During the 1950s, the United States developed the most technically advanced military aircraft the world had ever known. No country dared to challenge directly its military superiority, even the Soviet Union. How then could its air power have failed to produce decisive victory in Vietnam? The story of the F-111 fighter-bomber provides some insights into that paradox.
The F-111 was conceived and developed amid controversy. As the war in Vietnam progressed into its final stages, much of the debate swirling around the aircraft became mired in politically driven agendas, compounded by the ramblings of uninformed media. The plane’s genesis began routinely enough when Robert S. McNamara, then President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of defense, first approved an ultra-advanced fighter capable of being used by both the Air Force and the Navy. Such an aircraft, tailored individually for each service, was designed to save the American taxpayers $1 billion in development costs and simultaneously satisfy U.S. commanders’requirements for a plane better capable of bombing targets at night and in adverse weather.
This goal would be accomplished through standardization, a familiar procedure that was used successfully in private industry. In actual execution, however, the pieces didn’t quite fall together that way. To say the aircraft was plagued by troubles from the beginning is putting it mildly. There was no previous model, no base of experience, to guide the development of so complex a military airplane.
Various incidents early in the process foreshadowed the problems that lay ahead. Even before the various competing companies bid on the contract, the political meddling began in earnest. Boeing submitted the lowest-cost bid, but General Dynamics finally was chosen prime contractor, over strong congressional opposition. Squabbles over the issue reverberated in the halls of Congress for more than a year afterward. Despite the long ruckus, McNamara got his way. General Dynamics would build the prototypes of what was then called the TFX, incorporating a unique variable-geometry feature that enabled the fighter to sweep its wings back for supersonic flight, and forward for takeoff and landing.
Harvest Reaper, a training program for pilots and combat crews, began in the summer of 1965. The program exposed many unexpected technical problems, beginning with a troublesome drag engine inlet condition. Then modification of the avionics systems took months to complete. Before the aircraft were certified as operational, they were thoroughly flight-tested for airworthiness. The tests went without a hitch and seemed to indicate that the F-111A was capable of everything it was designed to do, outperforming all other fighter aircraft then in service. Air Force officials were impressed and publicly praised the plane, which could fly almost at ground level while avoiding obstacles. It could streak in at treetop level below radar, as if by magic, guided by its on-board terrain-following radar.
In March 1968, six F-111s thundered down the runway at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., headed for Vietnam. They arrived on March 10, joined the 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron and were first committed to combat on March 25.
Despite the F-111’s solid initial performance record in Vietnam, disaster struck three nights later: On March 28, l968, an F-111A went down for reasons still unexplained. The loss shattered spirits within the Air Force, and acquired an aura of mystery. Further muddying the picture, the North Vietnamese claimed they shot it down over Ha Tinh Province, but neither the crew—Major Henry McCann and Captain Dennis Graham—nor the wreckage was ever found. An Air Force investigation board speculated that the plane never got beyond Thailand.
Two nights later, a radar operator observed a second F-111A disappear from the radar scope. Again the North Vietnamese announced they had shot it down, this time in Son Tay Province, west of Hanoi. That claim was also found to be bogus. An Air Force helicopter, after a thorough jungle search, rescued the crew. After a wider search, the aircraft’s wreckage was found in Thailand, in the town of Mukdahan along the Kehong River.
With unknown circumstances surrounding the loss of both aircraft, the remaining F-111s were grounded. Two weeks after the second crash, the F-111 fleet again became operational, flying missions 11 nights in a row before a third aircraft went down on April 22. Its crew, Commander David Cooley (U.S. Navy) and Lt. Col. Ed Palmgren, were listed as missing in action. As with the first F-111 disappearance, an investigation turned up few clues—no radio contact from the pilot, no plane wreckage and not a blip on radar.
Coming after the F-111’s difficult development problems, the crashes were a bitter pill for the Air Force to swallow. The F-111s kept flying, but with certain restrictions. Now pilots were required to fly at higher altitudes, mostly in good weather and escorted by an electronic intelligence plane.
Despite the plane’s early problems, the pilots who flew it in combat came to love the swing-wing bird. According to Colonel Ivan Dethman, commander of the F-111A detachment at Takhli, “That…was the best plane I had ever flown.”
Other pilots felt the same way, including an Australian pilot assigned to the U.S. squadron for training because Australia had ordered 24 F-111s. He had nothing but praise for the plane. A Navy commander flying as an exchange pilot because the Navy had ordered the F-111B, the carrier version, best summed it up: “There’s no aircraft now flying that can match it in the sky.”
The F-111’s unfortunate initial combat record thoroughly aroused the curiosity of a press that typically wallows in anything controversial. But journalists’ requests for sensitive information met stiff resistance. Eventually the journalists found that off-duty pilots, in a relaxed atmosphere, were more apt to provide the desired information. An Air Force B-66 pilot based at Takhli at the time satisfied the press best when he said in a loose moment: “The guys are real gone about the F-111, and the rest of the base is firmly behind it. We’ve all been proud about having the plane here all along and we hope it overcomes what ails it.”
Despite the seeming hex that hovered over the F-111, it still emerged as a great airplane in any airman’s book. Carrying three tons of electronic gear—including computers, self-adapting controls, terrain-following radar and automatic navigation and attack systems—its capabilities included computation of its own bombing countdown, ability to map itself, reduced detection risk and a unique module-ejection system. It could take off and land with a heavy bomb load at 90 mph on rough runways less than 3,000 feet long. Even today, this is still unparalleled in most fighter aircraft.
Its ordnance-carrying ability alone impressed the most sophisticated airman. Never before had a fighter been as capable of carrying and launching such a mix. Depending on its mission, the F-111 could carry a variety of bombs from 500 to 3,000 pounds, napalm, 2.75-inch rockets, nuclear weapons, cluster bomb units and an internally mounted M61A1 Gatling gun.
Its two Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines with afterburners enabled the F-111 to cross the Atlantic routinely without refueling, as it proved dramatically when it visited the 1967 Paris Air Show. No modern jet fighter at the time could match its rate of climb. When its wings were swept back and its afterburners kicked in, it could zoom to 60,000 feet at l,750 mph. Its supersonic infrared profile made detection and interception by the enemy difficult. But the innovation that topped them all was the terrain-following radar, which enabled the F-111 to see down and ahead, and to each side, while traveling supersonically, avoiding obstacles like radio towers and deciding within split seconds whether to fly above or around the obstacle.
The carrier-based F-111B was originally intended to counter the Soviet bomber threat against Navy flattops in the 1970s. Because of extreme difficulties in its development, however, the F-111B was canceled and replaced with the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, a lighter, more maneuverable fighter. From the Navy’s perspective, the F-111’s excessive weight and lack of air brakes were critical drawbacks in a fighter aircraft.
The facts of the F-111B program are both startling and disturbing. During a six-year period that one admiral called “a kind of nightmare,” the Pentagon spent some $2l6.5 million on the project. The Navy eventually received four F-111Bs, none of which ever took off from a carrier. The Navy’s chief complaint was that the aircraft was too heavy, but that was only part of the story. According to the Navy, unexpected technical problems materialized that could not be resolved.
The Navy’s deputy chief of operations, Vice Adm. Thomas F. Connally, supported the F-111B program until McNamara left office. Later, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Connally pointed out the complexities of the program, saying, “I think they tried to put too many new things in it.”
After an eight-year probe of the controversial plane, a Senate subcommittee, in its final assessment, accused former Defense Secretary McNamara of wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and damaging the nation’s defense posture by ignoring warnings from military and technical experts about the aircraft. The report also concluded that McNamara had been wrong in seeking to develop a common aircraft for all the air services over the deep skepticism of air experts.
Regardless of the difficulties the Air Force had with the F-111A, its faith in the design has never faltered. Its program was one of continual development, with the F-111E superseding the A model in the mid-1970s. The updated design included modified air intakes that improved engine performance at speeds above Mach 2.2. Eventually 94 E models were built, most of them serving with the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing, Upper Heyford, England, in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Next came the F-111F, of which 106 were built—the last one delivered to the Air Force in November 1975. Its Mach 2.5 top speed at 60,000 feet and its range of 3,100 miles made the F-111F one of the best tactical aircraft in the Air Force inventory at that time.
Was the F-111 one of the costliest blunders in American military aviation, as some critics have maintained? Or were the initial deployment problems of the F-111A blown way out of proportion by an uninformed media as part of the wider feeding frenzy of the Vietnam War? A conclusive answer that satisfies all parties probably will never emerge, but the F-111’s reputation and early service were marred by the rush to get it into operations and the unrealistic demand that it be all things to all potential users. It was never the interceptor McNamara claimed it would be, but it probably was the best all-weather, long-range attack aircraft to come out of the Vietnam War era. More important to its pilots, it was a great plane to fly. Perhaps its reputation would have been better served had it been given an “A” attack designation, instead of “F” for fighter.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.