by Ron Cuskelly


This article was written in January 2014 for AERO Australia magazine.
An edited, illustrated version was first published in AERO Issue 42 of April/June 2014.


When 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 announcement.

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 parachutes.

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 to come.



The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of:

Clive Wells
Peter Cavanagh
Greg Gannon
all the personnel of the F-111 Disposal Team.



First published on the QAM website minus illustrations.