F-111: Why The ‘Aardvark’ Was A Technological Wonder

 F-111, Explained: When first flown in 1964, the F-111 Aardvark debuted a suite of novel technologies. The name “Aardvark” is even a nod to one of those technologies – terrain following software (the name also acknowledges the airframe’s unusually long nose cap).  

F-111, A History

The Aardvark was a supersonic, medium-range, multirole jet that provided the US Air Force (USAF) with three decades of service (and the Royal Australian Air Force with four decades of service).

While US forces only ever used the Aardvark with the USAF, the initial blueprints called for a USAF variant (the A-variant) and a US Navy variant (the B-variant). The B-variant was canceled before entering production.  The A-variant, however, entered production and service – introducing technologies that have since become standard features in many military aircraft.

Notably, the F-111 was the first sweep-wing plane to ever enter production. Sweep-wing configurations are more commonly associated with the F-14 Tomcat, thanks to Top Gun, but it was the F-111 that debuted the technology. A sweep-wing is distinct for its ability to move forward and back, mid-flight, so as to change the aircraft’s shape. The effect is an aircraft that can access the benefits of both straight-wing flight (high maneuverability at low speeds) and swept-wing flight (supersonic speed) depending on what the mission profile demands at that moment. The F-111’s wing was capable of moving between 16 degrees and 72.5 degrees.

Despite the sweep-wing configuration’s prominence in popular culture, the design never became a mainstay feature of aerospace design. Although, several jets have incorporated sweep-wings, including the B-1 LancerPanavia Tornado, and a variety of Soveit/Russian fighters and bombers. 

The F-111 also featured afterburners on turbofan engines and a terrain-following guidance system – two features that have become entirely common in new aircraft. Another distinct feature of the Aardvark, which did not quite become commonplace, was the use of an escape capsule rather than just a simple ejection seat. The escape capsule ejected both operators together, with the entre cockpit, rather than shooting the pilots out of the cockpit like in most fighters and bombers. 

When first debuted, the F-111 did introduce several new technologies – but the jet was still reminiscent of an existing airframe: the A-6 Intruder; the F-111 would copy the A-6’s pilot seating configuration, which placed the two operators side by side rather than one in front of the other. And like the A-6, which was celebrated for its ability to operate in all-weather conditions, the F-111, too, could operate without much consideration for the weather. And like the A-6, the F-111 was designed to operate behind enemy lines, flying at low levels and dropping bombs on targets. The difference of course was that the A-6 was slow whereas the F-111 was rather fast – capable of supersonic speeds. 

F-111, The Legacy

Although the F-111 served venerably for four decades, the airframe got off to a terrible start.

In 1967, the USAF accepted delivery of its first F-111. The jet made its combat debut that March. By the end of that same month, two F-111s had crashed. The wreckage was not recovered, however, and the causes of the crashes remained unclear.

When a third F-111 went down the very next month, the culprit was finally detected: a hydraulic control-valve rod for the horizontal stabilizer caused the aircraft to pitch up uncontrollably, pushing the airframe into a flight attitude that the pilot could not recover from. The Aardvark was defective. The fleet was grounded and inspected. 42 other F-111s were discovered to have the exact same design flaw. The Aardvark fleet would not become operational again for three years – until 1971 during Operation Linebacker II.

Despite entering the fray late, the Aardvark made a significant contribution to the US war efforts, so much so that the North Vietnamese began calling the Aardvark “Whispering Death.”

The F-111 would also contribute very significantly to the First Gulf War in 1991

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