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Posts Tagged ‘General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark’

When the British approached North American Aviation about building Curtiss P-40 Warhawks for them, James Kindelberger (North American’s president) told the British he could design and build something better than a Warhawk in less than 120 days…less time, it turns out, time than it took to re-tool his factory.  And Kindelberger was true to his word.  I believe the first plane was ready to fly in 117 days, though delays in getting the engines from Allison would hold things up just a bit.

Still, that’s pretty remarkable in light of how long the procurement process for weapons systems takes now.  But that’s to be expected when one compares the complexity of a P-51 Mustang with, say, an F-15 Eagle (to say nothing of government red tape, bureacracy, and gobs of paper-shuffling).  McDonnell Douglas was awarded the contract for the “Project F-X” (which became the F-15) the last week of 1969, but rather than 117 days to first example, it was two-and-a-half years…June 26, 1972.

And these days, we often hear of project delays and cost overruns in government projects.  But McDonnell had done a really good job.  In his book on the fighter, Dennis Jenkins writes, “At that point, the program was essentially on schedule, with costs cited as below target, in contrast to the significant overruns and schedule slips so obvious on the F-111 and C-5A programs.”  And like the Mustang, it was those pesky engines holding things up.  Jenkins continues, “Although the airframe and avionics efforts were on schedule, Pratt & Whitney was still running behind on both deliveries and testing.”

It was true that costs were greater than expected in some areas, but McDonnell had pared back where it could on the “luxury” items.  Conventional instrumentation was used rather than more sophisticated electronic systems.  The multi-sensor display were held off for a future phase, as were helmet-mounted sighting (which has really only become prominent in our latest-generation fighters anyways) and the electro-optical sighting system.

While it can be said that the elimination of some of these systems would limit the aircraft a little bit in its initial configuration, the first F-15 that rolled off the assembly on this day in 1972 was still a formidable platform.  For sure, it was the first pure air-superiority dogfighter the inventory had seen in 20 years.

Recommended Reading:  McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

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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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As has been discussed before, the U.S. Government tends to favor multi-taskers in the process of aircraft procurement.  The more missions a proposed platform can perform well, the better the chance it will be selected for development and deployment.  But one could argue that it’s possible to take the “multi-role” concept too far.  The government did on at least one occasion, and it resulted in ruined careers, a lot of fighting between the services, and one of the most controversial aircraft to enter the inventory.

In the 1960’s, the Air Force was looking to replace the Republic F-105 Thunderchief.  The Thud was classified as a fighter bomber, but the “fighter” part should have been typed in an itty-bitty font.  It was pretty much just a bomber.  It was fast and could carry a reasonable payload.  And despite having a single engine, it was an extremely tough aircraft (typical of Republic designs).

Meanwhile, the Navy wanted to replace the F-4 Phantom II as its front-line fleet-defense fighter.  In an age when missiles and enemy aircraft were becoming more advanced, it was (correctly) believed that the Phantom didn’t have the radar or missile technology to provide adequate force projection (and force protection).

Simultaneously, the services had been researching the feasibility of new technologies, most notably (for our lesson) swing-wing technology.  The Navy was interested because unswept wings gave good low-speed lift, best for slinging aircraft off the deck.  Swept wings were best for high-speed travel and ease of flight at low altitude, along with a slightly smaller radar signature.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, looking to save some money, ordered the Air Force and Navy to work together and build a common platform.  He might as well have been asking Democrats and Republicans to come together on taxes and health care reform, because that’s how likely a solution was.

In defense of the two departments, it should be noted that each had a specification that was substantially different.  The Navy needed fleet defense, which in the 60’s meant good range, Mach-2+ speed, solid fighter capability, and the ability to carry a massive radar and fire the just-as-massive Phoenix missile.  Most importantly, the plane had to be light enough to be shot off a carrier.

The Air Force also needed Mach-2 speed and a powerful radar.  But it also required the ability to carry a substantial bombload, fly well over Mach 1 at very low altitude (for the penetration mission), and employ computer-controlled terrain following.  It did not need to be carrier-launched.

It was called the TFX project (Tactical Fighter eXperimental), was awarded to General Dynamics, and was designated the F-111.  Initially, A-models would go to the Air Force and B-models to the Navy.  The A-model flew for the first time on December 21, 1964 and McNamara had high hopes that both services would benefit from the new swing-wing, twin-engined plane.  His hopes would be dashed in rather comical fashion.

The Navy needed a takeoff weight of 50,000 pounds, and the F-111 wasn’t even close.  So the Defense Department initiated the Weight Improvement Program.  The 111 was still too heavy, so along came the Super Weight Improvement Program.  It still wasn’t enough, so there was (I’m not making this up) the Colossal Weight Improvement Program.  At this point the Navy had a prototype aircraft with plastic gauges that was still too heavy and couldn’t even perform as well as the Phantom it was scheduled to replace.  The Navy finally told McNamara to forget it and went with Grumman’s F-14 Tomcat (also a swing-wing platform), which turned out to be a great move.

The Vietnam War would give the F-111, officially named the Aardvark, its first taste of combat.  It would not be a good experience, but that’s a story for another day.

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When the McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing) F-15 Eagle took to the skies for the first time, there was little doubt that it would be a tremendous success…as a fighter.  There was a non-trivial group of influencers in the fighter community that believed fighters were fighters and bombers were bombers, and never the twain should meet.  “Not a pound for air-to-ground” was their mantra, and they spoke it long and loud.

But the realities of aircraft procurement, and the ever-rising costs associated with the process, meant that the Air Force had to at least consider multiple roles for their purchases.  Since its creation, McDonnell Douglas had been preaching the Eagle’s ground attack capabilities, hoping to persuade the Air Force to augment (and eventually replace) its fleet of F-111 Aardvarks, as well as the few remaining F-4 Phantoms not yet dedicated to defense suppression.

For its part, the F-111 was an outstanding attack aircraft, possessing awesome low-level performance (its record in the 1st Gulf War backs that assertion).  But its early teething problems and a disastrous first deployment in Vietnam left a blot that could not be expunged, regardless of record.

So the Air Force opened a competition and McDonnell Douglas got to work.  Starting with a 2-seat D-model, they developed add-on conformal fuel tanks that were attached to the fuselage.  Additional hardpoints were added to carry bombs and the airframe was strengthened to handle the additional stresses and weight.  The engines were upgraded to higher-performing models.

But the most important changes came in the cockpit and in the nose (where the radar dish was housed).  An advanced Hughes Synthetic Apeture Radar was shoehorned into the nose, and the cockpit was completely revamped.  The “guy-in-back” was presented with four massive liquid crystal displays.  The Pave Tack technology (perfected in the F-111) was installed, along with numerous additional sensors and the top-of-the-line LANTIRN infrared system.

McDonnell Douglas brought their creation to the competition, facing the Panavia Tornado and an incredible delta-winged F-16 from General Dynamics.  And while the F-15 didn’t have quite the low-altitude performance of the F-111, its overall performance and advanced technology allowed it to carry the day and win the fly-offs.

This ground-attack F-15, a dark gray 2-seat E-model that was named the Strike Eagle, first flew as a production aircraft on December 11, 1986.

Recommended Reading:  World Air Power Journal – This publication has ceased production, but Volume 21 (from the summer of 1995) has the Strike Eagle as its focus aircraft.  If you can find a copy…

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