The General Dynamics F-111 “Aardvark” was a medium-range interdictor and tactical strike aircraft that also filled the roles of strategic bomber, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare in its various versions. Developed in the 1960s by General Dynamics, it first entered service in 1967 with the United States Air Force. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also ordered the type and began operating F-111Cs in 1973.
The F-111 pioneered several technologies for production aircraft, including variable-sweep wings, afterburning turbofan engines, and automated terrain-following radar for low-level, high-speed flight. Its design influenced later variable-sweep wing aircraft, and some of its advanced features have since become commonplace. During its initial development the F-111 suffered a variety of problems, and several of its intended roles, such as naval interception, with the F-111B, failed to materialize.
USAF F-111 variants were retired in the 1990s with the F-111Fs retired in 1996 and EF-111s retired in 1998. In USAF service, the F-111 has been replaced by the F-15E Strike Eagle for medium-range precision strike missions, while the supersonic bomber role has been assumed by the B-1B Lancer. The RAAF was the last operator of the F-111, with its aircraft serving until December 2010.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What type of aircraft is an F-111F “Aardvark”?
A. It is a medium-range interdictor and tactical strike fighter that also fills the requirements for strategic bomber, reconnaissance and electronic warfare in its various versions. Essentially, it is an all-weather attack aircraft capable of low-level penetration of enemy defenses to deliver ordinance on the target.
Q. What was the motivation to design and build this particular aircraft?
A. The USSR shot down an American U-2 spy plane in May of 1960, proving that Russia had developed a surface to air missile that could reach aircraft over 60,000 feet. This vulnerability made the strategic plans of relying upon subsonic, high altitude bomber attacks less viable. The Strategic Air Command had already began moving to low level penetration. The following month, June of 1960, saw the USAF issue a specification order for a long-range interdiction strike aircraft able to penetrate Soviet air defenses at very low altitudes, operable from short air strips.
The U.S. Navy had been seeking a long-rang, high endurance interceptor aircraft to protect its carrier battle groups agains long-range anti-ship missiles launched from bombers and submarines.
The aircraft sought by the two armed services shared the need to carry heavy armament and fuel loads, featuring high supersonic speed, twin engines and two crew seats, probably using variable geometry wings.
With both the USAF and the USN seeking new aircraft and having several requirements in common, the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, formally directed on February 14, 1961, that the two services study the development of a single aircraft that would satisfy the requirements of both of them.
The USAF and USN could only agree on an aircraft with swing wings, two seats and twin engine features. Each service had different design requirements beyond that so McNamara decided to develop a basic set of requirements based on the USAF needs and ordered the USAF to develop it. After receiving several proposals McNamara selected General Dynamics to built it. The first flight of the F-111 was in 1964 and production ended in 1976, after 563 aircraft had been built.
Q. Did both the USAF and the USN operate the F-111?
A. No, weight and performance issues, along with the need for additional fighter requirements resulted in cancellation of the Navy version (F-111B) in 1968.
Q. What is ‘special’ about the F-111?
A. In addition to being extremely effective in performing its various missions, it has a legacy of ‘firsts’ in military aviation. It pioneered several technologies for production aircraft, including:
– Variable Geometry Wings
– Afterburning Turbo Fan Engines
– Automated Terrain-Following Radar
– Escape Capsule (for the crew)
Q. What are Variable Geometry Wings?
A. This is the descriptive terminology for the capability of an aircraft to change the position of the wings to different configurations, facilitating the flight characteristics desired by the pilot. This ‘swing wing’ or ‘swept wing’ technology became feasible after development work done by NASA. The wings of the F-111 can be set at the ‘spread’ position (16 degrees) to give a wingspan of 63 feet for take-off, landings and slower speeds or adjusted rearward to the ‘swept’ position (72.5 degrees) for a wingspan of 32 feet for high speed operations.
Q. What is an ‘escape capsule’ for the crew?
A. Instead of having individual ejection seats for the crew, as is the case with many jet aircraft, the crew of the F-111 are encased in an escape module. The entire module is then ejected in an emergency, to descend with its own parachute. After serving as an escape module it then serves as an emergency survival shelter on land or water.
Q. What is the significance of ‘Automated Terrain-Following Radar’?
A. This is an aerospace technology that allows a very low-flying aircraft to automatically maintain a relatively constant altitude above ground level, no mattre the weather or time of day. It allows military strike aircraft to automatically fly at very low altitudes (as low as 200 feet) at high speeds, avoiding detection by enemy radar and interception by anti-aircraft systems. This allows the pilot to focus on other aspects of the flight besides the extremely intensive task of low flying itself.
Q. In addition to the advantage of low-level flight, what defensive armament did the F-111F carry?
A. For self defense, AIM-9 Sidewinder air to air missiles could be mounted on the four inner swiveling pylons. A removable 20 MM cannon in the intrnal weapons bay was available, however, it was rarely fitted on the aircraft. Also, of course, was the capability of flying at very high speeds.
Q. What strike capability did the F-111 have?
A. An internal weapons bay was featured that could carry bombs (as well as the removable 20 MM cannon or auxiliary fuel tanks) with the bomb load capacity being two 750 lb. conventional bombs or one nuclear bomb. The F-111F was also equipped to carry the Pave Tack targeting system, a forward looking infrared sensor, optical camera and laser rangefinder designator. The Pave Tack allowed the F-111F to designate targets and hit them with laser-guided bombs. Each wing was equipped with four underwing pylons. Various bomb and missile configurations could be carried on the pylons and each pylon had a capacity of 5,000 pounds. The F-111F could fly faster and carry the bomb load of 4 McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs.
Q. What did it take to crew the F-111?
A. There was a crew of two – a pilot and a weapon system operator, seated side by side.
Q. With respect to performance, what was its maximum speed and service ceiling?
A. At altitude the maximum speed was 1,650 miles per hour (two and a half times the speed of sound – Mach 2.5) and its service ceiling was 66,000 feet.
Q. What was the cost of an F-111F?
A. In 1973 dollars, the flyaway cost of an F-111F was $10.3 million.
Q. What was the combat record of the F-111?
A. All combat involvement by the F-111s was flown by the USAF. It flew in the Vietnam War (1968-1972), Operation El Dorado Canyon (1986) and Operation Desert Storm (1991). The electronic Warfare version, known as the Raven (EF-111) flew in Bosnia as part of Operation Deliberate Force (1995).
Q. What is ‘special’ about the F-111F, Tail Number 178, that we are putting on static display?
A. There are several facts that make this aircraft historically significant:
- In 1986, in the Libyan Raid (El Dorado Canyon), ordered by President Ronald Reagan, this F111F flew the right wing of the Mission Commander, Arnold L. Franklin (an Officer and director of Aviation Heritage Park) and was successful on its mission. The Aircraft Commander of #178 on that mission was Jim “Jose” Jimenez and the Weapon System Operator was Mike “Yama” Hoyes. In the wheel well for the nose gear of the aircraft is the stenciled inscription “LIBYA RAIDER – APRIL 14-15, 1986 – DIRECT HIT – AL AZZIZIYAH BARRACKS’.
- As one of the aircraft on the El Dorado Canyon mission, our F-111F, tail number 178 was therefore a participant in what is generally referred to as the longest and most complex fighter mission in aviation history.
- This aircraft dropped the last bomb on the last night of the Desert Storm War. After receiving intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein was at a particular location, President George H.W. Bush ordered an attack by two F-111Fs, each with a 5,000 lb. laser guided, bunker buster bomb. The first aircraft’s bomb hit wide of the target,
followed by 178’s bomb that scored a direct hit, but the targeted individual was not present.
- The ‘Hi-Flyer’ F-111F aircraft of Desert Storm was our display aircraft, #178, with 56 combat missions in 46 nights.
- As one of the last four F-111s manufactured by General Dynamics, our #178 was selected to be a part of the retirement ceremonies for the F-111s on July 27, 1996, at the facilities in Fort Worth, Texas, where the first F-111 was manufactured.
- As a final tribute, #178 was selected to be one of the aircraft in the last four ship formation flight from Fort Worth, Texas to the ‘boneyard’ at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, arriving on July 29, 1996.
- Although he did not fly #178 on the Libyan Raid, our current president of Aviation Heritage Park, Arnold L. Franklin, flew #178 while stationed at RAF Lakenheath, England.