Archive for the ‘Vietnam War (1954-1975)’ Category

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.

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On July 29, 1967, the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, conducting air operations against North Vietnam.  Having just arrived at “Yankee Station” four days prior, Forrestal’s air crews had conducted more than 150 missions against Vietnamese targets.  The morning of the 29th had been no different, as strike packages had already departed and returned from the first missions of the day.  Now the second set of missions was being prepared.

Jet aircraft are started not with a “key in the ignition”, but with an external power source.  Much like an oversized generator, it provides initial power to the engines and starts them going, at which point internal starters take over and finish the startup.  These systems prevent super-heavy starting gear from being mounted on a plane, which add weight and affect performance.

An F-4 Phantom was being started and, as the switch to internal power was being made, the plane suffered an electrical surge, causing a Zuni rocket (an unguided 5-inch rocket in a rocket pod) to fire.  The rocket’s safety switch was on, so it didn’t explode, but what it hit did…an A-4 Skyhawk’s external fuel tank.  The subsequent heat caused other fuel tanks to explode as well (numerous aircraft were being prepared and would have been clustered at the rear of the carrier).

The danger was now extreme.  Several of the strike aircraft were carrying 500- and 1,000- bombs, and the intense heat threatened to cook them off.  Crews already in their aircraft had to jump out of their proverbial frying pans, and run through the fire to safety.  A handful, like Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, were able to leap to safety.  Others were not.  Crews fought desperately to cool the decks, but the bombs couldn’t take the heat and began exploding, killing the fire crews, opening gaping holes to the lower decks, and causing more aircraft to be immolated.

At least nine bombs exploded, more than enough to put an aircraft carrier on the ocean’s floor.  The Forrestal survived, due to the concentration of the explosions in one area and the tenacity of the crew fighting the fires.  Within three hours, the fires were under control, and all were extinguished the next day.

The cost of the short circuit had been high.  Dozens of  Phantoms, Skyhawks, and A-5 Vigilantes were destroyed or simply pushed overboard to prevent them from exploding.  Damage to the Forrestal was extensive, requiring more than eight months of repairs.  But more costly were the 300 casualties, including 134 dead, in the worst carrier fire since World War II.

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