When Pigs Could Fly

The F-111, beloved by pilots in America and Australia, takes to the air for the last time

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An airplane called “Aardvark” and “Pig” has got to be short on love. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth for the General Dynamics F-111. Treasured by its crews, who came up with those names, the swing-wing, supersonic F-111 has, after more than four decades of service, gone back to the barn for good.

Retired in 1996 by the United States Air Force, the brawny cold war fighter-bomber continued flying with the Royal Australian Air Force until last month. Aussie crews took its American name, Aardvark, meaning “earth pig,” and shortened it to Pig. Pilots in both countries, the only ones ever to fly the F-111, dug the fact that the jet’s terrain-hugging radar let them fly it “with its nose in the dirt.”

More than 3,000 people turned out on December 3, 2010, for the final flight of Australia’s Pigs at RAAF Amberley base, near Brisbane, ending 37 years of F-111 operations Down Under. A few misty-eyed Americans traveled halfway around the world for the event, including retired U.S. Air Force pilot Brad Insley, who holds that record for the most hours in the F-111 at 5,057. One Pig that happened to be on static display was the very tail number that Insley had ferried to Vietnam in 1972. The Aussies put him in the left seat as they towed it back to the hangar.

Brisbane-based photographer John Freedman, who spent plenty of time photographing Pigs over the years, was there for the big day. Here are a handful of his photographs. For more, visit F-111.net.

Pictured above: On the front end of some afterburning, an F-111C, number A8-109, takes to the air for the last time at RAAF Amberley, December 3, 2010.

Six-Ship Formation

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(John Freedman)

A memorable image from the day was the six-ship formation with the jets showing the variable sweep of the wings. The forward airplane had set its swing wings fully aft at 72.5 degrees, the high-speed configuration. Each airplane that followed progressed to full-out, or 16 degrees, the takeoff and landing profile.

Dump and Burn

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(John Freedman)

“The ‘Dump and Burn’ is the F-111’s party trick,” says Freedman, and a favorite way to end air show demos. The emergency fuel release vent sits between the exhaust nozzles, so when the pilots dump fuel with the afterburners lit, “Presto,” says Freedman, “a 100-to-300-foot flame that is the envy of any air show act.” The final Dump and Burn of the day lasted one minute and 42 seconds.

360-Degree Torch

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(John Freedman)

Freedman captured this Dump and Burn, also called a Torch, from the other end of the jet during an earlier air show in New Zealand. “Due to the cooler air and greater elevation,” he says, “the aircraft produced huge rooster tails of vapor and brilliant flames.” The Pig began a horizontal 360-degree turn directly opposite the crowd with its wings full aft, and when it arrived back at show center, pulled up into a steep climb while still torching. The pilots have to maintain their speed within a narrow sub-sonic margin to keep the flame lit.

Riverfire Festival

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(John Freedman)

A photo from an earlier date shows Brisbane’s annual Riverfire Festival, held at the beginning of September. Since 2001, the RAAF has put its exclamation point on what is one of the largest fireworks displays in Australia, with Pigs contributing torches during the finale. “That is why the locals absolutely love this aircraft,” says Freedman. “For many non-aircraft enthusiasts, their memories of the F-111 were from the Riverfire display.” In 2007, the pilots added a new twist: the Dump and Burn Cross-Over, seen here in a 30-second exposure that Freedman made from Mount Coot-tha on the western edge of the city.

Night Goggles

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(John Freedman)

Green tactical light bathes navigator Flt. Lt. Jake Romanowski (left) and pilot Flt. Lt. Andrew Kloeden in their night vision goggles during an exercise in the F-111 simulator at Amberley in June 2009. The crew placed Freedman’s camera on the instrument panel for a six-second, timer-triggered exposure. Amberley’s simulator is a non-motion surround-visual type, complete with Pave Tack equipment and authentic graphics of Australian terrain. It is run by RAAF pilot Steve Clarke, whose 3,400-plus hours in the Pig beats that of any Australian pilot.

Final Positions

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(John Freedman)

One by one the F-111s taxied to their final positions on December 3 and were directed to shut down. This Pig, A8-109, was the last one. At 1:35 in the afternoon, the air around Amberley became quiet, never again to vibrate with the roar of the Pig.