Some in Congress took to calling the F-111 "McNamara's Flying Edsel." In Australia critics disparaged it as "the Flying Opera House," linking it with the Sydney Opera House, then under construction and suffering from massive cost overruns and delays. The RAAF didn't take delivery of its remaining 23 F-111Cs until June 1973. Four were later converted for reconnaissance and designated RF-111Cs.
Even after its U.S. redeployment to Southeast Asia in the fall of 1972, bugs continued to infest the -111's avionics, but the aircraft nonetheless began to prove itself—flying in weather that kept other aircraft on the ground, hitting targets using only instruments. The Air Force flew F-111s on some 4,000 combat missions in Vietnam and lost only six aircraft.
Once outfitted in the 1980s with new avionics—specifically the Pave Tack targeting system, which uses a high-quality infrared video camera to acquire targets and an integrated laser designator to guide bombs to them—the F-111 could live up to its original promise. Of the 8,000 laser-guided bombs that the Air Force dropped during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, about half were dropped from F-111s. One-eleven crews also perfected the technique known as "consecutive miracles," in which one laser-guided bomb blows open the front of a hardened shelter and another, coming seconds behind, slams deep inside for a direct internal hit.
In the mid-1990s the RAAF bought 15 F-111Gs—formerly a nuclear-capable version built for the U.S. Strategic Air Command, which had originally designated them FB-111s. The service had also acquired four A models and converted them to Cs to replace aircraft that had crashed. One of these, in Australian service as A8-109, was flown on a number of missions to North Vietnam, according to Doc Millar, and suffered battle damage to the fin. "It was described in early F-111 literature as a bit of a dog," says Millar, "but in current RAAF service it is one of the best aircraft in the fleet." Of the total 43 F-111s acquired, 35 remain in the RAAF's fleet: 17 Cs, 14 Gs, and the four recce Pigs, all flown by the two squadrons of the Strike Reconnaissance Group.
Crews love the airplane. They unanimously swear by the smooth ride of the -111 at low level, comparing it to a Cadillac on air. "At 200 feet and 600 knots in an F-18, you know it," says RAAF Group Captain Geoff Brown, a strapping older pilot who's relatively new to the F-111. "It's bumpy and the jet doesn't like it. But it's a great ride in a one-eleven—the most comfortable thing I've ever flown so low to the ground."
"It almost seems like the Earth is moving beneath the aircraft, rather than the other way around," says Jim Rotramel, a former U.S. Air Force WSO. "The things that stick with you are the impressions. Flying down a steep valley in the Scottish highlands, telling the pilot that I'm seeing in the radar high terrain on his side of the airplane and him craning his neck way up to see where the ridge stopped and the stars started."
A daylight run to a target can also be memorable. The TFR sports a pair of miniature radar dishes in the radome that scope 15 miles in the distance and then inform the autopilot of obstacles to avoid. Laterally, however, those dishes are only interested in what stands within four degrees of the aircraft's flight path. Trees and towers often whoosh past, only a matter of feet from the wingtips.
Night runs are therefore less distracting, unless you happen to be flying in one of Australia's southern test ranges, which are scored by deep gullies and canyons. "There are a couple of routes there where you can drop down into a gully and have a reasonably steep face next to you," says Dunlop. "The TFR doesn't see it. But out of the corner of your eye you'll catch the rotating beacon being reflected off the cliff side, and that'll get your attention, believe me." (Dunlop once flew with a navigator who, later asked by a local reporter what the crew does when the TFR takes over, replied, "We watch the goddam thing to make sure it doesn't kill us.")
The nav, meanwhile, is "in the feedbag"—head down, eyes glued to the multifunctional display, working to line up the target with the crosshairs of the attack radar, which can see some 30 miles ahead. "It can be nerve-wracking," says Aroha Fifield, one of the RAAF's growing numbers of female navs. Fifield, who is 23, has a bright, friendly smile that you would never associate with the ability to put a 1,000-pound laser-guided bomb in your lap from five miles away.
A toss—essentially lofting a laser-guided bomb—wracks more nerves than other attack profiles because, Fifield notes, "there's less time. You work the attack radar all the way up until you clear the pilot to release the weapon." The pilot then goes into "pedal-pull-pickle" mode—that is, disengaging, or "pedaling off," the TFR in order to pull the aircraft into a hair-flattening 25-degree, 600-mph, 4-G climb. The pilot then hits the "pickle button," which clears the weapon system to automatically release the bomb—usually about five seconds after the climb begins.