Fifty years ago today – October 15, 1964 – the U.S. Air Force rolled out its newest aircraft, the F-111, at the General Dynamics plant in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a pioneering, if somewhat controversial, aircraft.
The F-111 was the first Air Force plane to use swept wings and terrain-following radar. It was also the first to fly with an afterburning turbofan engine, the Pratt & Whitney TF30. The use of a turbofan design as opposed to the turbojet architecture of the J57/J75 improved fuel burn 25 percent. The afterburner was throttleable so pilots could boost the nominal engine rating between 11,350 and 13,400 pounds of thrust to as high as 25,100 pounds on later models.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had pushed hard for the F-111 as an aircraft that could meet the needs of both the Air Force and the Navy. It was the centerpiece of his plan to reform Pentagon procurement. At the roll out he called the plane "a truly enormous advance in the art of military aircraft."
The Air Force, the Navy and the contractors were never comfortable with the "one size fits all" approach. The Navy was particularly concerned because the plane was based on Air Force specifications that were to be adapted to carrier operations. In the end the Navy dropped its version, the F-111B. Eventually the Navy developed the F-14 as a replacement.
Despite the controversy, at the time the F-111 went on to a distinguished career flying all kinds of missions: tactical strike and deep-penetration interdiction, strategic bombing, reconnaissance and electronic warfare. The U. S. Air Force retired its last F-111s in 1998. The Royal Australian Air Force, the only other operator, retired its last plane in 2010.