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F-111 Aardvark: Swing-Wing Versatility & Its Impact On US Military Aviation

Summary The General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark is a supersonic, medium-range, multirole combat aircraft that made its maiden flight in 1964.
It served with the US Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force for 37 years, establishing the best safety record of any of the Century Series of fighters.
The F-111’s variable-geometry wings influenced the design of other aircraft, and its legacy can be seen in various modern bombers and fighters.
In Mother Nature’s world, the aardvark (an Afrikaans word which literally translates as “earth pig;” scientific name is Orycteropus afer) is a medium-sized, burrowing, nocturnal mammal native to Africa, with a long pig-like snout which is used to sniff out food, namely ants and termites.
Both the predator and one of the prey insects inspired a hilarious cartoon series titled “The Ant and the Aardvark,” which ran from 1969 to 1971, with both titular characters voiced by comedian John Byner (the Aardvark was the antagonist in the storyline).
In the military aviation world, the animal became the namesake of the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, a supersonic, medium-range, multirole combat aircraft that made its maiden flight in 1964, made its operational debut with the US Air Force (whose pilots nicknamed it the “Vark”) in 1967, followed by the Royal Australian Air Force (whose own pilots dubbed it the “Pig”) in 1973.
The plane faithfully served with the USAF and RAAF for 37 years respectively, yet some pundits deem the warbird (or would that be “War Pig,” like the Black Sabbath song?) because of some initial growing pains. However, the overall combat performance of the F-111, as well as its lasting legacy in the form of its swing-wing/variable-sweep wings’ influence on successful future warplane designs show that the plane was anything but a failure.
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Initial failures: teething issues, and “guilt by association”
The F-111 did indeed have some growing pains (more on this in a moment). It also had the misfortune of being stigmatized by its association with arguably the most hated man to ever hold the position of U.S. Secretary of Defense (SECDEF): Robert S. McNamara, who served as SECDEF under both JFK and LBJ. To give you an idea of just how despised Bob McNamara was by Vietnam veterans, check out the 0:23 mark of this song:
The F-111 had its origins in McNamara’s Tactical Fighter Experimental program in 1961, intended to meet the USAF’s requirement for a long-range ground-attack and close-air-support plane as well as the US Navy’s requirement for a loitering interceptor.
In other words, it was meant to be a jack-of-all-trades that would please everybody…and turned out to be a master of none that pleased no one (at least not initially). The Air Force only accepted it with reluctance and trepidation, and the USN rejected it outright.
Besides the McNamara factor, the plane also had some initial teething issues once it went operational. Simple Flying’s Benjamin Cooper elaborates in an April 2024 article:
“As part of the combat readiness testing, six aircraft from the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing were sent in March 1968 to Southeast Asia to take part in the fighting of the Vietnam War… Unfortunately, two aircraft were written off: 66–0022 was lost on March 28th, and 66-0017 on March 30th. The loss of a third F-111A (66-0024) on April 22nd halted F-111A combat operations. The squadron returned to the United States in November. The cause of the first two losses is unknown, as the wreckage was never recovered. The third suffered a failure of a hydraulic control valve rod for the horizontal stabilizer. The pilots subsequently lost control of the jet and crashed.”
Photo : Thor Jorgen Udvang | Shutterstock
“Inspections of the fleet of Aardvarks revealed that 42 of them had the same issues. But, after some fixing, the Aardvark was declared fully operational again in 1971. If you are curious, this is what the jet sounded like when it was still flying.”
Combat performance
As the words of wisdom go, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” Once those bugs had been worked out of the F-111’s system, the plane turned into an excellent combat performer. What’s more, according to GlobalSecurity.Org:
“The F-111 series of combat aircraft established the best safety record of any of the aircraft in the Century Series of fighters (F-100 to F-110) — only 77 aircraft being lost in a million flying hours.”
Though Operation Linebacker II, the so-called “Christmas bombing” on Hanoi in December 1972, is primarily associated with the B-52 Stratofortress, the Aardvark also made its impact — both literally and figuratively — in that engagement. F-111s flew 154 sorties therein, making precision strikes for which the heavy B-52 hadn’t yet been configured, and, according to Richard Crandall and Tyler Rogoway of The WarZone, the North Vietnamese feared it so much that they dubbed it “Whispering Death.”
Related HARS Museum Lines Up Vietnam War Aircraft For Next Tarmac Day The HARS Museum in New South Wales is paying tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Arguably the “Vark” gained its greatest fame in the American public’s eye on April 15, 1986, via Operation Eldorado Canyon, an airstrike ordered by then-US President Ronald Reagan against then-strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in retaliation for a West Berlin discotheque bombing ten days earlier that killed three people — including an American serviceman and his girlfriend — and injured 229.
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Therein, 18 F-111s of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), along with 25 USN warplanes, carried out the mission, and the 48 TFW’s contribution, in particular, turned out to be the longest fighter combat mission in history, with a round-trip flight between RAF Lakenheath and Libya, spanning 6,400 miles (10,300 km) and 13 hours.
The raid killed 45 of Gaddafi’s soldiers and officials and destroyed between three and five IL-76 transport planes along with fourteen MiG-23 “Floggers,” two helicopters, and five major ground radars, in exchange for the loss of one F-111, flown by Capts. Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Paul F. Lorence.
And then there was Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Though Desert Storm was where another “flying war pig” (so to speak), the A-10 Warthog, became a tank-killing legend in the eyes of the American public, believe it or not, it was actually the Aardvark that was the bigger killer of Saddam Hussein’s main battle tanks (MBTs) in that conflict. As I noted in an article published in The National Interest on December 31, 2023:
“As The Aviation Geek Club’s Dario Leone elaborates, ‘Using their PAVE Tack targeting pods combined with laser-guided bombs, the Aardvarks took out over 1,500 Iraqi armored vehicles. By contrast during the First Gulf War A-10s destroyed “only” 900 Iraqi military vehicles.’ In other words, ‘Pig’ outscores ‘Hog.’ How ‘bout them apples? ‘Failure?’ What failure??
Lasting legacy and influence
This is arguably the best testament to the true success of the F-111.
Though, on the one hand, the Navy rejected the “Vark,” on the other hand, there was this, courtesy of Joyce Sundy of TodayNews:
“The Navy’s F-111B was canceled due to its inability to meet carrier landing requirements, but its design, including the swing-wing and the TF-30 engine, ***became the basis for the lauded Navy F-14 interceptor***…The F-111’s signature innovation was its variable-geometry wings, allowing for swept-wing flexibility that could adjust in flight for either supersonic speeds or stable, slow takeoffs and landings…This swing-wing design later influenced aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat and the RAF Tornado, although the need for such technology has since been outpaced by advances in flight control systems.” [emphasis added]
To put it another way, though the F-111 may have initially failed to impress the Navy, it ultimately turned out to be that paradox known as a “successful failure.”
Ironically, this successful demonstration of the swing-wing design by the “Vark” even left a legacy with an adversary nation’s aerial arsenal, namely that of the Soviet Union, as noted by Christian Baghai of Medium:: the Soviets’ MiG-23 “Flogger” fighter, and Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer” and Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” bombers all bear the variable sweep-wing design. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” (or at least emulate ’em), eh?
Not to be outdone by the Soviets in the arena of supersonic sweep-wing bombers, the F-111’s legacy can also be seen in the B-1B Lancer (AKA “The Bone”).
Related 5 Fast Facts On The Powerhouse B-1B Lancer The B-1B Lancer weathered an initial storm of controversy and is now nearly 50 years old. Here are 5 fun facts about this bomber,
And that wing design isn’t the only lasting impact of the F-111 design. According to Ray Panko of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum:
“It had the first after-burning turbofan, which gave it both the power to fly supersonically at ground level and the efficiency to fly to Europe without tankers. It [had] electronics that allowed it to fly at night, in any weather, and still find and destroy its target. Its sophisticated radar system controlled the aircraft, flying the nap [sic] of the earth to avoid detection.”
In short, it is a history any aircraft and its designers and crew veterans alike can be justifiably proud of!

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