F-111 A8-109 Sword 3 shutdown its engines on 3 December
2010, it marked the end of an era for the Royal Australian
Air Force as 37 years of F-111 operations came to a close.
For five other F-111s that also flew on the last day and
whose pilots did receive the memo, the F-111 era had ended
several seconds earlier!
Friday 3 December 2010 was a grey day in south-east Queensland
as were the aeroplanes themselves and the mood of the gathered
F-111 community who knew that this day would come eventually.
It was characterised as a day of celebration but no, it
was a sad day and tears were shed.
It is often stated that the reason that so few WW2 aircraft
survive is that in the postwar years the public were no
longer interested in old aeroplanes but as that doyen of
Australian aviation heritage preservation, the late Harold
Thomas, once explained to the author, it went much deeper
than that. "They hated them". But it was different with
the F-111. This aeroplane had never dropped a bomb in anger
(except on seized drug running ships!) and it was genuinely
loved by those who flew and maintained it and by the public
who marvelled at its beauty and brute power. It's hardly
surprising therefore that there was widespread interest
in preserving as many F-111s as possible. Of course there
were also those who thought it not unreasonable that the
F-111s should fly forever!
By the time the final day came around, it was already decided
that three F-111Cs would be preserved on RAAF bases (in
addition to the F-111G which had been delivered to Point
Cook in May the previous year). There was also the tantalising
prospect of three so-called "Heritage Reserves". Several
museums expressed interest in acquiring an F-111 but there
were obstacles in the form of International Traffic in Arms
Regulations and the presence of hazardous materials. Some
observers argued that Australia paid for the aeroplanes
so we should be free to do what we liked with them but the
fine print of the original contract effectively implied
that Australia was free to purchase its combat aircraft
from another nation with less stringent end user requirements
if it so wished!
Preliminary planning for the disposal of the F-111 fleet
began as early as 2007 in the SRSPO (Strike Reconnaissance
Systems Program Office) at Amberley with a two person team
which included the leader Ms Kate Farrer who served in this
role until August 2009. The last Officer Commanding SRSPO
was GPCAPT Rob Lawson who was promoted and posted to Canberra
after handing over to Teresa Harding, a civilian who became
the Director. The SRSPO closed with the withdrawal of the
F-111 in December 2010 and DATO (Disposals and Aerial Targets
Office) was set up in January 2011 to look after the disposal
of the F-111 as well as another project for Aerial Targets.
Teresa Harding became the Director of DATO. The Disposals
element of DATO comprised 28 staff and was managed initially
by SQNLDR Eugene Wadsworth and Mr Peter Cavanagh until WGCDR
David Abraham was appointed as Project Manager in January
2011. WGCDR Abraham left the position in late 2011 to be
replaced in January 2012 by WGCDR Clive Wells. On several
occasions, sometimes as long as twelve months, Peter Cavanagh
was Acting Project Manager. One of Peter's early recommendations
was that the three reserve aircraft, rather than being stored
at Amberley, should be relocated to other RAAF bases as
the passage of time would result in the loss of the expertise
to relocate them. Suggested locations were RAAF Base Williamtown
(A8-142), RAAF Base Wagga (A8-148) and RAAF Base Darwin
(A8-113) but these allocations were overtaken by a ministerial
On 30 September 2011, it was announced by the Minister for
Defence Materiel, Jason Clare, that up to seven additional
F-111 aircraft would be made available to Australian heritage
organisations. After much negotiation with the US Government,
a compromise solution had been found whereby the RAAF would
retain ownership of the aircraft while placing them on loan.
On 23 November, the Minister announced a Request for Offer
process inviting established Australian museums to apply
for the loan of an F-111 asset (7 aircraft and 4 crew modules).
One of many stringent requirements was that the asset had
to be displayed in a completely enclosed building. The application
process was daunting and while it wasn't quite the "paperwork
equal to the weight of the aeroplane" scenario, it seemed
like it to many museum volunteers! No doubt the office of
Air Force Heritage anticipated that the offer would be over-subscribed
which may partly explain the degree of difficulty but they
were also determined to ensure that these aeroplanes would
be treated with the respect they deserved. An earlier product
of a flawed disposal system in the form of two neglected
and decaying Canberras just up the road from Amberley was
not going to be repeated.
The offer process was drafted and administered out of the
ominously named Disposal & Aerial Targets Office (DATO)
at RAAF Amberley by Doug Scrimgeour, a civilian contractor
who once worked on Caribou engines in the RAAF. No doubt
sensing that most respondents were on a steep learning curve,
Doug was always happy to provide guidance to volunteers
who were unaccustomed to doing business with the Commonwealth.
The hands-on component of the F-111 Disposal Team was able
to call upon the expertise of civilian "Pig Whisperers",
Peter Cavanagh, Bryan McNeice and Greg Gannon. The team's
initial task involved archiving F-111 technical documentation,
removal of classified and reusable equipment, removal of
engines, wings and tail surfaces from aircraft destined
for destruction and, most importantly, the preparation of
the six aircraft that had then been allocated for preservation.
In addition to these tasks, they also rewired the F-111
simulator and prepared it for use as a power-on display
at the RAAF Museum. For these tasks, serving personnel were
supplemented by reservists during week-nights, week-days
and on scheduled working week-ends.
To this point, the team had been preparing six F-111s for
preservation but in September 2011 came the ministerial
announcement that an additional seven aircraft and four
crew modules were to be saved. It is not recorded how the
team reacted to the news that their workload had more than
doubled overnight but it is expected that they rejoiced
in the knowledge that for seven additional F-111s they could
polish rather than destroy! For the so-called "Lucky Seven",
the process wasn't quite as straightforward as the first
six because some of these aeroplanes had already begun their
journey down the road to destruction. This meant that tradesmen
were required to undo work they had done earlier, so their
resolve to save Pigs may have been tested! Late in 2012,
DATO requested additional manpower which was drawn from
reservists of 82 Wing.
The first F-111 delivered to a museum was the sole surviving
F-111G A8-272 The Boneyard Wrangler which was trucked
to the RAAF Museum at Point Cook where it arrived on 1 May
2009. Deemed to be nuclear capable, the remaining F-111Gs
had to be destroyed under the terms of the purchase contract.
Even before the last flight by an F-111G in September 2007,
many of the aircraft had been parted out and stored outdoors
and they were in a severely deteriorated condition, so the
preservation movement generally accepted that the Gs were
a lost cause and resolved to pursue the remaining Cs.
After a long and arduous evaluation process, it was announced
on 4 October 2012 by Minister for Defence Materiel, Jason
Clare, that six F-111Cs and one crew module had been allocated
to Australian aviation museums (see Porcine
Perambulations). Subsequently, two additional crew modules
were allocated. This left only A8-130 without an announced
home. All of these aircraft were immaculately restored at
Amberley with the bulk of the work being done by Defence
but with the painting contracted to Boeing Defence Australia.
At the time of the Minister's original announcement, Chief
of Air Force, Air Marshall Geoff Brown, made the decision
to paint the loan aircraft in camouflage after Peter Cavanagh
showed him the freshly camouflaged A8-113 alongside another
F-111 in gunship grey. Accordingly, all the aircraft were
subsequently painted in the original camouflage but with
the addition of the No 1 Squadron gold flash and crest on
the port side and the No 6 Squadron blue flash and crest
on the starboard side. The only exception to this was A8-132
which was painted with the white undersides it carried while
serving as a development aircraft with the Aircraft Research
and Development Unit (ARDU). Fittingly, this aircraft, which
was affectionately known as Casper, was destined
to return to the ARDU facility at RAAF Edinburgh in South
Australia where it arrived on 12 August 2011.The only aircraft
preserved in gunship grey are A8-272 and A8?125 at Point
Cook and A8-126 at the Amberley Aviation Heritage Centre.
The aircraft destined for Wagga Wagga (A8-142) had been
prepared in gunship grey but was repainted in camouflage
before being delivered on 14 June 2012 after an earlier
trip had to turn back because of floods.
In the interim, the Disposal Team had to face up to the
most melancholy task of all, the destruction of 1 F-111A,
9 F-111C and 13 F-111G airframes. Because of the widespread
presence of asbestos in bonded panels, it was deemed that
conventional scrapping for metals recovery was not appropriate.
Accordingly, it was decided that burial in landfill was
the safest method of disposal and the Defence Materiel Organisation
called tenders for the disposal of "F-111 airframes, TF30
engines, associated components and equipment" with a closing
date of 31 March 2011. The contract, valued at more than
$2M, was awarded to Birdon Pty Ltd on 18 October 2011. However,
this was not your conventional tender with the successful
tenderer paying the Commonwealth for the scrap value of
the aircraft. This was a case of the Commonwealth paying
the successful tenderer more than $2M to destroy the aircraft!
It may be that this anomaly helped to justify the cost of
preserving an additional seven F-111s but certainly it is
easily argued that in so doing, the taxpayer at least has
something to show for the expenditure.
Commencing on 21 November 2011, the first fuselage was trucked
to the Swanbank burial site which was managed by Thiess
Services. Over the following three days, a further 22 fuselages
were placed in a mass grave. Wings, tail surfaces and other
components filled the gaps and the entire site was covered
with soil on which further layers of landfill will be added.
Although the burial process drew some criticism, it has
to be accepted that saving all of the aircraft was unrealistic.
While many were horrified at the sight of these once beautiful
aeroplanes being buried, to anyone who has ever seen an
aeroplane torn apart by a "muncher", reverential interment
has to be the lesser of two evils. It has been suggested
that in future years, when the burial site is developed,
its F-111 connection will be honoured, for example with
streets named after aircrew who lost their lives in F-111s.
The first delivery to a non-government museum was intended
to be a short-range shakedown trip to the Queensland Air
Museum at Caloundra in February 2013 but record rainfall
in south-east Queensland rendered the QAM site too boggy.
This led to several postponements and it wasn't until May
that A8-129 finally arrived at Caloundra. In the meantime,
the schedule had been adjusted and the first delivery was
RF-111C A8-134 which arrived at the South Australian Aviation
Museum in Adelaide on 17 March 2013. The penultimate delivery
was A8-147 which arrived at the Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome
on 5 August 2013.
As each borrower signed their loan agreement with the Commonwealth,
the responsibility for the assets passed to Air Force Heritage
in Canberra. Each organisation is bound by strict procedures
regarding the management of the asset and is required to
submit regular reports. From the outset, Air Force Heritage
placed much importance on making these aircraft available
for public viewing, so the loan agreements specifically
encourage cockpit visits albeit with certain restrictions.
It is noteworthy that all of the aircraft (except 125, 126
& 272) are fitted with Horizontal Tail Servo Actuator locking
blocks to fix the tailplanes in the horizontal position
for public safety. (In service, when the hydraulic system
is not pressurised, the horizontal stabilisers droop). Another
safety measure was the removal of static wicks from all
trailing edges. The removal of electronics from the forward
equipment bay necessitated the fitment of a 260kg mild steel
ballast weight which was bolted to the antenna mount inside
the radome for balance purposes.
Another sensitive item was the Pratt & Whitney TF30 engine
which could not be allowed to fall into the "wrong hands".
For a time it was feared that the loan aircraft would have
to be displayed without engines but given that the TF30
was the first afterburning turbofan it was a vital component
of the cutting-edge technology embodied in the F-111. Thankfully
a compromise was found and the loan aircraft are all fitted
with engines that have been through a demilitarisation process
involving draining of fluids, removal of external asbestos
and removal of accessories. To complete the process, the
shaft is drilled and pinned from the accessory gearbox so
that the engine cannot rotate.
Once the "Lucky Seven" had been restored to an externally
complete state, they were painted by Boeing, emerging seemingly
better than new. Under normal circumstances, that might
have been the end of the process, but having built them,
the team then had to pull them apart again and deliver them
to their new homes. Both wings went into one enormous crate
which took up the entire deck of a semi-trailer. Similarly,
the fin, rudder and horizontal stabilisers were wrapped
and placed in custom-built transport crates. The first delivery
of a Pig (A8-272 to Point Cook) was contracted, ironically,
to Rhino Transport. The second delivery (A8-125 to Point
Cook) was handled by Bell Heavy Haulage. For both Point
Cook trips the radome was removed from the aircraft but
on subsequent trips a longer trailer permitted the radome
to remain in place. The next two trips (Edinburgh and Wagga
Wagga) were also performed by Bell. The first four deliveries
were accompanied by an RAAF public relations team including
a former aircrew member to handle the considerable public
interest at each stop. The six loan aircraft were all transported
by North Queensland Heavy Haulage. The final trip to Hawaii
(A8-130 with radome removed) utilised the most impressive
"rig" of all, courtesy of No 36 Squadron RAAF!
Accompanying each delivery were the tools, all stored in
purpose-built cribs enough to make any home handyman or
museum volunteer drool. There were also numerous workstands
and on the Caloundra trip, lengths of portable tarmac planks
and a tow motor.
With everything together on site at the destination, the
wings were craned out of the wing box and placed on special
dollies. The fuselage was then unloaded, its last landing
usually accompanied by a collective sigh of relief. Tail
surfaces were then fitted while museum volunteers revelled
in the luxury of sitting back and watching professionals
do their work for them.
Fitting the wings comes with a "do not attempt this at home"
warning as it demands that the fuselage and the offered-up
wing are both perfectly level. Some claim that it also involves
the alignment of the planets and the study of the entrails
of a chicken. The wing is held in place by one huge pivot
pin which approximates in size to that of a small kitchen
tidy bin. Lowering the pin into place is achieved with a
specially designed portable crane which seemingly has no
other purpose in life. Sometimes the pin will drop into
place with a satisfying clunk but never twice on the same
aeroplane! With both wings in place they are swept fully
back using an external compressor connected to the internal
gearbox and all access panels are replaced. All borrowers
were given a choice of wing sweep position and perhaps not
surprisingly all requested fully swept at 72.5 degrees which
reduces the span by approximately ten metres. With the aeroplane
all buttoned up, it receives a full valet service and is
allowed to dry. After being towed in to its final display
location, the aircraft is jacked and placed on purpose-built
wheel stands to preserve the tyres. (A8-109 is the only
loan aircraft not on wheel stands as HARS have been given
approval to tow their aircraft). The loan aircraft were
accompanied by supporting exhibits such as long range ferry
tanks, pivot pylons, bomb release units and crew module
This left only the orphan A8-130 without a home until an
announcement by the Chief of Air Force on 22 August 2013
that the aeroplane would be gifted to the Pacific Aviation
Museum at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In this instance, gifting
was possible as the aircraft would be returning to its country
of origin. A8-130 was painted in the same camouflage scheme
as the other aircraft but with the notable addition of crew
names under the cockpit - GPCAPT Geoff Brown OC 82 WG (port)
and WGCDR M.G. Smith (starboard). (At the time, the former
was Chief of Air Force and the latter was Commanding Officer
of No. 6 Sqn.) Of the thirteen preserved RAAF F-111s, only
A8-130 and the two Point Cook aircraft carry crew names.
Characterised by the F-111 Disposal Team as The Final
Mission, A8-130 was delivered to Hawaii on three RAAF
C-17A flights with the last flight (by A41-211) carrying
the fuselage arriving on 6 September 2013. A8-130 more than
any other surviving F-111 illustrates what a close run thing
it was to save the additional seven aircraft as it had already
been prepared for destruction and rebuilding the cockpit
alone took four weeks!
The dedication, passion and attention to detail demonstrated
by all members of the F-111 Disposal Team are best illustrated
by the final stage of the installation process. Just as
the recipient museum thinks it has an immaculately presented
exhibit ready for immediate display, team members go over
it with small pots of paint and fine brushes touching up
minor blemishes that nobody else knew were there! It is
most appropriate therefore that the names of these people
are listed on a plaque fixed to the starboard splitter plate
of each aircraft.
In total, 45 F-111s were imported into Australia (10 reserve
aircraft of various designations remain at AMARC in Arizona).
At the conclusion of the disposal project there are 13 complete
aircraft preserved. This represents a survival rate of nearly
30% which is an outstanding result by any standard. To this
must be added 6 crew modules, the simulator and miscellaneous
exhibits such as fins/rudders and others already described.
That the F-111 is so well represented in our museums is
due to the political will provided by Jason Clare and the
dedication of the F-111 Disposal Team. Australia's aviation
heritage has been well served and thirteen preserved F-111s
will continue to draw gasps of admiration from generations
author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of:
all the personnel of the F-111 Disposal Team.