The General Dynamics F-111 was renowned as a highly capable strike aircraft, and considered the best of its type in the region. Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, is a fan.
“The F-111 presented the Air Force with a rare opportunity to acquire an aircraft which was ideally suited to Australia’s geostrategic circumstances and the Air Force’s operational intent,” he tells Australian Aviation. “For Air Force, the range, payload and mission profiles of the F-111 matched the likely operation tasks to be expected of Australia strike aircraft. At the time, the Air Force’s main strike platform was the venerable Canberra bomber. The step-change capability the F-111 offered over the Canberra was revolutionary.”
Revolutionary, maybe, but its insertion into the RAAF’s fleet wasn’t straightforward. Australia decided to introduce the F-111s in the ’60s, but problems with its wing led to delays in its delivery. After utilising the faster F-4E Phantoms as an interim step, the first six F-111s landed at RAAF base Amberley in June 1973. Air Marshal Hupfeld notes it was also not necessarily Australia’s first choice. “Instead it was the North American Vigilante,” he says, “an already in-service aircraft with the United States Navy. In retrospect, the government’s preference to delay the acquisition of a Canberra replacement to obtain the F-111 meant that we were getting a far more technologically advanced platform that was destined to be produced in far greater numbers than the Vigilante.”
The F-111 proved its worth and flew with the RAAF until 2010. “Over the service life of the aircraft, the Air Force invested in upgrades to the engines, avionics and weapon systems to keep the platform relevant in the modern battlespace,” Air Marshal Hupfeld says. “The modifications to the F-111 to enable it to deliver precision-guided munitions and the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles are two examples of how the F-111 was able to be adapted to operate increasingly sophisticated systems.”
The F-111 also unwittingly found itself at the centre of two other significant events. The 1980s saw the first RAAF female pilots take to the sky, with Flight Lieutenant Robyn Williams and Officer Cadet Deborah Hicks receiving their wings at RAAF Base Pearce in June 1988. This was followed by the December 1992 policy change allowing women to participate in combat roles. Announced by then-Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Gordon Bilney, the decision opened up opportunities for female pilots to fly the F-111. A decade later, Australia picked the F-111 to perform the unforgettable ‘dump and burn’ as it overflew the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
Despite Australia’s early reservations of the model, Australia became the F-111's last operator before they were replaced with a new fleet of F/A 18 Super Hornets in 2010.
If you’d like to see one for yourself, The HARS Aviation Museum has its own, A8-109, which served in Vietnam where it notably flew “Linebacker” missions towards the end of the war. “When the F-111 was retired in December 2010, this particular aircraft was not scheduled to fly on that final day, but was the ‘reserve’ display aircraft,” explains HARS. When its rival inevitably “broke”, A8-109 took its place to became the very last F-111 to take off. “To add to the special nature of this particular aircraft, it was revealed during the presentation ceremony that A8-109 is the ‘highest time’ F-111 in the former RAAF fleet, and quite possibly the entire fleet. A truly special aircraft.”