The F-111 Aardvark was an all-weather attack aircraft, capable of low-level penetration of enemy defences to deliver ordnance on the target. It was also the first production aircraft to feature variable-sweep wings (also known as swing wings). After a troubled development, the F-111 entered service with the US Air Force in 1967. It flew in Vietnam, Operation El Dorado Canyon, and the first Gulf War before its retirement in 1998. The F-111 continued to fly with the Royal Australian Air Force until 2010, where the aircraft was dubbed 'the pig'.
In this episode of Duxford in Depth, IWM Curator Emily Charles looks at the development, design, and service history of the F-111 Aardvark. She explores what the aircraft represented during its service, an example of the Military-Industrial Complex that Dwight D Eisenhower warned against and as a symbol of America's interventionalist role in the post-Cold War world. She also looks at the service history of this particular F-111 which flew in the Gulf War as part of the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing before arriving at IWM Duxford in 1993.
America's all-weather attack aircraft
Just over 30 years ago this aircraft was sent to the Persian Gulf as part of a multinational force in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. This F-111 flew 19 combat missions as part of Operation Desert Storm an air campaign that subjected Iraq to one of the most intense aerial bombardments in history.
Archive clip: "The F-111 tactical fighter it's a twin-engine, Mach 2, two-place, side-by-side fighter aircraft designed to perform an Air Force tactical mission and a Naval fleet air superiority mission."
The F-111 was produced in the 1960s. It was designed to be a fighter for the U.S Air Force and the U.S Navy and was hailed at the time as one of the most technologically advanced weapons in the United States arsenal. The F-111 program cost around 75 million dollars, but unfortunately on completion the aircraft was found to be unacceptable for its intended purpose as a fighter aircraft and indeed the U.S Navy declined its use. The U.S Air Force however redeployed the aircraft as a low-level bomber. Its ability to fly close to the ground with terrain tracking radar gave its name 'the Aardvark', an African mammal which also sniffs along the ground hunting for food.
Archive clip: "The longer nose of the Air Force version is aerodynamically cleaner for improved supersonic efficiency. Terrain avoidance radar on the F-111a will allow it to fly low-level missions supersonically day or night in all weather. It will land on a sod field over a 50-foot obstacle in less than 3,000 feet."
The most famous feature of the F-111 is it has variable sweet wings, better known as swing wings. This means the aircraft can change the shape of its wings in flight. As it's displayed behind me its wings are swept back which is how it would have appeared when flying at 2.5 times the speed of sound at low levels. But if it wanted to land on a runway it could move its wings into a forward horizontal position which was more stable and slower to allow for safe takeoff and landing.
Archive clip: "In its extended position, it permits low-speed short-distance takeoff and landing and long loiter time. With the wings folded back, a near-optimum configuration for high-speed low-drag supersonic flight is produced."
The F-111 swing wing design was cutting edge at the time and indeed a number of aircraft like the F-14 Tomcat and the RAF Tornado adopted similar designs. But advances in aviation technology and improvements in flight control meant that there was no longer a need for an aircraft to change its wings in flight so the technology eventually became redundant. What's interesting about the F-111 is it symbolizes the idea of the military-industrial complex that U.S President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about in his final address.
Archive clip of President Dwight D. Eisenhower: "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."
The aircraft was expensive to make and suffered a number of technological difficulties. But in the U.S Cold War economy this created jobs and inflated u.s consumerism. In fact, this point was touched upon in 1965 by artist James Rosenquist in his famous work F-111. A painting that is just slightly longer than the aircraft behind me.
Despite all the technological problems it faced, in the 1970s the distinct sound of an F-111's engines was recorded and put onto the Golden Record. This was a record that was sent to space in the hope that extraterrestrial life could learn about mankind. In that capacity, the F-111 represented mankind's greatest technological achievement.
Archive clip: "Power is provided by two fan-type Pratt and Whitney T30 engines. Side-by-side seating eliminates one complete control panel and the need for a trainer model. Also, it provides much better inter-crew communications and operation."
The f-111 was crewed by two people a pilot and a weapons system officer, also known as a wizzo, who operated the weapons and radar in the aircraft. Unusually for aircrew, the crew of the F-111, who sit side-by-side, don't wear a parachute. This is because the aircraft is fitted with its own escape pod. The cockpit behind me has the ability to eject entirely from the aircraft and bring the crew down safely.
Archive clip: "Rocket motors will boost the escape pod clear of the airplane and parachute deployment will control the descent. The capsule will provide a shirt-sleeve environment, safe escape and recovery throughout the operating envelope of the F-111 as well as at zero speed and underwater."
James Russell O'Brien, better known as Rusty, was a weapon system officer or wizzo flying F-111s on the first night of the Gulf War. In Iraq, F-111s attacked ground targets, particularly tanks, aircraft installations, and air-raid shelters. He talked about the dangers of escaping and the worry that if he had to eject you would have to face arid desert conditions, cold night weather, and hostile enemies on the ground.
The F-111 is interesting from a global political point of view as it represents the place that the United States was trying to take in the world during its service. In 1986 F-111s were sent to Libya, during the operation that was called El Dorado Canyon, in retaliation to the bombing of a disco in berlin.
Archive clip of President Ronald Regan: "The evidence is now conclusive that the terrorist bombing of La Belle discothèque was planned and executed under the direct orders of the Libyan regime. Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again."
The attack turned out to be a bit of a diplomatic crisis when it was discovered that it had been almost entirely ineffective. But what it does show, was the United States were taking a more interventionist role in global politics and were attempting to police global affairs.
This F-111 served with the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing who were based at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. The F-111 is kitted out as it would have looked in combat. It bears the markings that it wore while in service with the 20th Fighter Wing. The native American painted underneath the cockpit represents 'the Chief' which was the nickname of the aircraft's commander.
One of the more poignant features of this aircraft are the names painted just over the nose wheel behind me. They are the names of Captain Lindh and Major McGuire.
In September 1992 on a routine training flight, their aircraft ran into technical difficulties which meant that crash was inevitable. They were ordered by the base to eject, but realizing that ejecting would endanger the lives of the civilians in the nearby villages they instead chose to crash the aircraft on the base and lost their lives in the process.
The F-111 was retired in the mid-1990s though that was not the end of the 560-odd F-111s that were built. They continued in Royal Australian Air Force service until 2010 and the Australians affectionately dubbed the aircraft 'the pig'.
This aircraft was retired in 1993 and its final flight was from Upper Heyford to Duxford. The F-111 weighs 24 tons so when it was delivered to Duxford it couldn't land on Duxford's runway which was too short for it. Because it was originally designed for the U.S Navy the F-111 was designed in such a way that it could land on aircraft carriers was actually fitted with an arrester hook that could bring the aircraft to a stop on a short runway. So the airfield was transformed into something a bit like you might have seen on an aircraft carrier. Two arrester cables, wires which could bring the aircraft to a stop, were run across the runway and the pilot came in and hooked the first of those upon landing. Despite all of these risks and complications, eyewitnesses reported that it was professionally uneventful.
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