The Plane With No Name
The F-111: In Australia, an airplane for all seasons.
- By William Triplett
- Air & Space magazine, March 2002
(Page 3 of 8)
The strategy called for an aircraft with an attack capability that was both versatile and precise. At first the RAAF considered buying the TSR.2, a new warplane the British Aircraft Corporation was developing. But the TSR.2 never went into production, and the Aussies turned their attention to the F-111.
Today any threat to Australia is still theoretical, but the RAAF continues to look warily toward the north. "Because any threat to Australia would likely come through the sea and archipelagic region to the north, we need a long-range, multi-role capability to operate in that environment," says Wing Commander Brian Walsh of the air attaché staff at the Australian embassy in Washington, D.C.
Says Stephens: "It's also noteworthy that when the Interfet [United Nations peacekeeping] force deployed to East Timor in 1999, a detachment of F-111s was sent to the RAAF's base at Tindal, near Darwin. While the aircraft weren't used, the message was crystal clear and was understood by those for whom it was intended."
"Being an island continent, most of our defense is based on the perception that any potential enemy would have to cross the sea to get to us," Dunlop says. Thus the RAAF wanted a few custom features on their -111s, beginning with anti-ship weaponry. They also liked the longer wings on a Navy version, the F-111B, and a fighter-bomber variant, the FB-111A. General Dynamics designed the F-111C exclusively for the RAAF. It was the only model ever to be capable of firing a Harpoon anti-ship missile. In October 1963, when the aircraft was still being designed, the RAAF agreed to pay $100 million for 24 of them; the service recently announced that it plans to continue operating its fleet in both strike and reconnaissance roles until the year 2020. Few would have predicted that the F-111 was destined for such a long career.
Near the end of the 1950s the USAF Tactical Air Command put together its requirements for a future attack aircraft. TAC wanted an airplane that could do Mach 2.5 at altitude and Mach 1.2 at low level, where, if necessary, it could fly 400 miles without slowing down. It would have to be able to take off and land on airstrips as short as 3,000 feet and to fly un-refueled across the Atlantic Ocean with an ordnance load of up to 30,000 pounds.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy also happened to need a new fighter—to be based on aircraft carriers and serve as fleet defense. The coincidence turned out to be one of the most unhappy and expensive chapters in the history of interservice collaboration. Shortly after John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tried to save the new administration money by ordering the Air Force and the Navy to develop one aircraft that would carry out both missions. In 1969 the Navy finally abandoned the joint venture, dubbed TFX for Tactical Fighter Experimental; by then, McNamara's idea had ended up wasting $377 million.
From the start, the two services banged heads over just about everything. The Navy wanted side-by-side seating for the two-man crew, long-range radar, long loiter capability at upper altitudes and subsonic speeds, and a gross weight of under 50,000 pounds for carrier operations. The Air Force wanted tandem seating and, focusing on low-level, supersonic capabilities, some sort of terrain-reading radar—not yet invented—and a gross weight of 75,000 pounds. The only point of agreement was the need for a variable-geometry, or swing, wing: Both services wanted maximum lift for short takeoffs, along with high-speed capability once airborne. (Although the F-111 was the first operational aircraft to use a variable-geometry wing, the concept was not new. The Bell X-5 experimental aircraft tested the configuration in the early 1950s, and those tests were based on research reports "imported" from Germany at the end of World War II.)
General Dynamics built the F-111A for the Air Force, and Grumman built the F-111B for the Navy. Both versions had the variable-geometry wing, turbofan engines, side-by-side seating, and a crew escape module (instead of the usual ejection seats). But only seven Bs ended up being built. The Navy withdrew from the program after concluding that the aircraft could never be brought under weight restrictions for carriers. But having gathered experience in producing swing-wing aircraft, Grumman later embarked with the Navy upon another program that proved far more successful—the F-14 Tomcat.