The first warplane with variable geometric wings to be mass produced, the F-111 was built by General Dynamics at the beginning of the 1960s against an initial contract for delivery of eighteen planes to the USAF and five to the US Navy. Although the prototype had already flown on December 21, 1964, subsequent phases of development were fraught with difficulties, leading to the abandonment of the program by the US Navy. Production, therefore, was reserved for the USAF, which took delivery of the first machines in 1968. The first variant was the F-111A, and after seventeen pre-production models, 141 of these planes were built. Then followed 76 FB-111As, with more powerful engines, larger wings and more sophisticated electronics, which went into service in 1969. Successive variants were the E (94 planes in service from September 1970); the D for tactical support (96 machines, operational from October 1971); and the F, the final version which appeared as prototype in May 1973 and of which 106 were made, the last in November 1976. Total production of General Dynamics F-111 was 562 aircraft, including 24 F-111Cs which were exported to Australia.
The first F-111As, hot off the assembly lines, were sent to Vietnam in March 1968 for the Combat Lancer operation. Six tactical bombers of the 428th TFS had the chance to prove their worth in the battle zone, but the experiment was disastrous: three of the six were destroyed during unescorted missions at various times. Initially it was assumed they had been shot down by the enemy, but it later became clear that they had crashed because of structural faults. The detachment, having carried out 55 missions, was recalled to the US, where criticism of this already controversial aircraft reached a new peak. Yet the F-111A did eventually prove itself, again in Vietnam. On September 27, 1972, 48 F-111As of the 429th and 430th TFS of the 474th TFW arrived in Southeast Asia; they immediately went into action to help check the accelerating advance of the North Vietnamese. In five months, that is up to the end of the hostilities, they carried out over 4,000 sorties dropping about 74,000 tons of bombs with high results, and the loss of only six machines. It is worth noting that 3,980 of these 4,000 missions were effected by means of TFR (Terrain Following Radar), a radar system capable of guiding the plane at a height of only a few meters, encompassing the slightest unevenness of terrain, without intervention by the pilot, and flying beneath the net of the SAM missile radar systems. Such feats in Southeast Asia were crucial in establishing and later restoring the reputation for quality which this variable-sweep wing fighter-bomber from General Dynamics was intended to possess from the start. In action once more in April 1986, attacking targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya, the F-111s confirmed their right to be considered the spearhead of the USAF tactical bombing operations.
Aircraft: General Dynamics F-111A