The Plane With No Name
The F-111: In Australia, an airplane for all seasons.
- By William Triplett
- Air & Space magazine, March 2002
(Page 2 of 8)
One-elevens served 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, eventually distinguishing themselves in several roles, but their reputation has never fully recovered from the controversy surrounding their tragic introduction. The aircraft may be unique among U.S. fighters in that it was not christened with an official nickname—a name like "Super Sabre" or "Thunderchief," the names of the F-100 and F-105, which the F-111 was designed to replace. When the U.S. Air Force retired its last -111s in 1996, officials at the ceremony finally bestowed on the airplane the name pilots had been unofficially calling it for years—"Aardvark," chosen because the airplane's extended nose makes it resemble the long-snouted pig-like African creature.
Aussies, who take pride in their tradition of plain talk, simply call it "Pig." It is a term of endearment, spoken with great respect because in Australia, as in its later years in U.S. service, the –111 has matured into the role it was designed to fill.
"So what's the airplane good for?" asks RAAF Wing Commander and veteran Pig driver David "Doc" Millar. He's leading a briefing at Amberley for novice crews. A giant map of Australia flanks him at the front of the room. On it are several large circles whose centers are RAAF air bases dotting Australia's northern coastal areas, and the circles—each representing the 3,500-mile operating range of combat-ready F-111s—stretch hugely toward Southeast Asia. Millar nods toward the circles, saying with pride, "And that, gentlemen, is why we're still flying a jet that was designed in 1963. Nothing else can do that."
In training exercises, F-111s have carried 8,000 pounds of bombs for 1,500 miles—at low level for 300 of them—without airborne refueling. They can do it at any time of day or night and in any kind of weather. Millar's right. Nothing else can. But why did Australia ever feel a need for such capability?
In the years following World War II, as the British government began withdrawing from its former Asian colonies, Western leaders fretted over communist expansionism. The fretting rose to the level of military action in June 1948, when Chinese communists in the Malay peninsula murdered three wealthy rubber plantation owners, setting off a terrorist campaign to overthrow the British-supported government there. The RAAF joined in the counterattack from an air base in Singapore, and the fighting continued sporadically until 1960.
By that time, Western thinking had crystallized into the so-called domino theory, which held that one country after another would fall to communism if no one challenged it. Australia was nervous about neighboring Indonesia, whose president, Achmad Sukarno, was vague about whether he'd oppose or welcome communist influence. (Indonesia's political instability resulted in a failed 1965 coup dramatized in the film The Year of Living Dangerously.)
In a grab for headlines, Australian politician Arthur Calwell claimed in 1963 that the Indonesian air force could bomb almost any city in Australia and that the RAAF had no capability to reciprocate. Although the remark was primarily political exploitation, it struck a nerve. The RAAF's strategic bomber at the time, the English Electric Canberra, was an old design—the first jet bomber to be manufactured in Great Britain—and it had limited range. From an Australian base, it was unable to reach Indonesia or any other part of Southeast Asia, where communism was beginning to get a foothold.
"Replacing the Canberra had been the RAAF's top priority for a number of years," wrote RAAF historian Alan Stephens in the book Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force 1946–1971. "In a reflection of classic air power doctrine," Stephens comments today, "the need for a new strike/reconnaissance aircraft was expressed in terms of taking the initiative in the air by destroying the enemy's air force on the ground, then turning the RAAF's offensive air power against other targets, both strategically and in direct support of the army and navy."