It served with distinction from Vietnam onwards–with amazing range.
Key point: The F-111 struck a weird medium between the tactical strike aircraft and the strategic bomber.
The F-111 Aardvark was the U.S. Air Force’s premier strike aircraft for the majority of the Cold War. It served in practically every conflict from Vietnam forwards, until it was replaced by the F-15E Strike Eagle. It also served Strategic Air Command in a limited role as a strategic bomber.
But what made the F-111 great? Did the United States truly lose any capability by retiring it?
The F-111 was one of the earliest joint-service aircraft, meant to fulfill both the U.S. Air Force’s requirement for a swing wing strike bomber and the U.S. Navy’s requirement for a long-range interceptor.
The strike bomber role meant that it needed to go very low and fast to penetrate enemy air defenses. As a result, it was fitted with an advanced terrain following radar, swing wings for increased maneuverability at low speeds, and a generous bomb bay. Later NATO strike aircraft like the Panavia Tornado would gain a lot of design cues from the F-111, including the radar and swing wings.
The F-111 first was tested in combat in Vietnam during 1968, but issues with the design delayed its full fielding until Operation Linebacker. It would go on to become one of the most survivable bombers of the war due to its ability to penetrate at a low level, with only a 0.015 loss rate.
However, the F-111 would be rejected from the Navy’s competition to find a long-range interceptor in favor of a design that would become the more maneuverable F-14 Tomcat.
The Air Force was pleased with its performance and continued to upgrade the F-111. The F-111D was one of the first combat aircraft with a “glass cockpit,” that featured primarily screens instead of gauges to display information. It also featured some of the most advanced avionics of the time.
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