The F-111A opened its combat career on Mar. 25, 1968 with a night of strikes, beginning with a 500kt, 500ft solo attack that amply showcased the F-111A’s abilities.
In the fall of 1967, PACAF began deployment planning for its first General Dynamics F-111As, the initial Air Force version of the TFX (for “Tactical Fighter Experimental”), the most controversial of all of the McNamara era’s joint-service “commonality” airplanes, intended as “cost effective” alternatives to aircraft procured via traditional acquisition processes.
The F-4, OV-10, and A-7 programs demonstrated that if properly conceived and executed, commonality could work, but, as told by Richard P. Hallon in his book Rolling Thunder 1965-68, with the TFX, McNamara had attempted the impossible – building a successful airplane by merging inherently contradictory requirements: a Navy requirement for a long-loiter fleet air defense fighter with a large and powerful radar and new long-range missiles; an Air Force requirement for a supersonic-dash nuclear and conventional strike aircraft; and the Kennedy administration’s requirement that the resulting design also be capable of operating off austere airfields, reflecting its fixation on counterinsurgency (COIN).
Key to meeting all these was a large variable-geometry wing that fully extended to generate the lift necessary to achieve long-range and long-loiter, but swept sharply back to reduce drag, permitting supersonic dash. In 1963, Congressional investigators found that the McNamara team had rejected the recommendations of service and NASA professionals when it selected General Dynamics over a more highly regarded Boeing design.
Once in flight testing the TFX revealed serious performance and safety deficiencies, many requiring redesign. The F-111B carrier-based variant, greatly overweight and dangerously underpowered, never entered fleet service, forcing the Navy to develop a substitute, the Grumman F-14A Tomcat, which first flew over a dozen years after the F-4 had taken to the air.
For all the program’s faults, the Air Force F-111A had great promise, combining attack avionics as good as the A-6’s, a terrain-following radar (TER) coupled to an autopilot, and low-level supersonic dash comparable to the speedy F-105. On Mar. 17, 1968, St Patrick’s Day, Combat Lancer – officially Det 1 of the 428th TFS, a six-aircraft operational test and evaluation force of the Air Force’s new General Dynamics F-111A – landed at Takhli.
The F-111A opened its combat career on Mar. 25 with a night of strikes, beginning with a 500kt, 500ft solo attack that amply showcased the F-111A’s abilities. Colonel Ivan Dethman and Captain Rick Matteis took off from Takhli in F-111A SN 66-0018, passed over Nakhon Phanom, and then descended to 500ft for a strike on the Vung Chua truck park and storage area on Hon Co Island. Dethman and Matteis dropped 12 M117 750lb bombs with drag-retarding fins before exiting over Tonkin Gulf.
Unfortunately, very quickly thereafter three were lost, two from mechanical failures and the third from an SA-2 (a fact considered so significant that then-Soviet defense minister Andrei Grechko personally briefed the shoot-down to Leonid Brezhnev), with just one crew being rescued. The F-111A clearly needed further refinement. Though three additional F-111As arrived to make up for losses, Combat Lancer played little further role in Southeast Asia before returning to Nellis AFB in mid-November 1968. In 1972, the F-111A, now mature, returned to Vietnam, proving a deadly and highly effective night attacker during Operation Linebacker.
Not quite two decades later, the superb F-111F, with greater power and the Pave Tack self-designating attack system, proved a stalwart of Operation Desert Storm.
Rolling Thunder 1965-68 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force