Air-Minded: Aardvark

Seven in the morning and heavy rain in Tucson, Arizona, but warmer than it has been: 52°F outside, up nearly 20 degrees from yesterday. Mister B won’t want to take his morning constitutional until the rain stops, so I have some time to myself. It’s been a while since I’ve written an Air-Minded post, and that is my task while Mister B and I wait out the weather.

Pima Air and Space Museum was packed on Martin Luther King Day and we were busy. I came home hoarse from talking so much, but I think the visitors who took my tram tours enjoyed them and learned a little about aviation. The first thing I do on museum mornings is to patrol the tram route in a golf cart, looking to see if anything new is on display, and to look over the fence into the restoration area to check out what’s going on back there. Then I pick one of the outdoor display aircraft, take photos, and post them to Facebook and Instagram.

IMG_0369: General Dynamics F-111E
F-111E Aardvark (photo: Paul Woodford)

This was my “Monday at the museum” pick yesterday, a General Dynamics F-111E Aardvark. I chose the Aardvark because a lot of American and Australian visitors ask if we have one, and unfortunately ours is parked in a section of the outdoor display area where the ground is soft and we’re not allowed to take the tram. The least I can do, then, is write a short post about it, for the benefit of any museum visitors who might discover my blog. And for you too, dear reader.

Military aviation enthusiasts my age (well, actually, anybody my age) will remember a strong-willed and powerful secretary of defense named Robert McNamara, right-hand man of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the disastrous architect of the Vietnam War. One of his many projects* was the development of a one-size-fits-all fighter aircraft for the Air Force and Navy, the TFX (tactical fighter experimental). McNamara pushed the TFX through development, and the aircraft, now designated the F-111, was test flown by both services. The Navy never wanted the aircraft and ultimately rejected it in favor of Grumman’s F-14 Tomcat, but the Air Force adopted it and employed several versions of the F-111 from the late 1960s until retiring the last of them in 1998. The Royal Australian Air Force was the only other operator, retiring theirs in 2010.

General Dynamics and the Air Force crammed every bit of available late-60s analog technology into the jet, and the resulting aircraft was big, heavy, and complex. It was our first fighter with variable geometry, with wings that swept aft for high speed flight and forward for takeoff and landing. It had terrain following radar coupled to an autopilot for hands-off low altitude operation. It had an internal weapons bay and underwing pylons that adjusted to wing sweep for external stores. It had a crew escape capsule rather than individual ejection seats. It was fast, especially at low altitude (you couldn’t catch them, and believe me I’ve tried), capable of Mach 2.5 at altitude (only the F-15, which came later, could match that). Yes, it had a cannon and could carry air-to-air missiles, but was exclusively employed as a tactical bomber (a lengthened version, the FB-111, carried gravity nuclear bombs and was used as a strategic bomber).

The F-111, which initially appeared to be one of the all-time military-industrial complex boondoggles, proved to be an effective low-altitude high-speed penetrating bomber, and has an extensive combat record. F-111s saw action in Vietnam from 1968 to the end of the war, the retaliatory raid against Libya in 1986, and Desert Storm in the 1990s. An unarmed electronic warfare variant, the EF-111 Raven, logged combat hours in Desert Storm, jamming enemy radars.

Pima Air and Space Museum’s Aardvark is an E model, once assigned to the USAF’s 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Upper Heyford, UK, and is a veteran of the Gulf War. You don’t realize what a huge beast it is until you stand underneath it. A German Tornado, another swing-wing fighter, is parked alongside, almost toy-like in comparison.

F-111E Aardvark & Panavia Tornado IDS (photo: Steffen Kahl on Flickr)

For most all of its operational life, the F-111 was, officially, just the F-111. McNamara didn’t like the military’s habit of naming aircraft, I guess, but because of the jet’s long snout, everyone called it the Aardvark (but not the Aussies, who called it the Pig). When Air Combat Command retired the last of its F-111s, it finally bestowed Aardvark as its official name.**

*Another of McNamara’s projects was the 1962 United States Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System. Before McNamara, the Navy and Marine Corps had their own way of designating aircraft, different from that used by the Army and Air Force. When the Navy and Marines began flying a new twin-engine fighter in 1960, it was called the F4H (F for fighter, 4 for the model number, H for McDonnell-Douglas, its manufacturer). McNamara ordered the services to adopt the Air Force designation system in 1962, and the F4H became the F-4, the fighter we know as the Phantom II. I work with a lot of older docents (older than me, at any rate), and they, along with many of the Navy and Marine veterans who visit our museum, still bitch about the change! Me, I consider it one of the few positive contributions McNamara made as SecDef, but I keep my opinion to myself when I’m around museum visitors.

**The electronic warfare variant, the EF-111, was officially named the “Raven” at its introduction in 1983, but aircrews have always called it the “Sparkvark.”

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