in ignominious withdrawal after two ships lawn-darted fatally due to a terrain-following-system glitch. The jets went through several different intake designs, each one solving some old problems and introducing new ones. But in time, the plane became a reasonably successful combat ship, particularly in the 1986 strike on Libya (Operation El Dorado Canyon, see also Walter Boyne in Air Force Magazine) and in Desert Storm.
Australia is in a bit of a jam without the ‘Varks, as they had a 3500-mile range on internal fuel. It’s somewhat academic, perhaps: unlike the well-blooded American ‘Varks, the antipodean ones never saw combat. The RAAF is going to develop aerial tanking capability to get a sort of feeble simulacrum of the lost 111 capability with its sole remaining combat type, the F-18 Hornet. The Hornets are scheduled to be replaced with F-35 Lightnings, but the Australians are watching the F-35’s spiraling cost with dismay. Neither the Hornets nor the Lightnings can match the 111 for range and armament payload; but the 1960s-vintage jets were too costly to maintain.