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General Dynamic unvield the F-111 on December 21st at Fort Worth Texas. The F-111 had a swept wing and it was the first plane designed for both the Navy and the Airforce over the objections of both serves. The wing of the F-111 could be be swept forward or backward depending on the needs. The Navy put the plane into service in 1967. The F-111 suffered a number of difficulties. The F-111 evolved primarily into a medium bomber and electronic warfware plane.
F-111 Flown - History
The primary reason for acquiring these aircraft was to reduce the number of hours flown on the F-111C airframes, which like all highly stressed airframes have a finite number of flying hours in their structures. Spreading the flying hours across the expanded fleet effectively extends the life of the F-111A/C airframes. The F-111G airframes have substantially lower accumulated airframe fatigue than their TAC and RAAF counterparts, as they spent most of their previous life in Strategic Air Command.
The issue of the F-111A/C fleet size has always been problematic, as the original purchase of 24 airframes to equip two essentially operational squadrons really fell somewhat short of the number of airframes properly required to provide full squadron strength, with an allowance for conversion training, depo overhauls and attrition reserves. The RAAF has always needed the extra airframes, but the US were loath to part with the aircraft during the Cold War and our government was always lukewarm on the subject, as it involved spending a lot of money. The only additional airframes acquired were the four attrition replacement F-111As which now equip 6 SQN. The acquisition of the G-model airframes has finally provided the airframe reserves to allow for full squadron strengths in a sustained operational environment.
The RAAF's F-111Gs were built as General Dynamics FB-111A strategic bombers, serving with USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) and tasked with suppressing Soviet strategic air defences and related C3 systems, using the AGM-69 SRAM missile. SAC had originally acquired 75 aircraft, with IOC being declared in October, 1971. These aircraft equipped the 509th BW at Pease AFB, and the 380th BW at Plattsburgh AFB. In SAC service the aircraft would have carried 170 kT W69 armed SRAMs or free fall 1 MT B43, 10 kT B57 or variable yield (10 -¿ 500 kT) B61 special devices. With a maximum payload of six SRAMs or freefall weapons, the FB-111A was truly a doomsday machine. Had the balloon gone up, the FB-111A force would have preceded the B-52G and H aircraft into Soviet airspace, carving glow in the dark corridors through the PVO's air defence SAM belts.
After a distinguished but thankfully uneventful career in SAC, the FB-111A wings were deactivated and the aircraft reassigned to Tactical Air Command, to bolster the 4 Wing TAC F-111 fleet. TAC redesignated the aircraft as F-111Gs and formed the 427th TFTS at Mountain Home to operate the aircraft. The F-111G aircraft assigned to TAC went through a factory refit which substantially modernised the aircraft's offensive avionic suite and communications equipment, to a standard very close to the RAAF's AUP.
From a technical viewpoint the FB-111A was a distinct variant in USAF service, an optimised strategic penetrator built to defeat the massive IADS of the Soviet V-PVO. The airframe shared the big wing of the USN F-111B and RAAF F-111C, and the strengthened undercarriage of the latter subtype. The aircraft's fuselage was closest to that of the F-111D, and employed the stall proof Triple Plow II inlet geometry shared by later model airframes. The FB-111A was fitted with the TF-30P-7 engine which delivered nominally 16% higher thrust than the P-3 used in the earlier A/C and E models.
SAC had specified a wide range of detail design changes to the aircraft, including a stowable crew access ladder, jettisonable weapon pylons, wiring and plumbing to the outer wing stations, various cockpit ergonomic changes (primarily in switch locations), dual 285/300 USG internal weapon bay fuel tanks and a distinct avionic and electronic warfare fit.
The original offensive avionic system was built around an AJN-16 inertial nav-attack system and AYK-6 mission computer, both common to the F-111D Mk.II and F-111F Mk.IIB systems. With the D-model, the FB-111A also shared the AYN-3 cockpit display and the APN-167 radar altimeter. Unique to SAC were the newer APQ-134 Terrain Following Radar, the APN-185 Doppler navigation equipment and the ASQ-119 Astrocompass. The latter two items were needed to improve the aircraft's navigational accuracy on long polar sorties into Siberian airspace.
The recent USAF avionic refit of the F-111G fleet replaced the antiquated seventies offensive avionic system with a contemporary digital computer and dual ASN-41 (Honeywell H523 or Litton LN-39) Ring Laser Gyro Inertial Systems (INS), integrated with new APN-218 Doppler nav equipment, which replaced the obsolete APN-185. The integrated nav-attack system uses Kalman filtering techniques to yield the best possible position estimate from the dual INS channels and the Doppler velocity readings, providing very high accuracy. A newer TFR was fitted, replacing the seventies APQ-134. The elderly ASQ-119 astrocompass was removed. The provisions to fire the SRAM missile were deactivated, as this weapon was not used by TAC. Much of the new avionic equipment is identical to the RAAF AUP systems, albeit slightly older production versions.
The FB-111A defensive avionic suite was enhanced to provide for better survivability in the V-PVO's hunting grounds. While the aircraft shared the ALR-62 Radar Homing And Warning System (RHAWS) with the other variants, the improved ALQ-137 defensive ECM system was fitted, with additional aft facing antennas, improved band coverage and more sophisticated jamming techniques generation, compared to the TAC standard ALQ-94 (used by the A/C/D/E/F models). The only other type to carry this sophisticated system is the high value EF-111A tacjammer. Unlike most aircraft defensive ECM systems, the ALQ-137 combines both trackbreaking and noise jamming techniques. The AAR-34 IR tail warning system (MAWS) is retained, as is the ALE-28 chaff/flare dispenser. The RAAF F-111G aircraft retain the USAF (SAC) EW suite, and thus have the most capable ECM fitted to any aircraft in the Southern hemisphere.
Compared to the basic F-111C airframe, the F-111G carries an additional 585 USG of JP-4 fuel which is about 3,500 lb or 11% more than the basic capacity. The fuselage and wing tank capacity is identical, at 4990 USG or about 32,400 lb. The engines deliver almost 20% higher thrust in service.
With the aircraft freshly out of the USAF avionic refit, the Doppler enhanced dual RLG INS provides superb accuracy, in fact the F-111G is the most accurate bomb delivery platform in RAAF service today, with blind radar dumb bomb delivery errors a fraction of the analogue F-111C's sixties LN-14 system's errors. It will be interesting to see whether the post AUP digital F-111C system matches the F-111G.
Australian Aviation had the opportunity to discuss aircraft performance with the 6 SQN G-flight aircrew deployed to the Avalon airshow. The RAAF crews are very happy with the aircraft, which are easier to fly than the standard C-model aircraft due the more robust intake, accelerate and climb much better due higher installed thrust, fly further due greater fuel capacity, and are so accurate with the Doppler enhanced INS that the navigators have to be selective about terrain features used for INS updates, so as not to fall foul of accuracy limitations in current maps.
Current RAAF intentions are to refit the aircraft with the digital flight control system to be used on the AUP F-111A/C and the AWADI/DSTO ALR-2002 Radar Warning Receiver also to be fitted to the F-111A/C. This would save maintenance costs on two of the most critical aircraft subsystems. There is no intention at this time to rework the remaining F-111G avionic system to the AUP standard. This is a sensible decision, as the F-111G offensive avionics are only several years older than the AUP systems, of the same generation of technology, and share many common components. An issue will be integration with RAAF specific weapons such as the AGM-84 Harpoon ASM. Such weapons, whilst not particularly technically difficult to integrate, do require some software and hardware changes, and it remains to be seen whether the RAAF will do so.
Even if the RAAF does not integrate its full suite of PGMs into the F-111G avionic system, the aircraft can still be most effectively employed in defence suppression and blind radar (dumb) bombing sorties, and as laser guided bomb or standoff weapon carrier aircraft, paired with an F-111C which would use its Pave Tack or datalink to guide weapons for both aircraft. This approach was used very effectively both by the USAF and the RAF in the Gulf, the latter having many more bombers than laser designator pods.
It is worth noting, that the F-111G with its better performance, endurance and defensive ECM capability would make an excellent electronic combat platform to support the strike aircraft as anti-radiation missile (eg HARM) firing platforms. The RAAF would be well advised to consider this in the course of the upcoming ALR-2002 upgrade, and look at fitting the G-model 2002s with Emitter Locating System (ELS) facilities for this purpose. This would be a very cheap way of enhancing the RAAF's electronic combat capability, as the incremental cost of adding an ELS capability to the 2002 is much lower than fitting out with additional equipment. To date electronic combat has not received the attention it properly deserves in the ADF force structure, and the 2002 upgrade is a golden opportunity to redress this deficiency at a minimal cost.
It is the author's view that the F-111G acquisition was the single best value for money defence purchase in the last two decades, and has finally brought 82 WG/SRG up to an operationally effective strength. We can hope the government will fully capitalise on this wise investment.
Reconnaissance on Jan. 25 revealed that Saddam’s troops were extending a campaign of sabotaging Kuwait’s oil well-heads to the Al Ahmadi oil terminal, where a million barrels of oil were released from tankers. A pipeline to the Sea Island loading terminal was also left open, spilling more than 11 million barrels. The end result of this campaign was a major environmental disaster four times worse than any previous oil spill. After studying Kuwaiti blueprints of the terminal, a plan was devised to ignite and burn off the oil-stream and ‘surgically’ attack the manifold structures ashore, cutting off the leak.
As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat, five GBU-15-capable F-111Fs at Taif were prepared for this task (nicknamed the ‘duck mission’, as one of its aims was to preserve cormorant colonies) on Jan. 26, but Gen Schwarzkopf’s doubts about the possible extent of the damage they might trigger off, combined with poor weather, delayed takeoff until the following day. By that time oil had been released into the sea at 1.2 million barrels per day for at least three days.
The first batches of F-111Fs to deploy to Taif included eight that were adapted to launch the GBU-15 data-linked glide-bomb. Seventy-one GBU-15s were dropped, all from F-111Fs, in attacks from the first night of Desert Storm onwards, but the most notable were the GBU-15(V)-2/Bs (a Mk 84 warhead with IIR guidance and the original long-chord wings) delivered during the Al Ahmadi mission.
The Rockwell-built weapon was developed at the Air Force Development Test Center at Eglin AFB from 1974, and the TV-guided GBU-15(V)1/B test programme was completed in November 1983. The weapon duly entered service with the 493rd TFS at Lakenheath just weeks later. Trials of the imaging infra-red GBU-15(V)-2/B were finished by February 1985. Development then passed to Air Force Logistics Command, and from 1999 the GBU-15 also received a GPS add-on. The 12 ft 10 in GBU-15 weighed 3640 lbs (3655 lbs for the IIR version) and used a Mk 84 warhead with 945 lbs of Tritonal explosive, or a BLU-109 penetrating warhead with 535 lbs of Tritonal (as the GBU-15(V)31 TV and GBU-15(V)32/B IIR guided versions, both using the later, narrow-chord wings). Its 4 ft 11 in span wings gave it a range of up to 15 miles — further than LGBs.
Either a TV sensor or an IIR guidance section similar to the Hughes-built one used on the AGM-65D Maverick could be attached, depending on whether the mission was during day or night and in good or poor visibility conditions. In direct mode, the pilot located the target using the weapon’s camera imagery on his cockpit display — TV for a daylight mission or an infra-red imaging view at night or in poor visibility. He locked the weapon on target using cross-hairs on the display and released the bomb, which then guided to the target. In automatic mode the bomb was dropped from a loft manoeuvre, the weapon then following a programmed trajectory to the target. Course corrections were provided automatically in flight via the Hughes AN/AXQ-14 data link pod (hung beneath the F-111F’s rear fuselage) to the bomb’s autopilot, which steered it by using the tail-wings.
On Night One of Desert Storm several F-111Fs sortied with two GBU-15s each, dropping one bomb ahead of a follow-up strike on the same HAS target by another aircraft with a GBU-24. The main infra-red version supplied to the 48th TFW(P) was particularly effective against `soft’ targets, or to damage a hardened target sufficiently for a GBU-10 or GBU-24 to finish it off. The GBU-15s dropped during the Gulf War scored a 98 per cent success rate.
At Lakenheath a select group of 493rd TFS ‘Freedom Squadron’ crews had gained experience with the weapon, which they normally delivered as a pair. One F-111F would launch the GBU-15 at high speed to give it maximum glide range while the WSO in the second ‘buddy’ aircraft used the AN/AXQ-14 data-link pod imagery on his video display and a small toggle ‘joystick’ to guide it home. This group of 493rd TFS personnel provided the crews for the Al Ahmadi strike on Jan. 27.
Four aircraft operated as buddy pairs, each with one jet as the GBU-15 launcher and the second flying more than 50 miles off-shore to guide the weapon through data link. Capts Rick `Spanky’ Walker and Ken Theurer, in F-111F 72-1446 (`Charger 34′), made the first supersonic drop eight miles from the target at 15,000 ft and then turned away to avoid heavy AAA, while the guiding F-111F, 65 miles away, linked to the infra-red sensing bomb. Contact with the weapon was lost soon afterwards so a second GBU-15 was launched, also at supersonic speed, by Maj Sammy Samson and Capt Steve Williams from F-111F 70-1452 (`Charger 35′). Its signal was picked up by WSO Capt Brad Seipel and pilot Capt Mike Russell from 50 miles distance in ‘Charger 32’ (70-2414).
Seipel, who had flown in the lead F-111F attacking Saddam’s Tikrit palace on Night One of the war, guided the bomb to a direct hit on one of the manifold structures and then picked up and directed a second bomb from Samson’s aircraft for a hit on the other manifold building three miles away. It took a day for the oil in the pipelines to burn out, but the spillage was almost stopped. A second data-link aircraft (70-2408 ‘Charger 31′) was flown by Capt Ben Snyder and Maj Jim Gentleman and a fifth jet, 70-2404 `Charger 33’, crewed by Capts John Taylor and Seth Bretscher, had to abort the mission with technical problems.
Craig `Quizmo’ Brown, who completed 26 Desert Storm missions with the 494th TFS, later learned that most of the Canadian Armed Forces’ CF-18 detachment (from Nos 439 and 416 Sqns) was airborne to provide cover for this risky, but vital, operation.
F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
TFX: The F-111
The source for this thread is the Wikipedia page on the F-111:
The beginnings of the F-111 were in the TFX program, an ambitious early 1960s project to combine the United States Air Force requirement for a fighter-bomber
to replace the F-105 Thunderchief with the United States Navy's need for a long-range carrier-based Fleet Air Defense fighter to replace the F-4 Phantom
II. The fighter design philosophy of the day concentrated on very high speed, raw power, and air-to-air missiles.
The U.S. Air Force's Tactical Air Command (TAC) was largely concerned with the fighter-bomber and deep strike/interdiction roles, which in the early 1960s
still focused on the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The aircraft would be a follow-on to the F-105 Thunderchief, which was designed to deliver nuclear
weapons low, fast and far. Air combat would be an afterthought until encountering MiGs over Vietnam in the mid-1960s. In June 1960 the Air Force issued a
specification for a long-range interdiction/strike aircraft able to penetrate Soviet air defenses at very low altitudes and very high speeds to deliver
tactical nuclear weapons against crucial targets.
Meanwhile the U.S. Navy sought a long-range, high-endurance interceptor to defend its carrier battle groups against long-range anti-ship missiles launched from
Soviet jet bombers and submarines. The Navy needed a Fleet Air Defense (FAD) aircraft with with a more powerful radar, and longer range missiles than the F-4
Phantom II to intercept both enemy bombers and missiles.
The Air Force and Navy requirements appeared to be different. However, on 14 February 1961 the new U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, formally
directed that the services study the development of a single aircraft that would satisfy both requirements. Early studies indicated the best option was to base
the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) on the Air Force requirement and a modified version for the Navy. In June 1961, Secretary McNamara ordered the go
ahead on TFX despite Air Force and the Navy efforts to keep their programs separate.
The USAF wanted a tandem seat aircraft for low level penetration, while the Navy wanted a shorter, high altitude interceptor with side by side seating. Also,
the USAF wanted the aircraft designed for 7.33 g with Mach 2.5 speed at altitude and Mach 1.2 speed at low level with a length of approx. 70 ft (21.3 m). The
Navy had less strenuous requirements of 6 g with Mach 2 speed at altitude and high subsonic speed (approx. Mach 0.9) at low level with a length of 56 ft (17.1
m). So McNamara developed a basic set of requirements for TFX based largely on the Air Force's requirements. Then on 1 September 1961 he ordered the USAF
to develop it.
Jul 19, 2009 #2 2009-07-19T01:51
A request for proposals (RFP) for the TFX was provided to industry in October 1961. In December of that year proposals were received from Boeing, General
Dynamics, Lockheed, McDonnell, North American and Republic. The proposal evaluation group found all the proposals lacking, but the best should be improved with
study contracts. Boeing and General Dynamics were selected to enhance their designs. Boeing's proposal was recommended by the selection board in January
1962. However, the Boeing's engine was not considered acceptable. Switching to a crew capsule and alterations to radar and missile storage were also
needed. The companies provided updated proposals in April 1962. Air Force reviewers favored Boeing's offering, but the Navy found both submissions
unacceptable for its operations.
Two more rounds of updates to the proposals were conducted with Boeing being picked by the selection board. Instead Secretary McNamara selected General
Dynamics' proposal in November 1962 due to its greater commonality between Air Force and Navy TFX versions. The Boeing aircraft versions shared less than
half of the major structural components. General Dynamics signed the TFX contract in December 1962. A Congressional investigation followed, but could not
change the selection.
The F-111A and B variants used the same airframe structural components and TF30-P-1 turbofan engines. They featured side by side crew seating in escape capsule
as required by the Navy. The F-111B's nose was 8.5 feet (2.59 m) shorter due to its need to fit on existing carrier elevator decks, and had 3.5 feet (1.07
m) longer wingtips to to improve on-station endurance time. The Navy version would carry a AN/AWG-9 Pulse-Doppler radar and six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. The
Air Force version would carry the AN/APQ-113 attack radar and the AN/APQ-110 terrain-following radar and air-to-ground armament. Titanium was planned for most
of the airframe. However, this proved to be too expensive and more conventional metals were used instead.
Lacking experience with carrier-based fighters, General Dynamics teamed with Grumman for assembly and test of the F-111B aircraft. In addition, Grumman
would also build the F-111A's aft fuselage and the landing gear. The F-111A mock-up was inspected in September 1963. The first test F-111A was rolled out
of the General Dynamics' Fort Worth, Texas plant on 15 October 1964. It was powered by YTF30-P-1 turbofans and used a set of ejector seats as the escape
capsule was not yet available. The F-111A first flew on 21 December 1964 from Carswell AFB, Texas. The first F-111B was also equipped with ejector seats and
first flew on 18 May 1965.
F-111 development continued. To address stall issues in certain parts of the flight regime, the engine inlet design was modified in 1965-66, ending with the
"Triple Plow I" and "Triple Plow II" designs. The F-111A achieved a speed of Mach 1.3 in February 1965 with an interim intake design.
Flight testing of the F-111A ran through 1973. The F-111B was canceled by the Navy in 1968 due to weight and performance issues. The F-111C model was developed
for Australia. Subsequently, the improved F-111E, F-111D, F-111F models were developed for the US Air Force. The strategic bomber FB-111A and the EF-111
electronic warfare versions were later developed for the USAF. Production ended in 1976 with a total of 563 F-111 variants built.
Jul 19, 2009 #3 2009-07-19T02:00
The F-111 was an all-weather attack aircraft capable of low-level penetration of enemy defenses to deliver ordnance on the target. The F-111 featured variable geometry wings, an internal weapons bay and a cockpit with side by side seating. The cockpit was part of an escape crew capsule. The wing sweep varied between 16 degrees and 72.5 degrees (full forward to full sweep). The airframe was made up mostly of aluminum alloys with steel, titanium and other materials used in places. The fuselage was a semi-monocoque structure with stiffened panels and honeycomb sandwich panels for skin. Most F-111 variants included a terrain-following radar system connected to the autopilot. The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney TF30 afterburning turbofan engines. The F-111's variable geometry wings, escape capsule, terrain following radar, and afterburning turbofans were new technologies for production aircraft.
The F-111A was the initial production version of the F-111. Early A-models used the TF30-P-1 engine. Most A-models used the TF30-P-3 engine with 12,000 lbf (53 kN) dry and 18,500 lbf (82 kN) afterburning thrust and "Triple Plow I" variable intakes, providing a maximum speed of Mach 2.3 (1,450 mph, 2,300 km/h) at altitude. The variant had a maximum takeoff weight of 92,500 lb (42,000 kg) and an empty weight of 45,200 lb (20,500 kg).
The A-model's Mark I avionics suite included the General Electric AN/APQ-113 attack radar mated to a separate Texas Instruments AN/APQ-110 terrain-following radar lower in the nose and a Litton AJQ-20 inertial navigation and nav/attack system. The terrain-following radar (TFR) was integrated into the automatic flight control system, allowing for "hands-off" flight at high speeds and low levels (down to 200 ft).
Total production of the F-111As was 158, including 17 pre-production aircraft that were later brought up to production standards. A total of 42 F-111As were converted to EF-111A Ravens for an electronic warfare tactical electronic jamming role. In 1982, four surviving F-111As were provided to Australia as attrition replacements and modified to F-111C standard. These were fitted with the longer-span wings and reinforced landing gear of the C-model.
Three pre-production F-111A were provided to NASA for various testing duties. The 13th F-111A was fitted with new wing designs for the Transonic Aircraft Technology and Advanced Fighter Technology Integration programs in the 1970s and 1980s. It was retired to the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1989. The remaining unconverted F-111As were mothballed at AMARC, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in June 1991.
The F-111D was an upgraded F-111A equipped with newer Mark II avionics, more powerful engines, improved intake geometry, and an early glass cockpit. The variant was first ordered in 1967 and delivered from 1970-73. The F-111D reached initial operational capability in 1972. Deliveries were delayed due to avionics issues. A total of 96 F-111Ds were built.
The F-111D used the new Triple Plow II intakes, which were located four inches (100 mm) further away from the airframe to prevent engine ingestion of the sluggish boundary layer air that was known to cause stalls in the TF30 turbofans. It had more powerful TF30-P-9 engines with 12,000 lbf (53 kN) dry and 18,500 lbf (82 kN) afterburning thrust.
The Mark II avionics were digitally integrated microprocessor systems, some of the first used by the USAF, offering tremendous capability, but substantial problems. The Rockwell Autonetics digital bombing-navigation system included inertial navigation system, AN/APQ-130 attack radar system and Doppler radar. It also included digital computer set and multi-function displays (MFDs). The terrain-following radar was the Sperry AN/APQ-128. The attack radar featured a Doppler beam-sharpening, moving target indicator (MTI), and continuous beam for guiding semi-active radar homing missiles.
It took years to improve the reliability of the avionics, but issues were never fully addressed. The F-111D was withdrawn from service in 1991 and 1992.
The F-111E was a simplified, interim variant ordered after the F-111D was delayed. The F-111E used the Triple Plow II intakes, but retained the F-111A's TF30-P-3 engines and Mark I avionics. The weapon stores management system was improved and other small changes made.
The E-model was first ordered in 1968 and delivered from 1969-71. It achieved initial operational capability in 1969. The variant's first flight occurred on 20 August 1969. A total of 94 F-111Es were built. Some F-111Es were based in the UK until 1991. The avionics was upgraded on some E-models as part of a Avionics Modernization Program. The variant saw service in Gulf War of 1990-091. Some F-111Es received improved TF30-P-109 engines in the early 1990s. All F-111Es were retired to AMARC by 1995.
The F-111F was the final F-111 variant produced for Tactical Air Command, with a modern, but less expensive Mark IIB avionics system. The USAF approved development of the variant in 1969. It also included the more powerful TF30-P-100 engine and strengthened wing carry through box. A total of 106 were produced between 1970 and 1976.
The F-111F's Mark IIB avionics suite used a simplified version of the FB-111A's radar, the AN/APQ-144, lacking some of the strategic bomber's operating modes but adding a new 2.5 mi (4.0 km) display ring. Although it was tested with digital moving-target indicator (MTI) capacity, it was not used in production sets. The Mark IIB avionics combined some Mark II components with FB-111A components, such as the AN/APQ-146 terrain-following radar. The F-111E's weapon management system was also included.
The F-model used the Triple Plow II intakes, along with the substantially more powerful TF30-P-100 turbofan with 25,100 lbf (112 kN) afterburning thrust. An adjustable nozzle was added the engine to decrease drag. The P-100 engine greatly improved the F-111F's performance. The engines were upgraded to the TF30-P-109 version, later in the 1985-86 timeframe.
In the early 1980s, the F-111F began to be equipped with the AVQ-26 Pave Tack forward looking infrared (FLIR) and laser designator system. Pave Tack system provided for the delivery of precision laser-guided munitions and mounted in the internal weapons bay. The Pacer Strike avionics update program replaced analog equipment with new digital equipment and multi-function displays.
The F-111F made its combat debut in Operation El Dorado Canyon against Libya in 1986, and was used in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in an anti-armor ("tank-plinking") role.
Various plans to upgrade the F-111F, including the adoption of the General Electric F110 engine (used in the F-14D Tomcat), were proposed, but were not implemented. The last USAF F-111s were withdrawn from service in 1996, replaced by the F-15E Strike Eagle.
Was the Navy’s F-111 Really That Bad?
The controversy swirling around the F-35 joint strike fighter echoes previous battles fought over aircraft tasked with serving more than one master. Perhaps the central question in today’s debate is whether a single airplane designed to perform many missions adequately is a better and truly more affordable choice than several airplanes, each designed to perform a single mission flawlessly. In 1968, the Navy had an unequivocal answer: No. But were they right?
In the early 1960s both the Navy and the Air Force were shopping for new combat aircraft. The Navy needed a carrier-based interceptor capable of engaging Soviet bombers hundreds of miles away, before they could launch long-range anti-ship missiles the Air Force required a supersonic, ground-hugging penetrator that could duck in under enemy radar and dodge surface-to-air missiles.
Traditionally, each service developed its own aircraft to meet its specific requirements. But in early 1961, newly appointed Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came up with a scheme to save millions of dollars by using a common airframe for the two very different missions. He was determined to check the escalating costs of ever-more-sophisticated weapons systems. The result was a warplane that neither service particularly wanted, one branded by critics as a “flying Edsel.” Former test pilot George Marrett remembers it simply as “the worst aircraft I had ever flown.”
Test pilot George Marrett knew the jet well—and preferred its replacement, the F-14 Tomcat. (Courtesy George Marrett)
The Tactical Fighter–Experimental (TFX) design competition was launched in late 1961. At the time, the prize was one of the most lucrative weapons systems contracts ever awarded. McNamara selected the General Dynamics entry, despite strenuous objections from a military selection board that favored a Boeing proposal, mainly because the General Dynamics idea promised that the commonality would provide greater savings.
Then McNamara committed what the Navy saw as a cardinal sin: He designated the Air Force to be the TFX program manager, forcing a reluctant Navy to adopt what would essentially be a version of the Air Force’s bomber. Both services initially agreed on a twin-engine, two-seat airframe, featuring a novel swing-wing design. Beyond that, their design requirements quickly diverged, and as “McNamara’s airplane” developed, so did the Navy’s opposition to it.
Missiles in guns out
The Navy’s requirements dated back to the 1950s, when the Soviets began developing anti-ship missiles that could be launched at long range by bombers well outside a ship’s air defenses. Remembering the devastating Japanese kamikaze attacks of World War II, American admirals had nightmares of swarms of these carrier-killers attacking their vulnerable battle groups.
To counter, naval tacticians embraced Douglas Aircraft’s unusual 1959 F6D Missileer concept. Unlike previous fighters, built to tangle in tight aerial battles with highly maneuverable opponents, the Douglas proposal was simply a large workaday subsonic aircraft armed with sophisticated long-range air-to-air missiles. The Missileer would orbit high over the fleet, basically a flying missile battery. It featured a powerful radar and side-by-side seating for better crew coordination, but lacked any trace of dogfighting capability. The prevailing idea was that the up-close, “knife fight in a phone booth” style of combat was obsolete, and the Missileer was meant to complement the McDonnell F-4 Phantom, which in 1961 entered service as the Navy’s main fighter—itself a big, heavy airplane, which could haul missiles and bombs in great quantity but quickly proved unable to turn with the nimble Soviet-supplied MiG-17s of the North Vietnamese air force. Future air battles would be fought well beyond visual range, won by whichever side came equipped with the best sensors and missiles. The launch platform could fly like a dog the real dogfighting would be done by the missiles. The Missileer was canceled, but the concept evolved into the Navy’s version of the TFX, which was soon designated the F-111B.
General Dynamics lacked experience in building carrier airplanes, so it partnered with venerable Grumman Aircraft to build the F-111B. Grumman had not only earned a reputation for building tough airplanes, it also had previous experience building a swing-wing fighter prototype, the XF10F Jaguar. The Jaguar was scrubbed in 1953, but lessons learned would be applied to the F-111.
The F-111B was to be the most sophisticated design of its era. Not only would it be the first production warplane with a variable-sweep wing, an ambitious undertaking, it would also be the first to incorporate afterburning turbofan engines, capable of propelling the airplane to Mach 2 while still boasting a long range in fuel-efficient cruise. A brand-new, ultra-long-range radar would find targets for the new Hughes AIM-54A air-to-air missile, which itself had a 100-mile range.
The F-111B’s brand-new variable-sweep wings worked surprisingly well. (USS Coral Sea CVA-43 Association)
The Grumman F-111B made its first flight in May 1965, and problems with the engines quickly emerged.
To achieve the range, speed, and loiter times required by dissimilar Air Force and Navy mission requirements, General Dynamics had selected the new, unproven Pratt & Whitney TF30 turbofan engine. The turbofans worked well in cruise, but not so well during the flight maneuvering typical of military operations. A series of compressor stalls marred the F-111 test program, tarnishing the aircraft’s reputation among pilots.
Ace of the test range
“The F-111 took a terrible toll on test pilots,” says George Marrett, who lost friends in test flight accidents. Marrett, who first flew F-111s as an Air Force test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, would also later fly the Navy’s version as a civilian test pilot. He says candidly, “I got the job because two Hughes crew members were killed flying the plane.”
Marrett amassed hundreds of hours flying F-111Bs, at one point doggedly bringing back an airplane, crippled by flight control malfunctions, for a crash landing at Naval Air Station Point Mugu. And despite 188 combat missions piloting A-1 Skyraiders over Vietnam, Marrett considers his F-111B crash in October 1969 to be his closest brush with death in a long flying career.
In his 2006 book Testing Death, Marrett wrote that although the F-111 was “grossly underpowered, and had poor cockpit visibility for a fighter,” it was instrumental in perfecting the Phoenix missile and its associated AN/AWG-9 radar system. “I wouldn’t want to maneuver one against a fighter,” he says in an interview, “but purely as an interceptor, it would have done well against bombers and cruise missiles.”
Hughes Aircraft began developing the AIM-54 Phoenix missile in 1962. The capabilities demanded were ambitious it was required to engage targets at altitudes ranging from just above the waves to over 80,000 feet, flying at speeds approaching Mach 5 and at ranges of more than 100 miles. The AWG-9 radar built to find its targets was the first able to track and engage multiple aerial contacts simultaneously, something the Navy urgently needed to counter the anticipated missile swarm.
As with any cutting-edge weapons system, development was problematic and costly. Marrett spent 10 years flying Phoenix test flights, launching missiles from F-111Bs and later F-14s at drone targets over the Pacific Missile Range, off the California coast. With tongue in cheek, he calls himself a “test-range ace,” having shot down five drones. “All missile test shots were critical,” he recalls “we were told a failure might result in program cancellation.”
Surprisingly, the innovative swing- wing technology worked well on the jet. The real problem from the Navy’s point of view was the airplane’s size. Even before its maiden flight, many in the fighter community resisted the interceptor, considering it too heavy and too sluggish for dogfighting—which of course it was not designed to do.
Some of the Navy’s own demands, such as side-by-side seating for crews cocooned within a cockpit escape capsule, were part of the F-111’s weight problem. Not only did the ejectable capsule add weight to the airframe, but Marrett recalls that test pilots didn’t think it would work. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘Well, first guy that uses that is gonna be dead.’ And sure enough, that’s what happened. It killed one of my friends. The capsule separated [from the fuselage], but the ’chute didn’t deploy.”
F-111 Flown - History
A8-126 was the first RAAF F-111C to be accepted and flown by a RAAF crew.
The first test flight in Fort Worth, Texas in 1968 highlighted a major structural test failure of the wing carry through box. The fleet was grounded until 6 April 1973 when A8-126 was formally accepted for a second time.
The aircraft landed at RAAF Amberley on 1 June 1973. A8-126 was the first F-111C aircraft to be converted to Reconnaissance configuration.
In addition to participating in numerous exercises, Air Shows and flying displays, A8-126 participated in the spectacular flying display at the F-111 retirement ceremony at RAAF Amberley and during its last flight performed a solo display and the last ever dump and burn of the F-111.
A8-126 now has a permanent home in the fast jets hangar at the RAAF Amberley Aviation Heritage Centre.
A8-138 also participated in the spectacular flying display at the F-111 retirement ceremony at RAAF Amberley in December 2010. The aircraft has also now been fully repainted in the South East Asian (SEA) camouflage colours of the 1980s.
With the completion of the new fencing and main access gate to the Base, A8-138 is now the gate guardian for RAAF Amberley. As A8-138 is located outside the base perimeter, it can be viewed by the public at any time.
The Story of an F-1111 Aardvark POW Who Had to Eject over North Vietnam
When Bill Wilson was captured by the North Vietnamese, one of his captors pointed an accusing finger at him, exclaiming: “YOU! F-One Eleven!” and, with a sweeping palm down gesture, “WHOOOOSH!” It was a simple eloquence that described the fear and awe that the North Vietnamese felt for the swing-wing marauders that came in the night, unheralded, to sow their seeds of destruction with pin-point accuracy. When Wilson collected his “Golden BB”, he had been flying the F-111 for just over a year.
Originally known as the TFX (Tactical Fighter “X”), the F-111 was conceived to meet a U.S. Air Force requirement for a new tactical fighter-bomber. In 1960 the Department of Defense combined the USAF’s requirement with a Navy need for a new air superiority fighter. The USAF’s F-111A first flew in December 1964, and the first production models were delivered to the USAF in 1967. Meanwhile, the Navy’s F-111B program was canceled. In all, 566 F-111s of all series were built 159 of them were F-111As. Although the F-111 was unofficially referred to as the Aardvark, it did not receive the name officially until it was retired in 1996.
An interesting feature of the aircraft was its variable-geometry wings. While in the air, the wings could be swept forward for takeoffs, landings or slow speed flight, and swept rearward for high-speed flight. The F-111 could also fly at very low level and hit targets in bad weather.
In the spring of 1968 the USAF operationally tested the F-111A in Southeast Asia with mixed success. In 1972, after correcting early problems, the USAF returned the F-111A to Southeast Asia for Operation Linebacker II as former F-111A weapon system officer (WSO) Bill Wilson remembers in Lou Drendel book F-111 In Action. “My last mission was by far the most memorable, though the memories are anything but happy. It was our second mission of Linebacker II. Our first mission was the strike against Hoa Lac Airfield on the night of December 18. Following that mission, we had a break of four days to allow the operations people to distribute the missions equally among all of the crews. During that break, I made the mistake of asking the Ops Officer for a mission to “downtown”. We had never been to any of the targets close in to Hanoi, and both Bob [Wilson’s pilot, Capt. Robert Sponeybarger] and I were curious about the area. We had confidence in the F-111 and our tactics, and I guess we were eager to prove that we could challenge the most formidable air defense system ever devised and survive. It was not the first dangerous mission I had volunteered for, but I later promised myself that it was the last.
“The target we were assigned was the river docks right in the center of Hanoi. Now, “downtown” was a euphemism used to describe the magic ten mile radius of the most intensive air defenses around Hanoi. I really hadn’t expected to be sent right to the center of it!
“We took off from Takhli about 2100, climbed to a medium altitude, and proceeded up through the Plain des Jars area of Laos into the Gorilla’s Head area of North Vietnam, where we began our let-down to penetration altitude.
“This was December 22, which was really the height of the battle. The enemy was not as exhausted as he would become a week later, and the air defense crews were at their sharpest. We had been striking all around the Hanoi area, and, in fact, the river docks had been hit previously. Most of the strikes had been coming in from the south-east, since this gave the crews a more direct route out of the area, and minimized their exposure to the defenses. We figured that they would be looking more closely at these southeast approaches, so we planned our run-in to the target from the north. After stabilizing in the TFR mode, we crossed into North Vietnam at 500 feet. The closer we got to Hanoi, the more we hugged the terrain. Our last leg before turning south was on the north side of Thud Ridge, which gave us complete masking from the air defense radars. When we came around the corner and turned south, we broke out of the weather. We were at three hundred feet, and there was a broken overcast above, with a full moon showing through the breaks in the clouds. Hardly the ideal F-111 weather. Visibility under the overcast was unlimited, and we could see the lights of Hanoi in the distance. We picked up our final run-in heading at Duc Noi, about 10 miles due north of the target. At this point we were doing about 480 knots, and my impressions of the world outside the airplane are fragmentary, limited as they had to be since I was spending the majority of my time on the radar. I remember that they never did turn the lights off. They were welding the superstructure of the Paul Doumer Bridge, which we used for our radar offset in the final attack phase. We started to pick up some AAA fire, mostly 37-57mm stuff, five miles before we got to the target. It was the typical stuff, coming up in clips of five, red and orange golf balls and, though there was a lot of it, it was all behind us since they didn’t have us on radar and it was all directed at our sound. At that time I remember feeling a little let-down. since I had expected much heavier resistance. We had seen bigger stuff . . . 85 and 100mm . . . on a previous mission to Thai Nguyen. We later learned that the enemy had stopped shooting the big guns at low-level high speed targets because the rapid rate of traverse required was throwing the gun crews off the gun mounts and injuring them, and they had no hope of hitting us anyway. [As Drendel explains, many of the civilian casualties claimed by North Vietnam to have been inflicted by U.S. bombers were actually self-inflicted by the large caliber shells detonating at low altitude and spewing shrapnel indiscriminately about the countryside.]
“But, though they weren’t coming close to us with their AAA, they were quite effectively tracing our path in the sky. They had developed the tactics of blasting away with small arms fire . . . straight up . . . along this path, in the hope of getting a lucky hit. Two nights previous to our mission, one of the airplanes had come back with a hit in the extreme rear of its tailpipe. The previous night an airplane had returned with a hit in the stabilator. It seemed that they were getting the hang of their new tactics. And if I had been superstitious at all, I probably wouldn’t have flown the mission at all. Every one of the previous F-111s lost had a call sign ending in 3, and they had all gone down on a Monday night. December 22 was a Monday, and our call sign was Jackal 33.
“Our weapons system pickled off the twelve 500 pound Snakeyes as we roared over the docks at better than 550 miles an hour. With the F-111’s sophisticated system, and the good radar offset we had gotten from the Doumer Bridge, there was never much doubt that we would hit the target, and we could see the docks exploding as we rolled off the target and headed for the turn point for our initial leg back to base. As soon as we looked back in the cockpit, we saw that we had a utility hydraulic failure light. We didn’t think much of it at the time . . . we hadn’t felt any hits on the airplane, and we had gotten one of these lights on a previous mission. It was more of a minor irritation than anything else. But less than a minute later, we got a right engine fire warning light. We went through the bold-face procedures, shutting the engine down. (Bold face refers to the instructions for emergency operations which appear in the flight manual.) I called Moonbeam, reporting that we were off the target and had lost an engine, and they acknowledged the call.
“We had just reached the first set of foothills and I had told Bob that we could start to climb, when I heard him say: “What the hell . . . !” I looked up from the radar to see him moving the control stick like he was operating a butter churn, and I saw that the entire warning-caution light panel was lit. There was no doubt about our next move, and with Bob’s command, “Eject! Eject!”, we fired the capsule rockets.
F-111 Flown - History
"This is an incorrect statement. The crew had been using the TFR but had begun to initiate an inflight rejoin on what they thought was the flight lead ahead of them. The pilot most likely had the "paddle switch" on the stick depressed which removed the autopilot/flight control integration to the TFR and inhibited TFR fly-up protection - or had directed the WSO to place the TFR's to standby because the low level was being exited.
John Sweeney was a very experienced F-111 pilot and would not have flown low level without TFR - which was and always had been prohibited. Many aircrews thought that the pilot mistakenly thought that a farm house light or star was the lead.
At the time F-111's did not have strip lighting and were notorious for tail lights burning out - thus very hard to see. How do I know? I was part of the 79TFS and the pilot was one of my best friends.) To add validity to what I have written - I have 4650 hours in the F-111 - all models and the second most time in the world in the F-111 including 3700 hrs instructor time".
Ejection was not attempted, and both crew were killed. The crash occured at Pentre Bach Farm near Foel, Welshpool, Wales. (Although, per the offcial accident report - 2 miles NW of Llangadfan)
F-111E s/n 68-0070 had accumulated 499 flights and 1,394 flight hours when it crashed.
A-10 Warthog: The Warplane Nobody Wanted
An A-10C Thunderbolt II from the 75th Fighter Squadron honing its skills in the skies over the training ranges at Ft. Irwin, Calif.
The A-10 story is a painful illustration of just how much flag-rank military thinking is driven by ego, selfishness and greed and how little of it is relevant to war-fighting.
In 1972 the Fairchild Republic A-10 came out of the big aluminum womb ugly, misbegotten and ignored. It seemed fated for a life as the awkward stepchild of its F-plane playmates, the pointy-nose F-15 and F-16, eventually to be joined by the rapacious F-22 and voracious, obese F-35.
The Warthog, as the attack airplane came to be known, finally had its day when it was a 19-year-old virgin with a mustache and, yes, warts, about to be put out to pasture. The A-10 was scheduled for retirement—for the first of several times—when the battle against Soviet T-55, T-62 and T-72 tanks that it had been designed to fight finally erupted. Only not in the Fulda Gap but in Kuwait and Iraq, and the tanks belonged to Saddam, not Stalin. It was called Desert Storm and thankfully not World War III, but overnight the ugly stepchild became the most vicious and powerful armor-killer ever to fly.
Ground attack from the air and what’s today called close air support (CAS) has a surprisingly long history (see “The First Ground-Pounders,”). We think of World War I airplanes as dogfighters and balloon-busters, but the Junkers J.I was the world’s first airplane designed from the wheels up for ground attack. Also the world’s first all-metal production aircraft, it was an enormous sesquiplane with a corrugated, Quonset-hut upper wing twice the span of a Sopwith Triplane’s. It had a tall, vertical exhaust stack that made it look like a flying locomotive and, presaging the A-10’s structure, featured an entirely armored cockpit bathtub. Like the Warthog, it too got an unflattering nickname: the “Moving Van,” thanks to its size, weight and 96-mph top speed.
Though J.Is managed to immobilize a few thin-skinned British tanks, the first effective anti-tank aircraft was the Russian Polikarpov I-15, an open-cockpit biplane fighter flown by the Republican Loyalist side in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. I-15s carried four wing-mounted, rapid-fire 7.62mm machine guns, and the total of 50 armor-piercing rounds per second could do serious damage to what passed for armor in that era. Several I-15s created enough chaos among Italian tanks advancing on Madrid that the attack was then broken up by Loyalist infantry.
This caught the attention of the Soviets and led to the legendary Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik tank-buster of World War II, an airplane that turned out to be so useful it was produced in greater numbers—more than 36,000—than any other combat aircraft ever built. The Shturmovik also had a heavily armored cockpit plus another valuable characteristic that would show up in the Warthog: It could carry a wide variety of underwing ordnance, including machine guns, cannons, bombs and rockets.
The Germans had also seen the need for a CAS airplane, the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka (see “Screaming Birds of Prey,” from the September 2013 issue). The Luftwaffe’s raison d’être, in fact, was entirely to provide ground support. It was the Wehrmacht’s air arm, and Stukas were initially used as flying artillery working in league with the army’s panzers as they blitzkrieged through Europe. Though the Messerschmitt Me-109 would soon take the title, Stukas were for awhile the most important arrows in the Luftwaffe’s quiver.
Knowing that the Ju-87 was becoming increasingly obsolescent, the Germans tried their best to develop a more modern tank-buster, the little-known Henschel Hs-129. Its parallels with the A-10, however, are interesting. Both airplanes are twin-engine for redundancy, though the Hs-129’s power plants were not very good. Both the Henschel and the A-10 utilized true “armored bathtubs” for cockpit protection—not just steel-plate fuselage skinning but an internal structure that, in the case of the Hs-129, had sloped sides to increase the effective thickness of the armor. And both carried enormous guns. The Hs-129 is said to have been the first airplane to fire a 30mm cannon in anger, and its final version mounted a 75mm cannon.
But what about the A-10 Thunderbolt II, as it’s officially (but rarely) known? Let’s back up and look at what was behind this shotgun marriage of World War II technology, turbofan engines and a massive piece of artillery, the 30mm Gatling gun that became the A-10’s best-known weapon. Has there ever been an airplane conceived under such miserable conditions? The A-10 story is a painful illustration of just how much flag-rank military thinking is driven by ego, selfishness and greed and how little of it is relevant to war-fighting. Dwight Eisenhower had already called its practitioners the military/industrial complex.
When the Air Force was released from its traditional service as an obedient part of the Army in September 1947, it became a separate and independent branch of the armed forces. The brand-new U.S. Air Force immediately foreswore serious duty working for soldiers on the ground. Let the Army and Marine Corps take care of their own, said the Air Force, our job is flying at the speed of heat, gunning enemy jets, making aces and dropping bombs, preferably nuclear. “Not a pound [of airframe weight] for air to ground” became an Air Force fighter-development principle.
This deal was further ratified in March 1948 by the Key West Agreement. The chiefs of staff and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal sat down in, obviously, Key West and agreed that the Navy could keep its tailhookers (some of which the Marines would of course continue to use for close air support), but that the Army was done forever flying fixed-wing aircraft in combat. They were welcome to play with helicopters, which seemed at the time to be of little consequence, but flying real airplanes was the Air Force’s job. The Army could continue to use aircraft for minor logistics, medevac and recon, but no weapons were allowed to be mounted aboard them.
The U.N. “police action” in Korea saw the Air Force grudgingly dedicating its obsolete F-51D and its least effective jet fighters, the Lockheed F-80C and Republic F-84, to the unglamorous job of going down low and helping grunts hold off raging Chicoms and North Koreans. But the most effective CAS missions were flown by Marine F4U Corsairs. Oddly, the Air Force had retired or given to the Air Guard all its P-47s, the workhorse American ground-support airplanes of WWII. No Thunderbolts flew in Korea.
Vietnam was the real wake-up call. North American F-100 Super Sabres and other jets were assigned the CAS mission and did the best they could, but finding targets hidden in thick jungle while flying too fast at altitudes too high with too little fuel to hang around for a second look didn’t work. “One pass, haul ass” became the CAS mantra.
To the dismay of the speed-of-heaters, the Douglas A-1 Skyraider proved to be the most effective CAS airplane of the war. Not only was the Spad old enough to have almost made it into WWII, but it was a Navy plane, forgodsake. Still, it was the best the Air Force could find for CAS.
The Army, meanwhile, was developing helicopter gunships into serious (albeit still vulnerable and delicate) CAS birds. Serious enough, in fact, that in 1966 the Army began work on a ground-up design for an armed and armored attack helicopter, the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne. The Cheyenne was a compound helo, with rigid rotors for VTOL and a pusher prop for pure speed. It was so complex and sophisticated that had it gone into production, each Cheyenne would have cost more than an F-4 Phantom. That will never do, the Air Force said that’s money we should be getting.
The Air Force set out to develop its own fixed-wing close air support machine. Even though they didn’t want the CAS mission, letting the Army take it over was worse. All the brass wanted was for their ground-attack bird to be better and cheaper than the Cheyenne. So began the 1966 A-X (Attack Experimental) program. Six airframers wanted in, but only two were selected: Fairchild Republic and Northrop.
Northrop’s contender, the YA-9, was conventional and unimaginative—its high wings made loading ordnance more difficult, the low-mounted engines were vulnerable to groundfire and a single vertical tail offered neither redundancy nor shielding of the engines’ infrared exhaust signatures. Fairchild Republic, however, had the help of an unusual civilian maverick, French-born systems analyst Pierre Sprey. The Air Force loathed Sprey, for he’d been one of the key developers of the much-reviled “lightweight fighter” that became the F-16 the Air Force preferred the big, expensive, electronics-laden, multiengine F-15.
But Sprey knew the importance of CAS, had some big ideas on how to do it best and had written scholarly papers on the subject. He’d studied the Stuka, and one of his heroes was Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the ultimate ground-attack pilot (with more than 2,000 vehicles, trains, ships, artillery pieces, bridges, aircraft and landing craft destroyed, including 519 tanks). Sprey is said to have required every member of the A-10 design team to read Rudel’s autobiography, Stuka Pilot.
Tasked with leading the A-10 team and writing the specs for the prototype, Sprey interviewed every Vietnam Spad pilot and forward air controller he could find. As a result, he prioritized long loiter time, good range, excellent visibility, low-and-slow maneuverability, survivability and lethal weapons “the very sight of which will turn an enemy soldier’s bowels to water,” wrote Robert Coram in his book Boyd, an excellent study of the “fighter mafia” led by iconoclasts John Boyd and Sprey. Still, as Coram put it, “the A-X was a leprous project led by a pariah.”
Sprey pretty much got his way, since the Air Force simply wanted to put a stake through the Cheyenne’s heart—which they did when the Lockheed program was canceled. Two A-10 features that Sprey didn’t like were its twin engines and enormous size he had wanted a smaller, lighter, more maneuverable airplane than the Warthog turned out to be. After all, it is a single-seat attack aircraft with a wingspan only 5 feet shorter on each side than a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber’s, and fully loaded for a CAS mission an A-10 weighs 6 tons more than a grossed-out B-25.
Yet the A-10 is a simple airplane, and until post-production upgrades beginning in 1989, it even lacked an autopilot—just like a WWII fighter. Nor does it have radar, and the main landing gear is only semi-retractable, like a DC-3’s. Half of each mainwheel protrudes from its fairing in flight, which some have assumed is to enable the Warthog to make safer gear-up landings. That’s true, but the design was really chosen because it allows the wings to remain free of wheel wells, making construction simple, straightforward and strong. Same goes for the protective cockpit structure, which is not a forged bathtub-like piece at all but several plates of titanium bolted together.
By zoomy blue-suiter standards, the A-10 is painfully slow. It can do just over 365 knots but usually flies strikes at 300 knots or less. The typical jokes are that A-10s don’t have instrument panel clocks, they have calendars. And bird strikes from behind are a big risk. (Those of us who flew the original Citation 500 business jet—often referred to as the Slowtation—were subjected to the very same snark.) But if the A-10 has a basic shortcoming, it admittedly is underpowered. A-10 pilots say the airplane has three power-lever positions: off, taxi and max power.
The A-10 was also designed around a specific weapon—the General Electric GAU-8/A seven-barrel Gatling cannon, which, with its huge 1,174-round ammunition drum (mounted behind the pilot), is as big as a car. It fires 30mm cartridges nearly a foot long, and though its firing rate is typically quoted as 3,900 rounds per minute, that’s a meaningless number. An A-10’s gun is fired for one- or two-second bursts, so a delivery of roughly 60 to 65 rounds per second in intermittent bursts is what “will turn an enemy soldier’s bowels to water.”
The rotating-barrel cannon is mounted exactly on the A-10’s centerline, resulting in the Warthog’s odd stance, with its nose-gear strut displaced well to the right to clear the barrel. A popular myth has it that firing the gun results in recoil so strong it could stall the airplane, but you’d have to be flying just a knot or two above stall speed for that to happen. What is a consideration, however, is that the gun’s recoil is strong enough that any off-centerline positioning of the firing barrel would result in yaw that could cause the firing pattern to be scattershot rather than firehose.
The cannon fires high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds, in addition to target-practice rounds in peacetime. The armor-piercing incendiaries have depleted-uranium cores, which have the advantage of being extremely dense—1.67 times as dense as pure lead—and thus have enormous hitting power. But DU has two other potent characteristics. It is “self-sharpening,” meaning the projectile doesn’t squash or flatten as it pierces armor but fractures and remains relatively pointed. The other is that DU is pyrophoric—it spontaneously ignites upon contact with the air. As an A-10’s DU rounds penetrate a tank’s armor, its fragments, some as tiny as dust, all become intensely incendiary particles scattering through the tank’s interior, with grisly effects on the crew.
By the end of the 1990s, it again seemed the Hog’s day was done. Seven hundred and fifteen A-10s had been built, but the active fleet was down to 390 units, what with weary and excess A-10s sent to the Davis-Monthan boneyard. (Many returned to base almost unflyable, but only seven Warthogs have ever been shot down or crashed due to combat.) Production had been shut down since 1984, and zero effort had been put into coming up with a direct replacement. It looked like the Hog would be makin’ bacon in the boneyard.
But wait. Saddam came back, and now we also had the Taliban to deal with. Hog pilots suited up and headed not to retirement but to the Mideast again, where A-10s continued to rule the anti-armor and CAS roost. The distinctive sound of an A-10’s engines was sometimes enough to make an enemy throw away his weapons and run. If he heard the even more distinctive sound of its GAU, it was already too late.
By 2008, most of the still-active A-10s were C models, with glass cockpits, upgraded sensors, video targeting and many other enhancements. Gone was some of the original Hog’s steam-gauge simplicity. Some pilots didn’t like the optical/FLIR imaging and called the video screen a “face magnet,” sucking the pilot’s view into the cockpit. The most frequently used metaphor was that viewing the battleground through a camera’s eye was “like looking through a soda straw.” Like looking through a toilet paper roll might be closer to the truth, but it was a far cry from a good pilot’s 360-degree physical scan.
Blame Congress and sequestration, not the USAF, but the Air Force has been told to lop a big chunk off its budget. They have chosen to do this by scheduling the A-10 for total retirement in 2015—not by just reducing the fleet size but by eliminating the airplane, the pilots, ground support, training, spare parts supply, logistics, upgrading and every other vestige of the Warthog. Total fleet and infrastructure removal is the only way to save serious money, which in the case of the A-10, the Air Force calculates, will come to $3.7 billion.
But some legislators want the Air Force to find another way to save that money. In May the House Armed Services Committee came up with a defense spending bill that specifically blocked plans to retire the Warthog, and it was approved a month later by the House of Representatives. If the Senate agrees—which as we go to press doesn’t look likely—the A-10 will fly on at least a while longer.
When the Hog does make that final fight to Davis-Monthan, what will replace it for the CAS mission? The Air Force version of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Opponents of the way-over-budget F-35 program say that the JSF acronym actually stands for Joke Still Flying, in light of the F-35’s problems and presumed failings, and some have called for its cancellation rather than the A-10’s. But let’s assume the F-35 eventually meets all of its performance targets and goes into service as one of the world’s best fighters can it replace the A-10? The Air Force claims that with sophisticated targeting systems under development and even in existence, there will no longer be a need to get down in the weeds and use binoculars—a favorite Hog pilot tool—to find and identify targets. CAS will necessarily be done from altitude and at speed, since nobody is going to risk a $200 million fighter to small-arms fire.
An excellent article, “Tunnel Vision,” by Andrew Cockburn in the February 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine, however, described a May 2012 CAS mission by a two-ship of A-10s over Afghanistan, controlled by a video-viewing JTAC (joint terminal attack controller) from a forward position. The JTAC sent the two A-10s to four different grid coordinates, one after the other, in a confused search for Taliban troops supposedly in contact with American forces. At the fourth location, the A-10 flight leader reported that yes, now he could see through his binocs people around a farm building, but there was no sign of weapons or hostile activity. He refused to attack, so the JTAC assigned the CAS mission to a loitering B-1 bomber that used satellite-guided bombs to obliterate an Afghan husband, wife and five children. Apparently, remote targeting systems still need work.
A-10 enthusiasts—including every pilot who has ever flown one in combat—argue that the Warthog is cheap to fly, is already in operation, has substantial loiter capability that the F-35 will lack, is extremely survivable and can put Mark I eyeballs on the target. Only an A-10, they say, can put ordnance “danger close” to ground troops, which in extreme cases means 20 feet away from them. And many A-10s are currently getting brand-new Boeing-built wings and center sections, which will allow them to operate for another quarter-century.
F-35 proponents point out that their airplane is stealthy, which the A-10 definitely isn’t that the A-10 is slow and vulnerable to sophisticated anti-aircraft systems and that, just like the WWII Stuka, it requires air superiority before it enters a target area. A point they especially stress is that the F-35 is a multirole aircraft: It can achieve air superiority, it can bomb and it can do the CAS job. The A-10, they say, is a single-mission aircraft, and the Air Force can no longer afford such specialized machines. (Though there is a forward air control version, the OA-10, it is simply a designator difference, as the airframes are identical and they are all part of the CAS mission.)
Inevitably, the last-generation multimission aircraft, the General Dynamics F-111, is brought up, for the Aardvark was largely a failure, a jack-of-all-trades that was master of none. “If history tells us anything,” Ian Hogg wrote in his book Tank Killing, “it tells us that can openers are better than Swiss army knives for opening cans.”
The A-10 has gone to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. Where it hasn’t gone to war is Russia, China or North Korea. If we could be guaranteed that our future opponents will be Somalis with AKs or Syrians with RPGs, the A-10 will continue to get the job done at the lowest possible cost. But if the U.S. needs to face off against a wacky Putin or a crazed Kim Jong-un, the stakes will be higher and the weapons vastly more deadly.
Perhaps the F-35 isn’t the perfect mud-mover, but could this be a case of perfect being the enemy of good enough?
For further reading, frequent contributor Stephan Wilkinson recommends: Warthog: Flying the A-10 in the Gulf War, by William L. Smallwood A-10 Thunderbolt II: 21st Century Warthog, by Neil Dundridge Tank Killing, by Ian Hogg and Boyd, by Robert Coram.
This feature originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!