The F-111: Born in Controversy

Updated on January 29, 2018
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A flight of F-111s over Washington DC, June 1991.  It was part of the Desert Storm Victory Parade.  The 2 aircraft on the right are F-111s and the 2 on the left are EF-111s.An F-111 on static display at Andrews AFB, 1989.An F-111 on static display at Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991.An F-111 making a low level pass at Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991.An F-111 on static display at Andres AFB.An F-111 over Andrews AFB, May 1991.An F-111 over Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991.
A flight of F-111s over Washington DC, June 1991.  It was part of the Desert Storm Victory Parade.  The 2 aircraft on the right are F-111s and the 2 on the left are EF-111s.
A flight of F-111s over Washington DC, June 1991. It was part of the Desert Storm Victory Parade. The 2 aircraft on the right are F-111s and the 2 on the left are EF-111s. | Source
An F-111 on static display at Andrews AFB, 1989.
An F-111 on static display at Andrews AFB, 1989. | Source
An F-111 on static display at Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991.
An F-111 on static display at Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991. | Source
An F-111 making a low level pass at Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991.
An F-111 making a low level pass at Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991. | Source
An F-111 on static display at Andres AFB.
An F-111 on static display at Andres AFB. | Source
An F-111 over Andrews AFB, May 1991.
An F-111 over Andrews AFB, May 1991. | Source
An F-111 over Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991.
An F-111 over Andrews AFB, MD, May 1991. | Source

Development

The TFX (Tactical Fighter, Experimental) program was the first attempt to design a fighter aircraft to meet both United States Air Force (USAF) and Navy requirements. The Navy required an aircraft that could take off in 3,100 feet (945 meter) and land in 3,000 feet (915 meters)[i]. This was necessary because a Navy fighter had to land on aircraft carriers.

The F-111’s development became an example of how not to develop a system. In 1962 the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara awarded General Dynamics the contract for the F-111. The Unit Procurement Cost was $15.6 million. The 1963 Unit Procurement Cost for F-4B Phantom IIs was $2.191 million[ii]. Soon after the contract’s award Congress learned Department of Defense (DoD) reports concluded the Boeing design would have been less expensive and have better performance. The Navy had specifications the Air Force didn’t need. The Navy insisted the aircraft have side-by-side seating, carry internal stores, and have an ejection pod. The General Dynamics designed the F-111 to have all these features. The Navy dropped out of the F-111 program in 1968. The aircraft the Navy eventually got, the F-14 Tomcat, didn’t have any of these features. The DoD lowering the number of aircraft in the order increased the unit cost of the aircraft. The DoD hired the Performance Technology Corporation to study the F-111 program. It found the F-111’s Pratt & Whitney engines cost twice what they should have. The DoD re-negotiated its contract with Pratt & Whitney and reduced the contract by $100 million. The RAF ordered 50 F-111s in 1967 but canceled its order in 1968[iii].

The F-111 made its first flight on December 21, 1964.[iv] The F-111 was the first variable-sweep wings aircraft put into mass production. The F-111 could spread its wings to fly slow or close its wings for high speed flight. This was one of the many innovative technologies incorporated into the F-111. The USAF took delivery of its first F-111s in June 1967.[v] The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) purchased 24 F-111Cs in 1976 for a unit price of $22.238 million.[vi] Australia was the only foreign country to purchase the F-111.


[i] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman

[ii] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman

[iii] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman

[iv] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd.

[v] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd.

[vi] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman

The Vietnam Conflict

In 1968 the USAF sent 8 F-111s to Thailand. F-111s began combat missions in March 1968. Three days after operations began an F-111, serial number 66-0022, crashed on March 28, 1968 because of a mechanical failure. The crew, Major Henry McCann and Captain Dennis Graham, were killed. A second F-111, serial number 66-0017, crashed on March 30. An HH-53E helicopter piloted by Major Wade Oldermann rescued the crew, Major Sandy Marquardt and Captain Joe Hodges. A third F-111, serial number 66-0024, crashed on April 22. This accident killed Lt. Colonel Ed Palmgren and Lt. Commander David Cooley. A structural failure of an actuating valve caused these crashes and a crash at Nellis AFB, Nevada on May 8.[i] The USAF withdrew the F-111 from Thailand in November. The F-111s flew 55 missions, mostly at night, and most of the missions were in bad weather. The F-111s flew solo and didn’t use tanker, electronic countermeasure support, or fighter escort. They delivered their payload with a high degree of accuracy by 1968 standards. The F-111’s remained popular with its pilots. Many congressional representatives and other civilians were critical of the aircraft.

F-111s returned to Indo-China on September 27, 1972 as part of the LINEBACKER I bombing campaign against North Vietnam. F-111 missions began on September 28, 1972. An F-111, serial number 67-0078 callsign RANGER 23, was lost on that night. Its crew, Major William Clare Coltman and First Lieutenant Arthur Brett Jr. were killed in the crash. Two more F-111s went down in November.[ii]

When peace negotiations stalled President Richard M. Nixon ordered an intense bombing campaign. The bombing campaign, named LINEBACKER II, lasted from December 18 to December 29. The losses on the first night included an F-111, serial number 67-0099, and its crew Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Ward and Major James R. McElvain. On December 22, North Vietnam groundfire shot down an F-111, serial number 67-0068. The North Vietnamese captured the crew, Captains Bill Wilson and Bob Sponeybarger.[iii]

On January 27, 1973 the cease-fire went into effect. This didn’t end USAF or F-111 operations in Indo-China. An F-111, serial number 67-0072, crashed on takeoff at Takhli Air Base, Thailand. The crew got out safely. There was an F-111 mid-air collision over Cambodia on June 16, 1973. F-111 serial number 67-0111 went down. Its crew ejected safely.[iv]

On May 12, 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured the U.S. flagged merchant ship SS Mayaguez. When a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion located the SS Mayaguez the 7th Air Force diverted 2 F-111s from their training mission to the SS Mayaguez. The F-111s were unarmed but they made low-level high-speed passes near the ship. On May 14 F-111s sank a Cambodian gunboat.[v]


[i] F-111 Net, http://f-111.net/F-111A/Combat-Lancer-F-111As-Introduction-to-War.htm last accessed 1/22/18. In the May 8 1968 crash the crew, Majors Charlie Van Driel and Ken Schuppe ejected safely.

[ii] F-111 Net, http://f-111.net/F-111A/combat-ops.htm, last accessed 1/22/18. Serial number 67-0063 was lost and its crew, Major Robert M. Brown and Captain Robert D. Morrissey, were killed on November 7. Serial number 67-0092 was lost and its crew killed, Captains Donald Dean Stafford and Charles Joseph Cafferrelli, were killed on November 21.

[iii] F-111 Net, http://f-111.net/F-111A/combat-ops.htm, last accessed 1/25/18.

[iv] F-111 Net, http://f-111.net/F-111A/combat-ops.htm, last accessed 1/25/18.

[v] F-111 Net, http://f-111.net/F-111A/F-111A-in-SEA.htm, last accessed 1/23/18.

Developments and Variants

The USAF felt the F-111 proved itself in the LINEBACKER campaigns. In 1976 there was a push to find a name for the F-111. It was officially named Aardvark on its retirement. When President Jimmy Carter canceled the B-1 bomber program the Air Force was left without a penetration bomber. The Air Force resurrected the F-111X-7 program and developed the FB-111A as a medium range penetration bomber[i]. There were plans to develop an FB-111B and FB-111C.[ii] The Air Force dropped these plans when President Ronald Reagan gave the go ahead for the B-1B bomber. The Air Force also converted some of its F-111As to electronic jamming aircraft. The Air Force designated these aircraft EF-111 Ravens.


[i] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman

[ii] Federation of American Scientists, https://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/bomber/fb-111.htm, last accessed 1/25/18.

Post-Vietnam Combat

On April 15, 1986 the U.S. carried out air strikes against Libya.[i] The strike aircraft were U.S. Navy A-6, A-7, and F/A-18s. The USAF strike aircraft were 18 F-111s. The USAF also used 4 EF-111A Ravens. It was the first use of the EF-111A in combat. France refused to permit the F-111s to fly over its territory so the F-111s had to fly from their bases in England, around continental Europe, to bomb Libya. This required multiple aerial refueling. A Libyan ZSU-23-4 shot down an F-111, serial number 70-2389, killing its crew, Major Fernando Ribas Dominici and Captain Paul Lorence. This was the mission’s only loss. Five other F-111s aborted. Eleven of the 12 F-111s that completed their mission struck their targets. Some critics claimed the F-111s were superfluous and they were only included to made it a joint service operation.

The USAF used F-111s & EF-111s in Operation Desert Storm. F-111s destroyed over 1,500 Iraqi armored vehicles. Air crews called their anti-armor missions “tank plinking”. In an unusual military move the USAF revealed their tactics. Tanks had to run their engines daily. At night the desert sand was cool but the tanks were still warm. This made them easy targets for heat seeking missiles. Propaganda leaflets warned Iraqis not to sleep in their tanks. The Iraqi tankers followed the advice. When the ground invasion started Iraqi tankers lost critical minutes scrambling to their tanks. F-111 targets destroyed included; Over 250 artillery pieces, almost 250 aircraft shelters, 4 aircraft on the ground, and 2 ships. Iraqi forces set many Kuwaiti oil fields on fire. The also had an oil pipeline dump oil into the Persian Gulf. F-111s flew a daytime mission where they used guided bombs, GBU-15s, and sealed the pipeline manifold stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf.[ii]

On the first night of Operation Desert Storm a Mirage F-1 attacked an EF-111, crewed by Captains James A. Denton and Brent D. Brandon. The F-1 and EF-111 crews claimed to have shot each other down but both aircraft returned safely to base. An Iraqi Mirage F-1 shot down an EF-111 on February 13, 1991. The EF-111 crew, Captains Douglas L. Bradt and Paul R. Eichenlaub, died in the crash[iii]. This was the only F-111/EF-111 loss in Operation Desert Storm.

After Desert Storm F-111s and EF-111s flew missions as part of Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch. The USAF retired the last of its F-111s in 1996. EF-111s continued to fly Northern and Southern Watch missions. EF-111s flew missions in Operation Deliberate Force, an air campaign from August 30, 1995-September 20, 1995, against Bosnian Serbs. The USAF retired the EF-111s 1998.

The Pong Su was smuggling drugs into Australia. Australian authorities captured the ship and used F-111s to scuttle the Pong Su. Royal Australian Air Force F-111s sank the North Korean ship Pong Su on March 23, 2006.[iv] The Royal Australian Air Force retired its F-111s in 2010. Some were allocated for preservation but Australia buried 23 of them in a landfill.[v]

[i] President Ronald Reagan ordered these strikes in retaliation for a Libyan terrorist bombing at a Berlin nightclub. The bombing killed U.S. Army Sergeant Kenneth T. Ford and mortally wounded U.S. Army Sergeant James E. Goins who died two months after the bombing. Nermin Hannay, a Turkish national, also died in the blast.

[ii] Fighter Planes.com, https://www.fighter-planes.com/info/f111_aardvark.htm, last accessed 1/25/2018.

[iii] F-111 Net, http://f-111.net/F-111A/combat-ops.htm, last accessed 1/25/18.

[iv] F-111 net, http://www.f-111.net, last accessed 1/25/18.

[v] Key.aero, Final 23 Retired RAAF F-111s Buried in Landfill Site, http://www.key.aero/view_article.asp?ID=4433&thisSection=military, last accessed 1/26/18.

F-111 Stats

 
F-111A
Max Speed
1,453 mph (2,345 kph)
Max Speed Sea Level
914 mph (1,460 kph)
High Cruise Speed
1,114 mph (1,782 kph)
Service Ceiling
35,900' (10,900 meters)
Combat Ceiling
56,650' (17,270 meters)
Initial Rate of Climb
25,550'/min (7,788 meters/min)
Combat Radius
1,330 miles (2,130 km) FB-111A 1,880 miles (3,000 km)
Ordinance Capacity
33,000 lbs (15,000 kilos) FB-111A 37,500 lbs (17,000 kilos)
Sources: Flying the 'Vark, by Rick Llinares, Air Combat, January/February 1996, Volume 24, Number 1. Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image
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      Robert Sacchi 2 weeks ago

      Yes, air defenses was among the many targets the F-111s. They also struck strategic targets, hardened bunkers, and vehicles.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Robert

      Great hub, and you're right, the second crew member on any two seat plane is just as important as the Pilot.

      They're responsible for running all the electronic warfare stuff, as well as advising the Pilot what weapons to use against targets, it's the 'EWO' who'll fire a 'Maverick' against a radar site, or a 'Hellfire' against ground targets, it's the EWO who sets the priority for the targets.

      If I remember rightly, they were mainly used to 'take out' Iraqi air defences as they had the ability to pick up radar signatures from as far away as 60 or more miles.

      Each type of plane had a different role.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
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      Robert Sacchi 8 weeks ago

      Thank you for sharing with your son. I appreciate it.

    • KatWin profile image

      Kathy Burton 8 weeks ago from Florida

      Somehow I knew it was the wrong word-passenger. Thanks for setting the record straight. I learned much from the feedback. I need to share this article with my son who is a military history buff.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 8 weeks ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I am glad you learned something about the F-111. For the record, so every EWO doesn't come after me, the F-111 has 2 crew members, the pilot and the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), the EWOs should not be referred to as passengers. Often times in the movies the second crew member in a combat aircraft is depicted as the pilot's cheerleader. This is not accurate. That's why in the USAF and U.S. Navy when a 2 crew member aircraft shoots down an enemy aircraft each is credited with a "Kill". In Vietnam the to American ace, then Captain Charles B. DeBellevue with 6 kills, was a Weapons Systems Officer.

    • KatWin profile image

      Kathy Burton 8 weeks ago from Florida

      I knew nothing about this plane till now. And to name the pilots and passenger killed in the downed aircrafts what an honor. They are not forgotten.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 2 months ago

      Thank you.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 months ago from Houston, Texas

      "Destruction to stop destruction" is a good way to explain using a bomb in this manner.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 2 months ago

      CJ Kelly - Thanks for reading and commenting. Glad you learned F-111s flew missions in Vietnam. The history of the F-111 is not only interesting it is also instructive.

      Peggy Woods - Thanks for reading and commenting. The mission to stop the oil gushing into the Gulf was famous at the time. I guess one could call it "destruction to stop destruction".

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 months ago from Houston, Texas

      This is so interesting. What was most interesting to me was the fact of these aircraft and those guided bombs being used to seal off that oil leak into the Persian Gulf. I would not have thought that a bomb could be used like that.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 2 months ago from Auburn, WA

      I had not realized the F-111 flew missions in Vietnam. I always thought it was developed after the war. I remember the Libya missions and the Gulf very well. Good job.

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