Murphy's Law: Burying The Dead Varks


December 5, 2011: A year after Australia retired the last of their 32 F-111C/G aircraft, there is an uproar down under when it was discovered that 23 of these F-111s were being disposed of by burying them at a site near the air base where they were stationed. The F-111s were retired ten years ahead of schedule, and replaced by 24 F-18Es. The F-111s had become very expensive to maintain and keep operational.

Many thought burying the retired aircraft was somehow undignified, but there were not too many options. The U.S. had put restrictions on how the aircraft could be disposed of (to prevent some technologies from getting to the wrong nations). The Australian government decided that it would be cheaper to bury most of the F-111s, rather than trying to have them scrapped in a way that would meet all the American rules. Some of the F-111s that were in the best shape are still held in reserve, and four were stripped of their engines and equipment (like the buried ones) and used as museum or display aircraft. The rest of the unburied F-111s are also probably going to end up on display somewhere. The buried ones could still be dug up later to be cut up for scrap, or cleaned up for display.

The F-111C is similar to the U.S. FB-111, a 47 ton version of the swing-wing aircraft that entered service in 1969. The U.S. built 563, and retired the last of its F-111s (42 EF-111 electronic warfare models) in 1998. Australia was the only foreign user, although Britain ordered 50 F-111K models in 1965, but cancelled three years later, while the first two were under construction.

The basic F-111 was a 45 ton fighter bomber with a two man crew and a max speed of Mach 2.5 (1650 kilometers an hour). Basic armament was a 20mm, six-barrel rotary autocannon. But this weapon was rarely carried. The F-111 was mainly used as a bomber, and could carry 14 tons of weapons. Combat radius was 2,100 kilometers, but with inflight refueling, it could be much larger.

A slightly heavier version, the FB-111, was built for strategic bombing, and 76 of these were built, plus the 32 similar aircraft built for Australia. The last FB-111s were retired in 1991. The F-111 was originally intended as a replacement for the F-4, to be used by the air force and navy. The poor planning and project management, not to mention Pentagon politics, saw a quite different aircraft emerging from the process. While criticized at the time, the F-111 turned out to be a very capable and useful warplane.

Australia kept its F-111s for so long because of the aircraft's long range, and ability to carry lots of bombs and missiles over long distances. Australia is a big place, surrounded by vast oceans. So the F-111 provided an aircraft that could get to where it was needed quickly and do what needed to be done. In the end, however, the growing expense of keeping the complex, and aging, aircraft operational led to their retirement. Smart bombs made the large payload of the F-111 less useful. So, after more than four decades of service, the Vark faded away.

Vark was short for Aardvark, a nickname that stuck to the F-111. The Aardvark is a nocturnal mammal that roots around in the ground for its prey (usually insects). Aardvark translates into English as "Earth Pig". The F-111 was designed to operate at night, flying close to the ground, searching for its prey.





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