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The F-111A's Introduction to War

Last Updated 18 July, 2003

Combat Lancer The F-111A's Introduction to War
Volume 24, Number 2

by Charlie Cooper

From an historical vantage point of almost forty years, one can liken the development of the General Dynamics F-111 series of fighter-bombers to the growth of a child. After a long and uncomfortable gestation period and a particularly painful birth, the F-111 proved itself, with maturity, to be a very valuable US defense asset. That maturation began in 1968 after six long years of a very noisy and contentious childhood.

In the 1950s, the United States Air Force began to plan for a replacement for jet fighter-bombers then in service - the F-100, F-101, and F-105. At about the same time, the United States Navy was planning for a new carrier-based Fleet Air Defense fighter to replace the F-4 and F-8. Specifications were under consideration.

The Air Force Specific Operational Requirement 183, issued in June 1960, called for an attack aircraft with a Mach 2.5 capability at high altitudes, up to 60,000 feet, and a low-level dash capability of Mach 1.2. The airplane was to have an operating radius of 800 miles at low levels including 400 miles “on the deck” at Mach 1.2. It should be able to make an unrefueled crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and be capable of payloads of up to 30,000 pounds, including 1,000 pounds carried internally.

The Navy required a Fleet Air Defense aircraft with a longer loiter time on patrol than the then current fighters, an ability to carry larger and more capable air-to-air missiles, and the capability to intercept and defeat threats to the fleet at much greater distances from the carrier. Initially focused on the proposed Douglas F6D-1, the Navy development organiza-tions became convinced that the F6D was too slow, too narrow in application, and too expensive. At the end of 1960, the Navy's requirements were unfulfilled.

The 1961 arrival at the Department of Defense (DOD) of a new Secretary, Robert S. McNamara and his band of so-called “whiz kids” from Ford Motors, introduced a new challenge to both services. Although the two services saw their needs as distinct from one another, in February 1961 the Secretary of Defense directed them to study the development of one aircraft that would meet both services' requirements. In addition, and to further complicate the matter, the Secretary wanted the same aircraft to be capable of use for close air support by the Army and Marine Corps. Although this stipulation was short-lived, the over-all goal of a major reduction of development and procurement costs became the ongoing focus. The single airplane became known as the TFX for Tactical Fighter Experimental and the Air Force was designated the lead service for its development.

As the project continued, there was one major area in which the two services agreed and that was the use of variable-geometry wings, a concept that had been tested but never successfully developed. For low speeds such as take-offs, landings, and loitering on patrol, the wings would be extended; for high-speed operations, the wings would be swept back to reduce drag. Unfortunately, this was the only major area of agreement. Even the side-by-side seating in the cockpit required a compromise by the Air Force.

The old exercise adage, “no pain, no gain,” might well be applied to the selection, design, development, and wartime applications of the F-111. The pain began in Wash-ington; the gain began in South- East Asia.

Differing requirements for the aircraft size, weight, avionics, and armament remained. Neverthe-less, the Secretary of Defense insisted on the pursuit of “commonality,” directing the separate services, especially the Navy, to accept one compromise after another. The project continued, with interservice rancor becoming more and more widely known, and a “Request for Proposals” for an Air Force F-111A and a Navy F-111B was issued to the major U.S aircraft manufacturers.

After a lengthy winnowing process that lasted almost a full year, two of the manufacturers - Boeing and General Dynamics - submitted final proposals that the two services found acceptable. Of the two, the Air Force and the Navy supported the Boeing design and its slightly lower cost. However, in November 1962, the DOD announced the selection of the General Dynamics' design because of greater “commonality” and more realism in approaching the cost question. Politicians were hor- rified. The media joined in the outcry, but Mr McNamara prevailed. The prime contractors, General Dynamics/Grumman, signed the contract in Fort Worth, Texas, on 21 December 1962. A bitter tone of controversy accompanied the entire development process and prevailed during the early years of utilization.

That the development process for the F-111 was complex is a gross understatement. The spe-cifications demanded new research, new techniques, new products, and enormous cooperation among the project's par- ticipants. In addition to General Dynamics and Grumman, brought in because of its expertise with carrier-based aircraft, there were two associate contractors. United Aircraft's Pratt and Whitney Division was to provide the engines, and Hughes Aircraft Company was included to develop and produce the “Phoenix” air-to-air missile system for the Navy version. In addition, 17 subcontractors were to provide the major subsystems, the terrain following radar, the crew escape module, and the navigation and attack radars, all requiring new developments of their own. The major contractors and subcontractors were reliant upon more than 6,000 suppliers located in 44 states. One keen observer noted that this was “a close approximation to the ideal weapons project - one with at least one contractor in each Congressional District.”

Bringing all of these new technologies together in a single aircraft that met both service's demanding requirements was as rewarding and as frustrating as bringing a baby to delivery. It was a process that was not without heartburn, morning sickness, and many sleepless nights of worry. What made it different from the average gestation period was the constant attention of the press and the Congress, who found fault with developing cost overruns and production delays, things that they could understand. The mysteries of variable sweep wings, computer-based all-weather navigation and weapons delivery, and hands-off flying at very low altitudes (new time-consuming concepts) were beyond their understanding. One of the things that reporters and bureaucrats have never understood is the difficulty of making accurate estimates of the costs of creating something never before attempted.

That costs did rise well beyond McNamara's initial estimates is well known. The cost of the first production F-111A aircraft rose from an original estimate of $4.5 million per airplane to just over $6.0 million. The public reaction, fueled by the media, resulted in a major reduction in the numbers of aircraft to be procured, but it did not change the commitment to build it. Production continued even in the face of problems, resulting in a dual challenge for the manufacturer. As production kept turning out new aircraft, the problems with new systems were being identified in those that were flying; they had to be fixed in the factory and in the field, a more costly business at best.

In spite of all the doubts and discussions, the babies were born. The F-111A, destined for the Air Force family, first flew, from Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, on 21 December 1964, exactly two years after the contract signing. The Navy's F-111B flew for the first time on 18 May 1965 at Grumman's Bethpage, New York facility. They weren't healthy babies, however. They were overweight, over cost, and loaded with technical problems ? problems that would take two years of hard work for the Air Force to solve.

It wasn't until the spring of 1967 that the 18 research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) aircraft that had been procured and tested at Eglin AFB, Florida and Edwards AFB, California provided true indica-tions of what they could be. Combat Bullseye I tests demonstrated the superior bombing accuracy of the aircraft's attack radar and, at least to that extent, justified the Air Force's faith. Unfortunately, the Navy version, too big and too heavy for carrier operations, did not survive although it lingered, in a test mode, until July of 1968 when its future funding was eliminated from the Defense budget. The few test model F-111Bs that had been built lasted until 1971.

Buoyed by the promise shown in the Combat Bullseye tests, the Air Force transferred five of the test F-111 aircraft to Nellis AFB, Nevada and launched two programs: Harvest Reaper, initiated in June 1967, to identify any con- tinuing problems with the aircraft and to prepare them for combat in Southeast Asia; and, Combat Trident, begun in July of that year, to train an initial cadre of combat veterans to fly them. No two of the aircraft used in the early months were alike and instructor pilots had to keep account of their individualities until the first production model, the 31st F-111 built and the first F-111A off the line, was flown to Nellis by the Commander of the Harvest Reaper unit, Colonel Ivan H. “Ike” Dethman.

Dethman, an experienced fighter pilot and veteran of 36 B-26 combat missions in Europe in World War II, reported that he had flown the 1,047 miles from Fort Worth to Nellis at a constant altitude below 500 feet with the terrain following radar on and the auto-pilot engaged. The only times he manually flew the airplane were for the takeoff and landing. He was excited about the airplane. New F-111As, with upgraded Pratt & Whitney TF30-P3 engines, were delivered to Dethman's unit ? Detachment 1 of the 4481st (later the 428th) Tactical Fighter Squadron ? at the rate of about one per week until six were on hand to continue training and evaluation.

Twenty-two pilots, working with seven instructor pilots (IPs), trained in the airplane as they developed the combat tactics they would soon need. To get the greatest value from this technically superior aircraft designed for all- weather and night operations, using the navigation and attack radars to deliver conventional weapons with great accuracy, posed many more challenges. The pilots, all combat veterans of Korea and Vietnam, were willing to admit to a great deal of skepticism about the aircraft and its capabilities as well as to some strong apprehension about allowing the terrain following radar to fly the plane without their help. Their rate of conversion to “enthusiastic believer” was a highly individual thing; but, ultimately, believe they did, rapidly becoming the F-111As' staunchest defenders. They were offended by the political criticism and by the attacks on their airplane in the media. After flying the airplane in training, their reactions were summarized by one pilot who is reported to have said, “The guys who badmouth this airplane are the guys who never got in the cockpit.”

The pilots' strong support was echoed by the maintenance people charged with keeping them flying. And keep them flying they did, averaging a utilization rate of 58- 60 hours per month, about twice as much flying time as with other aircraft stationed at Nellis. As the months rolled by, the only people who did not become strong supporters of the F-111A were the politicians and the press. The pressure on the Air Force to provide a viable demonstration of the plane's capabilities was at least one factor in the decision to send the Harvest Reaper aircraft into combat in Vietnam. The other key factor was the need for an aircraft that could attack North Vietnamese targets effectively at lower loss rates than those being experienced with the F-4 and F-105.

The decision to deploy was made early in 1968 before the training program was complete and all of the aircraft discrepancies were cleared. The operation was code-named Combat Lancer. Support crews and equipment were airlifted from Nellis by C-141 “Starlifters” in advance of the aircraft deployment. Six F-111As departed Nellis on the morning of 15 March 1968, just nine days after the completion of the Combat Trident training program, for the 7,000-mile trans-Pacific flight to Ta Khli Royal Thai Air Base, 85 miles north of Bangkok. The aircraft refueled in-flight four times before landing at Anderson AFB, Guam, for crew rest. They continued on to Ta Khli the following day, again refueling in the air. Due to strong headwinds en route, the 7,000-mile trip took 20 hours flying time with wings extended for long-range cruise. The arriving aircraft and crews were given a warm reception at Ta Khli on 17 March by the base personnel, the overseas press, and the Detachment 1 support people who had preceded the aircraft to Thailand. Given the microphone as he climbed out of his F-111A, 66-0018, “Ike” Dethman told the crowd, “The F-111As are here for a mission, not for a test.”

But, the pressure to prove the airplane was clearly on everyone's minds and the “great day for the Irish” atmosphere and the “Welcome Combat Lancer” banners couldn't fully dispel it. The presence, from Nellis, of Major General “Zach” Taylor, Commander of the USAF Tactical Fighter Weapons Center; the greeting of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing Commander, Colonel John Giraudo, whose F-105s the F-111As might well replace; and the high-speed low-level pass by one of the same F-111As made for a very special occasion. To Colonel Dethman and his people, it must have seemed that the whole world was watching. The child was maturing.

The first Combat Lancer attack mission was flown on the night of 25 March 1968. Again, Colonel Dethman and his right-seater, Captain Rick Matteis, were in the lead in F-111A, 66-0018. The target was a bomb dump on Tiger Island on the coast of South Vietnam; the bomb run was made at low altitude from the west so that the egress from the area could be made over water. Although heavy cloud cover prevented accurate bomb damage assessment, the mission, and the others flown that night, were considered successful. Lt Colonel Ed Palmgren, the unit's operations officer, flew later that same night against targets near Dong Hoi, on North Vietnam's southern panhandle, to which attacks were limited by President Johnson's “bombing pause.”

Colonel Palmgren noted, “The only time they knew we were there was when the bombs went off.” A pattern of single-ship night interdiction missions at low level in any weather was established that night. It was a pattern followed for as long as the attack F-111s were operational.

Sadly, the pattern of success was broken when the first Combat Lancer loss was experienced just three days later. Major Henry McCann and his right-seater, Captain Dennis Graham, were lost on 28 March 1968, when F-111A 66-0022 went down. They had departed Ta Khli on a bombing mission and had established voice communications with “Invert,” the radar site. They were being tracked on radar as they proceeded toward their target, but they had not made contact with the Airborne Command Center. Since the Rules of Engagement in effect at the time required that contact prior to penetration of North Vietnamese air space, they were forced to turn back toward Ta KhIi. Radar surveillance continued for a time but contact was lost during a shift change at the radar site and the aircraft disappeared. The crew and the aircraft wreckage were never recovered although a generous reward was posted and an intense electronic search was conducted. The North Vietnamese claimed to have shot the aircraft down but the claim was discounted based on reports from the radar site.

A new media frenzy began. Although this F-111A was the 813th aircraft lost in the war in Vietnam, it was treated as if it had been the first. Concern that the Russians would find the aircraft and capture its technological secrets resulted in new press and political demands that its use in combat be discontinued.

The second accident, which occurred just two days later, on 30 March, added fuel to the fire. F-111A 66-0017 was descending from 10,000 and entering Laotian air space enroute to the North Vietnamese panhandle. The wings were at the 50° sweep position (roll control is transferred to the horizontal slab at 42° of sweep) when a violent pitch-up maneuver was followed by an uncontrolled roll. Unable to regain control of the aircraft, the crew ejected, and Major Sandy Marquardt and Captain Joe Hodges rode the escape capsule down and landed safely. Fearing that they had landed in Laos, they made their way into the jungle to hide. After they had traveled less than a mile, they were picked up and returned to base by an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter piloted by Major Wade Oldermann. The F-111A wreckage was found and examined by an Air Force accident investigation team. They concluded that a solidified tube of unused sealant, used to repair the honeycomb skin, which was found in the aircraft impact crater had caused the accident. They surmised that this sealant tube had somehow become lodged in the flight control system. (Subsequent investigation revealed that the sealant had been used at the Grumman factory on Long Island where the F-1 fuel tank, located on the under side of the aircraft's nose, had been manufactured. Aircraft 66-0017 impacted the ground in an inverted position, and the sealant tube was thrown to the periphery of the wreckage when the fuel tank ruptured.) This conclusion was later disproved, but only after a number of high-level briefings had provided the erroneous information. Major Marquardt and Captain Hodges had returned almost immediately after the accident to the General Dynamics factory and, with the help of the manufacturer and the simulator, they were able to duplicate what they had experienced on the night of 30 March. Careful investigation determined that the structural failure of an actuating valve in the stabilator system, which controls both the pitch and roll axes of the airplane, was at fault in the loss of aircraft control. Here again, North Vietnamese claims of shooting the aircraft down were proven false.

While all of the media attention was focused on the two accidents, scarce note was taken of the missions flown during the next 22 days. Those missions brought the Combat Lancer total to 55 in the month that the F-111As had been in theater. Those missions were flown without one loss to enemy action while delivering their bombs with great accuracy on a variety of targets, facts that were generally ignored in the press and in the Congress. The first two aircraft lost in Vietnam were replaced on 5 April by F-111As, numbered 66-0024 and 66-0025, flown to Thailand by Lt Colonel Ben Murph and Captain Fred De Jong. Both were Vietnam combat veterans in the F-105, and Colonel Murph had assumed command of the 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Nellis. He took over command of the Detachment in Vietnam.

The third accident, on 22 April 1968, and a similar one at Nellis AFB on 8 May resulted, first, in the suspension and, then, in the termination of Combat Lancer. Detachment 1 crewmembers, Lt Colonel Ed Palmgren, the unit's Operations Officer, and Lt Cdr “Spade” Cooley, a US Navy ex-change pilot, were lost on a Combat Lancer bombing mission into North Vietnam. Flying F-111A #66-0024, they had been in radar contact until they began their bomb run at altitudes between 200 and 500 feet. Although the aircraft and crew were never recovered, the assumption that they, too, had experienced loss of control due to the failure of the stabilator part is reasonable. At the bomb run altitudes, a loss of control, like that experienced by Maj Marquardt and Capt Hodges, would not have provided any time to eject from the aircraft. Here, too, North Vietnamese claims to have shot the aircraft down were false.

The Nellis crew of Majors Charlie Van Driel and Ken Schuppe were on a training mission over Utah when they experienced control loss. They ejected successfully and both the aircraft and crew were recovered. Thorough examination of the wreckage revealed that the same slab actuator valve had failed, this time because a “jam nut” designed to hold the valve together had not been safety wired. The valve was replaced throughout the fleet.

But, the die was cast and the Congress and the press were on the attack again, denouncing the aircraft as unsafe and defective. The Pentagon was back on the defensive. The five remaining Combat Lancer F-111As stayed on in Thailand, flying sporadically and locally, until they were re-turned to Nellis on 22 November. Upon arrival, Colonel Murph told the waiting crowd, “This is a hell of a fine airplane. I hope to see something good in print about it.”

It was noted earlier that the pain began in Washington and the gain in Vietnam. From the selection of the contractor and the insistence on commonality to the delays in the production schedule and the cost overruns, the opposition to the F-111 series of fighter-bombers was centered in the United States Congress and in the press. The ongoing pain created has been widely reported.

What has been missing is a summary of the gains achieved by Combat Lancer, an admittedly very early application of the con-troversial aircraft in what was essentially an operational test. The three accidents clearly over-shadowed the overall success of that test. The concept of single-ship low-level penetration in all weather was demonstrated 55 times by the F-111As and the crews from Detachment 1. Most of those 55 missions were flown at night, and more than half were flown in bad weather. On many of those adverse weather missions, bombing accuracy was as good as the daylight accuracy of other Air Force fighter-bombers. The critical element of surprise was regularly achieved and there was no combat damage attributable to the enemy. As the F-111s operating from Ta Khli required no tanker or electronic countermeasures support aircraft and no fighter escort; substantial cost savings were thus demonstrated. Overall, the F-111As provided twice the range with twice the payload, 20 percent more speed, and significantly higher navigational and bombing accuracy than the fighter-bombers they were destined to replace.

These gains were even more clearly demonstrated when the F-111As returned to Vietnam in 1972, in Operation El Dorado Canyon against Libya in 1986, and in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm against Iraq in 1990-91. Even Senator McClellan, the most outspoken of the many Congressional opponents of the F-111, would have to salute the contributions made by the airplane and by the crews and support personnel who made Combat Lancer a successful test of its impressive capabilities.

Now, forty years after the initiation of the TFX development, it is interesting to note that there's nothing new under the sun. The Joint Strike Fighter Program is the Department of Defense's current program for defining an affordable, and largely common, strike aircraft weapons system for the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and for our allies, especially the British Royal Navy. As with McNamara and the “Whiz Kids,” the focus is on affordability. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been selected to develop two flying concept demonstration aircraft each to show the capability to meet the needs of the several services for a new strike fighter aircraft to replace those now in service and to do it affordably. In order to meet the special requirements of each service, it seems clear that the proposed modularity, beyond what is common to all, is intended to alleviate the pain experienced with the F-111A and the F-111B. It is hoped that the gains to be made will be achieved at the flight test centers and not in combat.

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