F-111A receiving fuel from an aerial tanker. Unlike other tactical strike aircraft bombing North Vietnam, the F-111A had enough range that it did not normally need to be refueled in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)
1st Lt. William Wilson, an F-111A weapon system officer in the 429th Tactical Fighter Squadron, ejected over North Vietnam when his aircraft was hit during a Linebacker II mission. After evading for five days, Wilson was captured. Wilson and the pilot, Capt. Robert Sponeybarger, were both released at the war’s end. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The F-111A could change the angle or “sweep” of its wings in flight. This image shows three different wing positions. With the wings swept forward, the F-111A had more lift to carry heavier loads, and it could land or take off at a slower speed. With the wings swept back, the F-111A could fly at very high speeds. (U.S. Air Force photo)
At the start of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, the U.S. Air Force did not have an all-weather precision fighter-bomber. The highly-advanced F-111A provided this vital capability. Introduced to combat prematurely in 1968, the F-111A later returned triumphantly to play a key role in Linebacker operations over North Vietnam in 1972.
The poor weather common over North Vietnam prevented visual bombing by USAF fighters during Rolling Thunder. Although B-52s could bomb through clouds, they were not used around Hanoi for political and military reasons. The Air Force tried other bombing methods, but none worked well.
The revolutionary "swing-wing" F-111A offered the answer. Its sophisticated terrain-following radar automatically flew the aircraft at a very low level, even over hills and mountains. The F-111A's advanced attack radar provided excellent bombing accuracy. Developing its complicated systems, however, delayed the F-111A's operational use.
Harvest Reaper/Combat Lancer (1967-1968) In 1967 Det 1, 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron, began testing pre-production F-111As under the code name Harvest Reaper. Though problems remained, the USAF sent six of these F-111As to Thailand in March 1968 for operational tests called Combat Lancer.
Combat Lancer F-111As flew single aircraft precision strikes at night or in poor weather at low altitude. The enemy had little or no warning because the F-111A crews did not have to visually see the target to hit it, and they could strike on the first pass. Highly praised by its crews, the F-111A did not need aerial tankers, fighter cover or surface-to-air missile (SAM) protection like other aircraft.
Though the F-111A showed great promise, it had serious problems. Accidents or malfunctions caused the loss of three F-111As and four crewmembers in 55 combat sorties (one mission by one aircraft equals one sortie). After the third aircraft loss, combat testing ended.
Triumphant Return: Linebacker Operations and Beyond (1972-1975) By 1972, the F-111A was thoroughly tested, technical issues had been resolved, and the aircraft was fully operational. The F-111A and its crews performed brilliantly and with great success during Operations Linebacker and Linebacker II. They struck heavily-defended enemy airfields and SAM sites. Between October 1972 and March 1973, F-111A crews flew over 4,000 combat sorties but lost only six aircraft in combat.
The F-111A also had one last important role to play in Southeast Asia. In May 1975, Cambodian communists hijacked the SS Mayaguez. Search aircraft could not locate the missing ship, but an F-111A crew used the aircraft's powerful radar to find it. An F-111A also sank one of the communist gunboats guarding the hijacked ship.