A left-side view of three RAAF F-111s parked on the flight line during the joint Australia/New Zealand/U.S. “Exercise Pitch Black ’84”
“The F-111 is the most significant aircraft in the RAAF history. When it finally arrived in 1973, after 10 years of controversy, it gave Australia for the first time a genuine, independent strategic strike capability. More than any other system, the F-111 has underwritten the notion of defence self-reliance and the strategy of controlling the air-sea gap.
A considerable degree of acrimony had arisen over the F-111C purchase in both USA and Australia, in a number of areas of government, Opposition, USAF, even the RAAF, and bureaucracies. The final decision on acceptance of the F-111 would hinge on RAAF engineering assessments of the structural integrity of the aircraft and the life expected with the new re-designed wing-carry-through-box.
All the doomsayers and negative, ill-informed media were proved dramatically wrong – the aircraft proved to be the most effective long range combat aircraft produced. With the update of the avionics and navigation/bombing system and the provision of precision guided munitions (PGMs), the F-111C was the most lethal and effective combat aircraft in Australia’s area of strategic interest.
The Australian government ordered 24 F-111C aircraft to replace the RAAF’s English Electric Canberras in the bombing and tactical strike role. While the first aircraft was officially handed over on 4 September 1968, structural issues delayed the entry into service of the F-111C. Twenty-four USAF F-4 Phantom IIs were leased as an interim measure. The Phantoms were delivered in September and October 1970 to No. 82 Wing at RAAF Base Amberley, Queensland. During its next three years in RAAF service, one F-4 was lost. By June 1973, the remaining 23 Phantoms were returned to the U.S. Like the F-111, the F-4 was a two-seat, multi-role, supersonic aircraft. Much more sophisticated than the Canberra, capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground attack roles; it had inertial navigation, a gun and radar. Experience with the F-4 likely contributed to the RAAF’s success with the F-111. The RAAF proposed keeping the F-4 and using it with the F-111, but the government decided that the cost was too great.
The F-111C entered Australian service after the technical problems were resolved, and the first F-111C was accepted at Nellis Air Force Base on 15 March 1973. On 31 March, the RAAF Washington Flying Unit was formed at McClellan Air Force Base in California with the mission of ferrying the first 12 F-111Cs to Australia. This unit was commanded by Group Captain John Newham, who later served as Chief of the Air Staff between 1985 and 1988. The RAAF’s first six F-111Cs arrived at Amberley on 1 July 1973, and three subsequent groups of six F-111s arrived on 27 July, 28 September and 4 December. F-111Cs were allocated to No. 1 Squadron and No. 6 Squadron, under the control of No. 82 Wing. No. 1 Squadron was the RAAF’s strike squadron, and maintained a nominal strength of 12 F-111s. No. 6 Squadron mainly served as the F-111 operational conversion unit, though it also operated the RF-111 aircraft at times and could serve in the strike role if required. Once in RAAF service, all F-111 maintenance was undertaken at Amberley. From 1973 to 2001 No. 482 Squadron conducted intermediate maintenance of the aircraft, while heavy maintenance was the responsibility of No. 3 Aircraft Depot. No. 482 Squadron also operated the RAAF’s F-111 flight simulator. From 2001 onwards, Boeing Australia performed all F-111 maintenance under a contract with the Australian government.
After entering service the F-111 proved highly successful. Although it never saw combat, the F-111C was the fastest, longest range combat aircraft in Southeast Asia. Aviation historian Alan Stephens has written that they were “the preeminent weapons system in the Asia-Pacific region” throughout their service and provided Australia with “a genuine, independent strike capability”. Stewart Wilson, in his book Lincoln, Canberra and F-111 in Australian Service, described the F-111C as “an unqualified success…, providing Australia with a potent strike capability in an aircraft which, a quarter of century after its first flight remains second to none.” Former Indonesian defense minister Benny Murdani told his counterpart Kim Beazley that when others became upset with Australia during cabinet meetings, Murdani told them “Do you realise the Australians have a bomber that can put a bomb through that window on to the table here in front of us?”
During late 1990 and early 1991 the Australian government considered deploying F-111Cs to expand the Australian contribution to the 1991 Gulf War, which mainly comprised a Royal Australian Navy task group. The Department of Defence and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) preferred option if the government decided to expand Australia’s commitment was to deploy at least two RF-111s, though these aircraft would need to have their electronic warfare equipment upgraded to operate in this war zone. Due to the small size of the RF-111 force, the loss of any of these aircraft in combat would have inflicted a heavy blow on Australia’s reconnaissance capability. The second preference in the advice put to the government was to deploy a squadron of four to eight F-111Cs, though Defence did not support this. In the event, the government decided to not expand the Australian force. As a result, the F-111Cs’ contribution to the war was limited to conducting intensive exercises with the Naval ships as they sailed through Australian waters en route to the Persian Gulf.
The Australian-led INTERFET intervention into East Timor in September 1999 marked the closest Australia’s F-111s came to combat. F-111s from both No. 1 and No. 6 Squadrons were deployed to RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory, on 28 August to support the international forces, and remained there until 17 December 1999. This was a maximum effort for No. 82 Wing, and up to 10 F-111Cs were available at Tindal; No. 1 Squadron’s commitment peaked at six aircraft and about 100 personnel. No. 75 Squadron also maintained 12 F/A-18s at its home base of Tindal to support INTERFET if needed. From 20 September, when INTERFET began to arrive in East Timor, the F-111s were maintained at a high level of readiness to conduct reconnaissance flights or air strikes if the situation deteriorated. For the latter role two F-111s armed with concrete-filled bombs fitted with precision guidance kits were kept available at all times. INTERFET did not encounter significant resistance, however, and F-111 operations were limited to reconnaissance missions conducted by RF-111Cs from 5 November. Each of these sorties were made after gaining approval from the Indonesian government and normally focused on bridges and communications installations. The last RF-111C flight over East Timor took place on 9 December. War games had the F-111s achieving complete success if a strike was necessary against Indonesian military headquarters near the capital.
The Royal Australian Air Force’s F-111 fleet has at times been controversial. The long delay to the delivery of the aircraft was a significant political issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This occurred around the same time that massive delays and cost blowouts to the Sydney Opera House were making headlines, prompting some commentators to dub the F-111 the “Flying Opera House”. In 1983 the Hawke government tasked an RF-111 to take surveillance photos of the Franklin Dam project in Tasmania. The use of an RAAF aircraft to “spy” on its own territory led to the minister responsible, Senator Gareth Evans, earning the nickname “Biggles” (after the famous hero pilot of a number of books by Captain W.E. Johns). Another aspect of the F-111 which drew criticism was the poor work conditions for F-111 ground crew involved in sealing/de-sealing F-111 fuel tanks resulted in a class action lawsuit and the Australian government paying out more than A$20 million in damages. The health issues with chemical exposure included permanent brain damage to a number of ground crew before conditions were improved.
A number of ex-USAF aircraft were delivered to Australia as attrition replacements and to enlarge the fleet. Four aircraft modified to the F-111C standard were delivered in 1982. The government bought 15 F-111Gs to supplement its F-111Cs in 1992 and delivered in 1994. Additional stored ex-USAF F-111s were reserved as a spare parts sources. In Australian military and aviation circles, the F-111 Aardvark was affectionately known as the “Pig”, due to its long snout and terrain-following ability.
Seven of the 28 F-111Cs and one of the 15 F-111Gs were destroyed in accidents during their service with the RAAF. These accidents took the lives of 10 air crew. The accidents occurred from 1977 to 1999.
In mid-2006, an RAAF F-111 was chosen to scuttle the North Korean ship Pong Su which had been involved in one of Australia’s largest drug hauls in recorded history. The ship had been sitting in “Snails Bay”, off Birchgrove, while the government decided its fate, and it was decided in March 2006 it would be scuttled by air attack. The Pong Su was sunk on 23 March 2006 by two GBU-10 Paveway II laser-guided bombs.
Air Force bids farewell to final F-111 as it leaves for Pacific Air Museum
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has bid a final farewell to its last remaining F-111, which is being taken from Amberley base, west of Brisbane, to Hawaii.
The much-loved fighter bomber had its wings clipped ahead of its last journey to the Pacific Air Museum at Pearl Harbour.
Wing Commander Clive Wells has managed the disposal of all the Air Force’s F-111s.
“It’s quite an historic day from an Air Force perspective particularly for the guys who’ve worked on the F-111 … to see the last one just about to depart,” he said.
The RAAF originally purchased 43 F-111s.
Eight crashed, 23 were buried, and the remainder have been put on display in defence establishments and museums around Australia.
They were known for their ability to get down low and fast for bombing runs, earning the nickname “the pig”.
The final F-111 has been stripped down and is being carried as cargo inside a C-17 to Honolulu.
Wing Commander Paul Long is the commanding officer of the RAAF 36th Squadron who is flying the cargo plane.
He says it has been a massive logistical task to get the fighter jet ready to fly as a passenger.
“It’s the first time it’s ever been done by the Royal Australian Air Force and probably by anybody for that matter,” he said.
“It’s taken a lot of effort by people to weigh the aeroplane, measure it, determine the tie-down points and determine how to carry it.
“The actual fuselage we’re loading today is about 38,000 pounds [17,200 kilograms].”
“They were a great party animal for their dump and burns and I guess that’s what they’re best remembered for,” Wing Commander Wells said.
The famous jets were officially retired in 2010, and have been replaced by the more modern and capable Super Hornets.