Skip to main content

The F-111: Born in Controversy

Development of the F-111

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 at 3,100 feet (945 meters) and land at 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, 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.

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 it by $100 million. The RAF ordered 50 F-111s in 1967 but cancelled 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 slowly or close 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 Olbermann rescued 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 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 made low-level, high-speed passes near the ship. On May 14, F-111s sank a Cambodian gunboat.[v]

[i] F-111 Net, 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,, 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,, last accessed 1/25/18.

[iv] F-111 Net,, last accessed 1/25/18.

[v] F-111 Net,, 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,, last accessed 1/25/18.

Post-Vietnam Combat

On April 15, 1986, the U.S. conducted 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 were only included to make 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. Aircrews called their anti-armor missions “tank plinking”. In an unusual military move, the USAF revealed its tactics. Tanks had to run their engines daily. The desert sand was cool at night, 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, four aircraft on the ground, and two ships. Iraqi forces set many Kuwaiti oil fields on fire. They also had an oil pipeline dump oil into the Persian Gulf. F-111s flew a daytime mission where they used guided bombs and GBU-15s and sealed the pipeline manifold, stopping oil flow 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 in 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,, last accessed 1/25/2018.

[iii] F-111 Net,, last accessed 1/25/18.

[iv] F-111 net,, last accessed 1/25/18.

[v], Final 23 Retired RAAF F-111s Buried in Landfill Site,, last accessed 1/26/18.

F-111 Stats

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.


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)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Robert Sacchi (author) on September 15, 2018:

One of the big arguments with fighters is whether a single crew member or a two crew member concept is better. There are valid arguments on both sides. Thank you for continuing with the article's discussion.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 15, 2018:

Often your comment section is worth coming back to read. I had not known the term EWO but now understand what that means and what an important job they do. It makes sense that in a fighter plane any person on a two-seater airplane would have a vital role to play.

Robert Sacchi (author) on April 01, 2018:

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

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 31, 2018:


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 (author) on February 19, 2018:

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

Kathy Burton from Florida on February 19, 2018:

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 (author) on February 18, 2018:

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.

Kathy Burton from Florida on February 18, 2018:

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 (author) on January 28, 2018:

Thank you.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 28, 2018:

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

Robert Sacchi (author) on January 27, 2018:

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 Woods from Houston, Texas on January 27, 2018:

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.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on January 27, 2018:

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.