The FB-111A Switchblade

The FB-111A originated from the USAF's TFX program when the General Dynamic Co. in association with Grumman Aircraft was selected in 1962 to develop a variable-geometry tactical fighter. In his pursuit of commonality, The US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara officially announced on December 10, 1965 that Strategic Air Command would receive the FB-111A to replace early versions of the Boeing B-52 and the B-58A "Hustler". The Air Force had initially planned to order a total of 263 "FB" to equip 14 squadrons, including 20 to be used for combat crew training and 33 for support and testing. Seen as an 'interim bomber' pending the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA) or Rockwell B-1A for which funding had already commenced, the new Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird slashed the order to 112 and finally reduced it to 76 on March 19, 1969. Those 76 FB-111As funded in FY 1967 trough 1969 wounded up costing $1.2 billion, 700 percent of the planned cost of the originally envisaged 263 SAC-models.

The FB-111A differed from the F-111A by having a redesigned rear hourglass fairing and fuel vent, the extended wings of the navy version for greater turning performances, lift and cruise economy, and stronger landing gear and brakes to carry the higher gross weights required for the bombing missions and oversize main gear tires to operate from all types of runways. The FB-111A was the first F-111 version to fly with the Triple Plow II air intakes which were mounted four inches farther from the airframe. The two crew members sat side by side in a pressurized capsule which served as an emergency escape module. This module was designed to permit safe escape throughout the entire flight envelope and could serve as a survival shelter on the ground or in the sea.

Designed as a stop-gap system, the SAC Mk IIB avionics package installed in the FB-111A proved so successful that a similar TAC Mk IIB was developed for the F-111F. The Mk IIB possessed many features of the Mk I package, including the Texas Instrument AN/ANPQ-134 TFR, Honeywell AN/APN-167 LARA and the GE APQ-114 ARS. Components from the Mk II system included the Rockwell AN/AJN-16 INS and IBM Digital Computer Complex (DCC). Part of the sensor suite were the Singer-Kearfott AN/APN-185 Doppler radar and the Litton AN/ASQ-119 Astrotracker. A unique feature of the FB-111A was its Terrain-Following Radar system coupling automatic flight control with selectable low altitude flight levels to exploit the aircraft's high performance design characteristics, especially at night and in adverse weather conditions.

The primary offensive armament of the FB-111A was the Boeing AGM-69A SRAM (Short Range Attack Missile), designed to neutralize enemy defense systems and other important targets. This solid rocket-boosted 2,230lbs, 14ft-long, Mach 3 missile with a maximum stand-off range of up to 100 miles was originally designed for use on the B-52. The SRAM carried a W6 nuclear warhead with an explosive yield of 200 kilotons. The first supersonic launch was made on September 22, 1970 and the SRAM joined the FB-111A forces in 1973 when the 509th BW undertook a series of captive flight tests which culminated in seven launches at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico under Project "Bullet Blitz". The FB-111A was able to carry a pair of AGM-69A SRAMs in its bomb bay and two others mounted externally on the inner underwing pylons. Up to 24 750-pounds conventional bombs could be carried externally or six gravity nuclear weapons. Four 600-US gallon drop tanks could be carried on the outermost underwing pylons with another pair replacing the SRAM for a total of six tanks. The non-swiveling outer pylons were intended for subsonic flight only and were to be jettisoned when the wing sweep exceeded 26 degrees. When carrying four external fuel tanks, the "FB" weighed 100,458 pounds for take-off. In-flight refueling was easy and almost a routine during training and exercises in all weather. The receptacle for the tanker boom is located on top of the fuselage, aft of the cockpit section.

A modified RDT&E F-111A, 63-9783, was converted as the prototype of the FB-111A and first flew on July 31, 1967, with GDFW test pilot Val Prahl at the control and achieved Mach 2 on its first test flight. The first production FB-111A, 67-0159, flew on July 13,1968 and was accepted by the Air Force on August 30, 1968. The prototype was powered by TF30-P-1 and the production aircraft received the new P-7 engines. The first 6 FB-111A production aircraft were used for testing and on September 29, 1969, Col. Winston E. Moore, commander of the newly formed 340th BG at Carswell AFB, TX, picked up the first production FB to enter operational service, 67-7193. The official acceptance ceremony for the Strategic Air Command took place on October 8, 1969, with SAC CinC Gen. Bruce K. Holloway receiving a model of the bomber from Maj.Gen. Lee V.Gossick, Aeronautical Systems Division commander. In addition to Generals Holloway and Gossick; Col. Wesley L.Pendergraft, 380th SAW/CC; Brigadier Generals Alfred Esposito, deputy systems program director for FB-111 (ASD) and George H.McKee, 19th Air Division commander; Colonels William E.Keefer, Carswell AFB commander and Winston E.Moore, 340th Bomb Group commander. The FB-111A entered service with the 340th Bomb Group organized with the specific job of training combat-ready FB-111A air and ground crews. The 340th BG comprised the 4007th CCTS and the 9th BS. Following an incident with an F-111A at Nellis AFB, NV, the entire fleet was grounded for seven months. When fleetwide operations resumed in July 1970, production also caught up and SAC maintenance took delivery of no fewer than 67 further aircraft trough June 1971. The 4007th CCTS's seven month-long courses began with daytime flying and progressed on to night-time/instrument low-level work, to provide the nucleus of the new training cadre.

Plans to base the FB-111A were soon established and New England was chosen to place the aircraft closer to the Soviet Union via polar navigation routes and also closer to Europe. The cold winter air provided sprightly takeoff performance for part of the years as an added bonus. First to equip with the type was the 509th BW (M) at Pease AFB, NH. forty miles north of Boston, MA. The 509th received its first FB in December 1970. 20 years later, the 509th said goodbye to its last FBs on Sept.5, 1990 before moving to Whiteman AFB and the B-2A. The next unit to re-equip was the 380th BW (M) at Plattsburgh AFB in upstate New York when its first FB-111A christened "Spirit of Plattsburgh" arrived on July 17, 1971. Soon after, the 4007th CCTS relocated to Plattsburgh AFB and took over the RTU function from Carswell AFB three months after the final FB-111A delivery had taken place on June 30, 1971. In January 1971, the FB achieved initial operational capability with the 509th BW and after many difficulties, the 509th was declared fully combat-ready in October 1971. Category III testing for the FB-111/SRAM weapon system was undertaken by SAC's 4201st Test Squadron at Pease AFB, NH. Category III is one of three test stages that any weapon system underwent before considered operational. Tests started in October 1971 and were completed in July 1972 after 1,812 sorties totaling 8,802 flying hours. On Aug. 1, 1971, Detachment 1 of the 4007th CCTS was activated to instruct the combat crews in the sophisticated systems that equipped the FB-111A. The 380th BW became combat-ready in 1972. In September 1973, the 380th BW absorbed the 4007th CCTS which was redesignated the 530th CCTS. By that time, the 4007th CCTS had logged 3,179 sorties and 13,312 flying hours. From November 1972 until March 1973, SAC FB-111A crews from Pease and Plattsburgh AFB augmented TAC F-111 crews at Takhli AB, Thailand. Two deployments were made to assist the 474th TFW in their daily operations and get as much knowledge as possible to be applied to SAC operations. Members of the first deployment were Lt.Col.R.Hatcock and V.Hackman from the 380th BW, Lt.Col.G.Luke and Maj.A.Ely from the 509th BW. The second deployment comprised Lt.Col.Bob Kreider, Maj.George Key and Capt. Jeff Remelb from the 509th BW with Bob Reynolds and Johnny Husak from the 380th BW. SAC's Emergency War Orders were integrated under what was known as the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) and determined how each SAC bomber was loaded. Between 1972 and 1986, the plan was for twenty FB-111A to carry six SRAMs each and no bombs with the remaining FB-111As to carry six bombs each. As part of SAC's dispersal system, FB-111A were also on alert at various bases such as K.I.Sawyer AFB, MI and Rickenbacker AFB, OH.

Operating philosophy was different with SAC FB-111A crews. Whereas TAC crews would fly training sorties with maximum systems and abort if things went awry, SAC crews flew training sorties with deliberately degraded systems and trusted that the alert aircraft preened for maximum readiness would function fully most of the way to the target. The need for this approach arose after it became clear that avionics MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) was 4.5 hours. The simulators played a big part in routine training, especially in helping crews through the process of learning not to become too reliant on a fully-functioning aircraft. Two were located at Plattsburgh with the third one at Pease. Beginning in 1977, 'out of the window' vision was added to the simulators for extra realism. Tasked with FB-111A Simulator Test programs and Modification, and Sotware Management at Plattsburgh and Pease AFB was Detachment 3 of the 4200th Test and Evaluation Squadron. Crews usually pulled one alert session each month followed by a week of rest and then squeezed all their real flying time in the twelve or so flying days left each month. To sharpen their skills, FB-111A crews also participated in exercises such as "Red Flag" and "Green Flag" at Nellis AFB, NV and achieved a most impressive record during the SAC Bombing and Navigation Competitions by winning many trophies for bombing excellence.

Selecting air crews for the FB-111 went through a rigorous program. Requirements for pilots to move into the FB-111A were 2,000 hours in the command seat and at least two years in a combat ready squadron, the navigators had to have 1,500 hours of experience. Later, the prerequisite for navigators were changed and those straight out of Undergraduate Navigator Training at Mather AFB, CA must have excelled academically and ranked among the top 10 per cent of their class. Most of the crews were coming at first from the B-52s and B-58s, and KC-135s or KC-10s later. The FB pilot with the highest time in the cockpit was Lt.Col. John Plantikow with a total of 3170 hours, even if he retired about a year before the last FB, and the oldest was Lt Col. Hank Williamson who retired from the Air Force in July 1991 after delivering one of the last four operational FB to the 8th AF Museum at Barksdale AFB, La.

When the B-1 project was cancelled in July 1977, the USAF was left to find a replacement and plans to modify the FB-111A were studied. GD began to explore the possibilities of an enlarged FB-111 variant and the original proposal called for converting the FB-111As to FB-111H followed by another proposal in 1979 to produce 89 FB-111B from F-111D and 66 FB-111C from FB-111A. The modifications involved adding a 15ft extension to the fuselage and the widening by 1.5ft of the rear fuselage to accommodate a pair of GE F101 afterburning turbofans. The aircraft would have possessed the capacity for 68,000lbs of fuel and the ability to carry a dozen of SRAMs.

By 1978, some half-dozen FB-111A had been stricken from the inventory and every aircraft counted. On July 17, 1978, GDFW was contracted by SMALC to begin reworking damaged airframes and restoring them to as-new. 67-7194 was the first FB to be rebuild. The aircraft was involved in a heavy landing in February 1976, resulting in its main undercarriage collapsing and a severe fire. The plane languished at Sacramento for two and a half years and was shipped to Fort Worth in September 1978 to be rebuild with parts from other airframes and returned to duty with the 380th BW in September 1980.

Beginning in December 1986, the FB-111A fleet began to receive a General Dynamics-designed, digital update known as AMP (Avionics Modernization Program) carried out at McClellan AFB, Ca., home of the Sacramento ALC. Amongst the new kit were revisions to the TFR, LARA and ARS to reduce maintenance downtime and the key future to the update was the new 64K Weapons/Navigation Computer for the DCC. Aircraft 68-0247 and 68-0272 were the test aircraft for the update after which every FB-111A were given a "lizard" camouflage, known to its crews as the "Dark Vark" scheme.

Phase-out from SAC began in 1990 during the climax of the AMP updates. The break-up of the Soviet Union and near end of the "Cold War" were two factors and the loss of SRAM was a further one. The weapon was withdrawn from FB-111A alert use in June 1990 under the express orders of Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney. During the SAC draw-down, some 28 FB-111As converted into tactical configuration and redesignated F-111G for TAC use were transferred to the 428th TFTS at Cannon AFB, NM as RTU trainers in a purely conventional capacity. With this program, the FB's SRAM system for stand-off nuclear delivery was retained and a conventional weapons release system was installed to provide a dual-role capability. Other improvements included the installation of a Have Quick UHF radio and a new ECM system.

In February 1991, the last FB-111A deployment took place when the 380th BW participated to "Desert Flag 91-02" at Nellis AFB. A few months after, SAC and the 380th BW said farewell to the "FB" on July 10, 1991 when the last operational a/c took-off from Plattsburgh AFB, NY bound for Davis-Monthan AFB. 68-0249 was flown by Col.Paul Malandrino and Capt.Mark McClausland.

Late in 1992, the 27th FW began to replace its F-111G with ex-20th FW AMP F-111E for training purposes. The G-models became candidates for AMARC but as they were suitable for the RAAF, negotiations went underway and in October 1992, it was announced that The RAAF was to purchase up to 18 F-111G, later reduced to 15 plus a dozen spares TF30 engines and other spares. The F-111G was close to F-111C AUP specs and in late 1998, the RAAF selected 11 airframes as attrition replacements from AMARC.

More infos about the F-111G in service with the RAAF can be found on F-111.net. The following articles were written by Dr. Carlo Kopp and can be seen after clicking on the following links;

The RAAF F-111G "G-Model Pig" and Upgrading the RAAF F-111Gs

FB-111A 63-9783 assigned to the 6510th TW at Edwards AFB,CA. First public display by SAC on May 19, 1968 at Offutt AFB, NE.