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A History of the F-111 in Australian Service

As I near my own retirement one becomes more alert to the retirement of others, hence my interest in the retirement of the Australian F-111’s from the RAAF. In some respects their life reflects my own because we both entered the work force in 1973! I can also remember all the political intrigue and media hype leading up to that event. On that basis I was excited to read the recently released book by Mark Lax called From Controversy to Cutting Edge: A History of the F-111 In Australian Service.

Mark Lax uses his extensive personal knowledge, interviews with a wide range of individuals and access to numerous sensitive documents to bring this story alive. He paints a very readable “warts and all” picture of the series of controversies, failures and cost blowouts that make this air-frame so memorable, as well as covering the actual successes that are much less publicized. In almost 40 years of service, the “pig” as it was affectionately known (because it could hunt at night with its nose in the weeds), provided Australia with a supersonic long range strike aircraft that could fly close to the ground, following the terrain to avoid detection.

Although designed in the early 1960’s, the numerous airframe, engine, weapons and avionics upgrades allowed it to continue to be competitive, able to strike at any time in any weather. It’s Pave Tack targeting system, laser guided weapons and electronic warfare self-protection allowed this to continue being a force to be reckoned with, even after 1998 when we became the sole global operator of the F-111.

Yet there were also drawbacks, we lost eight aircraft, with three successful ejections and five fatal incidents. Overshadowing those losses was the Deseal/Reseal Disaster resulting from fuel tank maintenance between 1977 and 2001, which would affect hundreds (or possibly 1000’s) of RAAF Technicians, with the death toll still mounting.

Lax sums it up like this “The F-111 is unique among aircraft that the Royal Australian Air Force has operated throughout its history. Never before has one type had such a profound impact not only on the RAAF, but upon Australia’s strategic policy outlook.” At times the book did get fairly technical, and the author recognises that some of the facts will never be known, but has sought to give a balanced review of this amazing aircraft. Yes, for those of you that can’t read there are lots of pretty pictures as well.

How does this affect RAAF Base Wagga? We are now the custodians of F-111C A8-142, one of just thirteen aircraft identified for preservation. This particular air-frame is historically significant because it was the 18th off the production line for the RAAF and arrived in Australia on 28 September 1973. It was the first aircraft to be fitted in Australia under the Avionics Update Project. In early 1974, A8-142 was used in an all round Australia record breaking flight which took 12 hours 30 minutes to fly from Amberley to Darwin, Perth, Edinburgh, Point Cook and return to Amberley. The last flight was on 02 November 2009, and in its 37 years of service life it clocked up 7352.5 hours. It is now under wraps here at RAAF Base Wagga, waiting for the great unveiling, when it enters a new stage of life on display here.

Chaplain Ian S Whitley