Cold War Era

USAF pilot recalls the night’s mission where the terrain-following radar of several F-111 attack aircraft failed to work

‘Everyone knew that they had just lost two friends, whose F-111 terrain-following radar system had failed,’ Ron Wagner, former USAF pilot in the Presidential Wing at Andrews AFB.

General Dynamics won the US Department of Defense contract in 1962 to develop a supersonic aircraft under a program called TFX. This airplane, later designated F-111, would be the first in history to incorporate specific design features to make it capable of performing in multiple roles.

The F-111 is the first production airplane with a variable sweep wing—a wing configuration that can be changed in flight. The wing provided outstanding aerodynamic efficiency. With wings fully extended, the F-111 could take off and land in as little as 2,000 feet. With wings fully swept back, it could reach supersonic speeds at high or low altitudes. At high altitudes, the F-111 could fly more than 2.2 times the speed of sound. At low altitudes, the F-111 could fly supersonic speeds hugging the ground with its terrain-following radar (TFR).

What was it like to fly the F-111 at low level with its TFR?

‘Two guys in my USAF pilot training class got F-111s. I visited one of them a few years later at his home base and asked him what it was like,’ Ron Wagner, former USAF pilot in the Presidential Wing at Andrews AFB, says on Quora.

‘He said he loved flying that jet. He said that the TFR (terrain following radar) ability of the F-111 was incredible, except when it failed to work right.

‘What he meant by that was that in the few years he’d been doing it, he had twice been on night low-level training runs—where several jets flew the same route a few minutes apart—and had seen bright fireballs in the distance. Everyone knew at that instant that they had just lost two friends, whose TFR system had failed.

‘The night’s mission was then called off, they all climbed up off the low-level routes and returned to base. Of course the guys who made the fireballs never felt a thing. Those crashes did not worry my friend.’

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-111F Aardvark 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, 495th Tactical Fighter Squadron, LN/70-2391, RAF Lakenheath, UK, 1991.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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