The General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark was one of the more controversial aircraft to enter the U.S. inventory. The Secretary of Defense, desirous of buying a single airframe for both the Air Force and the Navy, told both services to work together toward a common platform. They gave it a go, but couldn’t make it work. So the Navy went to Grumman, taking delivery of the F-14 Tomcat. The Air Force (and ultimately the Strategic Air Command) continued on with the Aardvark.
The F-111’s “F” designation may give some the impression that it possessed fighter capabilities. But don’t be fooled. Much like the F-105 it replaced, the Aardvark was not a fighter in any sense of the word. It could turn and roll and shoot a cannon and fire a missile, but a fighter it was not. It was a high-speed, low-altitude medium bomber.
As testing progressed and neared completion, the conflict in southeast Asia gave the Air Force a venue to confirm the abilities of its latest acquisition in the heat of battle.
On March 15, 1968, six Aardvarks departed for Tahkli Royal Thai Air Base, located in central Thailand. The operation was named Combat Lancer, and involved low-altitude, night-time missions against targets in North Vietnam. These missions, flown at high speed at only 100 feet or so above the ground, would put the swing-wing technology, the terrain-following radar, and the all-new Pave Tack targeting system through real-world paces.
The first mission was successfully flown on the 18th, but things went south pretty quickly, with a pair of F-111’s lost in the first two weeks of operations. Two replacement aircraft were sent to Tahkli, but one of those was lost. By April 22nd, Operation Combat Lancer had been halted.
The Air Force was unhappy with the results, General Dynamics was mystified as to what was happening to its aircraft, and politicians back home were angered at the Defense Secretary for procuring an aircraft that apparently couldn’t defy gravity with any consistency.
Discovering what was wrong was a difficult process, largely due to the mission profiles themselves. The Aardvarks were flying at high speed, at night, and at very low altitude. Any mistake or loss of control would put the aircraft into the ground almost instantaneously. It was only the fortunate event that one crew was able to eject and survive their crash that reports could be made.
It turned out that the advanced swing-wing junction boxes were not as strong as they should have been, and the combination of high speed, low altitude, and g-forces served to stress the junctions beyond the breaking point. It really came down to the fact that the F-111 was an incredibly complex swing-wing aircraft meant to handle an extremely dangerous, specialized mission, and had entered service before it could really be fully tested.
Once General Dynamics found and addressed the issues, the Aardvark’s reliability was vastly improved. The aircraft returned to the theater in 1971 and participated in both Linebacker offensives, flying over 4,000 sorties with but six losses, all combat-related. Missions were flown in bad weather, without countermeasures aircraft, without tanker support, and against some of the more difficult and well-defended targets…and the F-111’s performed brilliantly, each carrying the same payload as four F-4 Phantoms.
Years later, the Aardvark continued its good work in Operation Desert Storm. In fact, it was just about the most reliable weapon system in Saudi Arabia. But those first 55 missions that comprised Operation Combat Lancer left an indelible stain on General Dynamics’ creation.
So when the Aardvark was finally retired in 1993, it did so with a remarkable record of service…and a tarnished reputation.