Continuing on from my visit to the South Australian Aviation Museum (SAAM) Open Cockpits and Family Fun Day on Sunday April 9th, 2017, lets take a look at the RAAF General Dynamics RF-111C (A8-134) strike/reconnaissance aircraft that dominates their main display hangar. I also took an informative cockpit tour of the RF-111C which was a real highlight of the day for me.
The RAAF operated the F-111 from 1973 to 2010 with No. 1 and 6 Squadrons at RAAF Amberley in Queensland. The RAAF Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) also operated an F-111 during flight trials. The F-111 was originally purchased to replace the GAF Canberra bomber (GAF built 48 for the RAAF with the first entering service in 1954 and the last retired in 1982. The type saw extensive service during the Vietnam War) but also ended up replacing 24 McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II multi-role fighters leased between 1970 and 1973 due to delays in delivery of the F-111C (1 F-4E was lost in an accident during this period).
The F-111 was quite a beast capable of flying at a maximum speed of Mach 1.2 at sea level and Mach 2.5 above 50,000 ft. It could carry 14,300kg (31,500 lb) of ordnance including free fall and laser guided bombs, air to surface missiles and air to air missiles – the RAAF variants could carry combinations of Mk 82 and Mk 84 bombs, Paveway II Laser-Guided Bombs, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, GBU-15 electro-optical glide bombs and could even carry up to 4 AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missiles. These capabilities along with a long ferry range of 5,560km, sophisticated avionics and weapons systems, and the ability to fly extremely low using terrain following radar made it one formidable aircraft!
The RAAF received 28 F-111C strike aircraft (including attrition replacements), 1 of the existing C models were converted to RF-111C strike/reconnaissance variants in 1979 in Fortworth, Texas) and 3 more in 1980 by No. 3 Aircraft Depot (3AD) at RAAF Amberley. An additional 15 former USAF F-111G strike variants were delivered in 1993/94 of which 5 were placed in long-term storage (all F-111G’s were retired by 2007). 7 F-111C’s and 1 F-111G were lost in accidents. Despite being one of the most advanced strike aircraft in the world and receiving numerous avionics and weapons systems upgrades throughout its life, the type was never used in combat by the RAAF.
Getting to sit in the cockpit of the General Dynamics RF-111C (A8-134) and receive a detailed overview of the cockpit controls was well worth the wait in the queue and the small additional fee of just $5 (I had long wanted to get a good look inside one as they were always a well guarded secret at airshows whilst operational but to sit in one too was a real highlight!). Seeing the combination of late 1960’s analog technology and the digital upgrades that occurred within the cockpit control panel through the long 37 year RAAF career of the F-111 was quite fascinating. Although it may look spacious it was quite cumbersome getting into the pilots side of the cockpit!
I also like that the RF-111C is displayed with the special camera unit alongside it that was installed in the weapons bay. It contains four cameras and an infrared linescanner unit. The RAAF have done a great job in ensuring museums had access to a high quality display aircraft.
This aircraft was delivered to the RAAF in 1973 and converted from an F-111C strike aircraft to an RF-111C model in 1980 by 3AD (although the weapons bay was used to hold the camera unit, underwing weapons pylons were retained). It served with both RAAF No. 1 and 6 Squadrons and was in operation until December 2010 (it wears both No. 1 and No. 6 Squadron markings and emblems on each side of the aircraft fuselage and tail). It is on long-term loan from the RAAF and arrived at SAAM on March 17th, 2013.
RAAF F-111 Disposal
Although continuously upgraded with the latest technology, the last of the ageing RAAF F-111 fleet was officially retired in 2010 primarily due to the high maintenance cost per flight hour. The last flight of an RAAF F-111 was on December 3rd, 2010 when F-111C A8-109 landed and shut down its engines at RAAF Amberley in Queensland.
Following this flight the process to close RAAF F-111 operations began (they were replaced by 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet multi-role fighters). While many of the surviving aircraft were to be scrapped due to a security arrangement with the United States government (F-111G’s were considered nuclear weapon capable), 13 were earmarked for preservation at RAAF bases and public museums.
6 F-111’s went to RAAF bases: Amberley RF-111C A8-126 in the Aviation Heritage Centre and F-111C A8-138 as a gate guardian, ARDU Edinburgh F-111C A8-132 (this one is painted with white undersides as it was during flight trials with ARDU), Wagga Wagga Aviation Heritage Centre F-111C A8-142, RAAF Point Cook Museum – the only surviving F-111G A8-272 The Boneyard Wrangler which is on display and F-111C A8-125 which is currently in storage. The Amberley Aviation Heritage Centre also received 3 F-111C crew modules (the crew would eject in the enclosed module rather than have individual ejection seats) – A8-136, A8-137 and A8-147.
7 F-111C aircraft were allocated to public museums – Queensland Air Museum, Caloundra A8-129, SAAM RF-111C A8-134, Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome A8-147, HARS A8-109, Aviation Historical Society of the NT, Darwin A8-113, Fighter World, Williamtown A8-148 and the Pacific Aviation Museum, Hawaii A8-130). F-111C crew modules were also allocated for preservation at museums – RAAF Association, Bull Creek (A8-140), Caboolture Warbird Museum (A8-135) and Moorabbin Air Museum (A8-131). In an agreement with the US government all the surviving F-111’s remain the property of the RAAF and are on long-term loan to the museums under strict procedures in regards to management and protection of the aircraft (controlled by the Air Force Heritage Department in Canberra).
The F-111’s were all restored for museum presentation at RAAF Amberley with most painted in the original camouflage scheme like the SAAM RF-111C rather than the gunship grey applied in later operational years. Apart from removal of any sensitive equipment, the powerful Pratt and Whitney TF30 afterburning turbofan engines were demilitarised so they can no longer be operated.
The remaining F-111 aircraft that were disposed of in 2010 were actually buried at Swanbank, Queensland due to the large amount of asbestos in the airframe bonded panels. Those disposed included 1 F-111A (only ever used by the RAAF for ground training), 7 F-111C, 2 RF-111C and 13 F-111G airframes. The F-111G models had been retired in 2007 and were not deemed suitable for preservation due to airframe deterioration whilst in outdoor storage (other than the one previously mentioned at RAAF Point Cook).
ADF-Serials – F-111
Queensland Air Museum – F-111 Disposals
South Australian Aviation Museum – F-111