ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE
The General Dynamics F-111 never had an official name other than F-111 but was known as the “Aardvark” in US service (all aircraft were retired by 1998 including the EF-111 “Raven” an electronic warfare version), it was called “Pig” in Australia but this had nothing to do with how it performed, it was a term of endearment (it could hunt at night with its nose in the weeds!). It was a highly sophisticated swing wing interdictor and tactical strike bomber and reconnaissance aircraft with a crew of 2 that was capable of flying at a top speed of Mach 2.5, operating in all-weather conditions day or night, carrying a vast weapons payload and flying at extremely low altitude just above the earths terrain.
Although never used in combat, the F-111 was probably the most important peacetime aircraft ever flown by the RAAF as it acted as the most supreme deterrent in protecting Australian shores. The closest to coming into combat for RAAF F-111’s was when they were on standby in the Northern Territory to intervene if needed during the Australian led INTERFET intervention into East Timor to address the humanitarian and security crisis in 1999 to 2000 (they were not required for military strikes but reconnaissance flights were flown over East Timor during that time with Indonesian clearance).
One interesting mission flown by an F-111 was the sinking of a North Korean ship the “Pong Su” in 2006. The freighter ship was boarded and commandeered by Australian special forces in 2003 for the suspected importing of 150kg (330 pounds) of heroin into Australia. This followed a four day chase in which the ship tried to escape to international waters. Crew members were charged with drug offences but later acquitted due to a lack of evidence. 4 other men who were not crew members but were caught bringing the drugs into the country from the ship were charged and sentenced to between 22 and 24 years imprisonment. The ship was left off shore for a couple of years before it was sunk by an F-111 with 2 laser guided Paveway bombs.
The RAAF F-111’s could carry all manner of bombs and missiles including Harpoon anti-shipping missiles. The importance of the F-111 to Australia was reflected by the fact they served for almost 40 years (1973 to 2010)! They were only retired due to wear and tear on the airframes and wings; and the expense of operating and maintaining such old aircraft.
The avionics and weapons systems used in the F-111 had been significantly upgraded over the years and were some of the most sophisticated in the world (the F-111 has been replaced in RAAF service on an interim basis by the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet pending delivery of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II JSF in the near future). In fact in 2009 I got into a little bit of trouble with RAAF security at the Avalon air show for inadvertently trying to take a photo of an open avionics hatch for an F-111C being prepped for flight!
The RAAF operated 3 versions of the F-111. The F-111C (1973 to 2010 – 24 were purchased initially with an additional 4 airframes purchased later to replace losses from accidents), RF-111C for reconnaissance (1979 to 2010 – 4 were converted from F-111C’s in 1979/80 but retained their strike capability) and F-111G (1993 to 2007 – 15 were purchased from surplus US stocks). They were flown by Number 1 and 6 squadrons. Between 1977 and 1999 8 F-111’s were destroyed in crashes (7 C models and 1 G model) sadly with the loss of 10 air crew. The reconnaissance platform was considered one of the best tactical reconnaissance aircraft in the world and won a number of flight competitions up against US and NATO allies during Red Flag exercises held at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Unfortunately upon retirement in December 2010, due to the sophisticated nature of the aircraft and the highly sensitive nature of the avionics used and an associated agreement with the United States the majority of F-111’s had to be disposed of. This was done in December 2011 when 23 airframes were buried in a landfill near Ipswich, Queensland. Luckily 13 were retained for museums including the RAAF Museum at Point Cook, Victoria.
I was lucky enough to see the F-111 perform at many air shows over the years and when I was a kid they used to roar over my town on military exercises. It was always impressive to see the “Pig” and it is very sad to know they will never fly again.
One of the signature air show displays of RAAF F-111’s was the “dump and burn” where jet fuel was released and the afterburner ignited to leave a gigantic trail of flame behind the F-111 as it shot through the sky – very impressive!