When pigs fly!

  • Published
  • By Gary Emery
  • Nellis Air Force Base Public Affairs
At Red Flag 09-03, if you can't soar with the Eagles, you might as well root around with the Pigs. 

Six Royal Australian Air Force F-111C multirole fighters - affectionately known down under as "Pigs" - and their aircrews are flying "Blue Force" missions at Red Flag, making use of the swing-wing F-111's exceptional range, endurance and versatility to support the three-week air campaign. But the F-111 was known as the "Aardvark" while in U.S. Air Force service because of its long snout, so why the porcine name change? 

According to the official RAAF Web site, the "Pig" moniker comes from the F-111's "ability to hunt at night with its nose in the weeds, thanks to its terrain-following radar." However, RAAF Wing Commander Micka Gray, the commander of No. 6 Squadron and the Red Flag detachment commander here, has the real story. "We call it the Pig, of course, because there's no such thing as an aardvark in Australia," he deadpanned. 

The name is a term of endearment and not meant to describe the airplane's capabilities, Wing Commander Gray hastened to add. "It's not because of its flying characteristics, it is a very good aircraft to fly," he said. 

Several of the Australian F-111s at Red Flag are veterans of the U.S. Air Force and were based at Nellis in the 1960s as part of the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing. One of the former Nellis F-111s here with the RAAF made history during the conflict in Southeast Asia when it flew the last official combat mission of that long war. Tail number 113 deployed from Nellis to Takhli Air Base, Thailand, in 1972. On Aug. 15, 1973, Col. Thomas Lacy and Maj. Bill Erickson flew the F-111 to hit a target in Cambodia only minutes before the official bombing halt ended combat operations in the theater. 

While the F-111s are old, they still command both respect and affection, said Wing Commander Gray, who has been flying the F-111 for more than 20 years. "The F-111 has an incredibly strong following among the Australian public," he said. "There's an emotional attachment to the aircraft, it's been one of our main deterrence assets." 

The RAAF will retire their F-111s in 2010, so this their last Red Flag, the wing commander said. 

Many here will mourn the passing of the Pig, including Fred Whitehead, a computer operator for a Red Flag contractor here. "I was an F-111 crew chief at Mountain Home (AFB, Idaho) from 1976 to 1994," Mr. Whitehead said. 

"I worked on two of the F-111s here for Red Flag, including (tail number) 113," he said. "I actually went on a (temporary duty assignment) with 113 in 1978 to MacDill (AFB, Fla.). I loved working on them. I thought they were great aircraft." 

Mr. Whitehead received a singular honor from the RAAF on Thursday, when he launched tail number 113 for its Red Flag mission as the aircraft's crew chief. "The experience was flat-out fantastic, awesome," Mr. Whitehead. "Words can't express what it felt like." 

The F-111, originally developed both to meet Air Force requirements for a tactical fighter-bomber and the Navy's need for an air superiority fighter, was delivered to the Air Force beginning in 1967. The Navy version was cancelled before production began. 

The F-111 was the first production aircraft with variable-sweep "swing wings," the first to have terrain-following radar that allowed the aircraft to penetrate enemy airspace at low levels and high speeds, and the first with a crew escape module rather than ejection seats. The F-111 was one of the few Air Force aircraft to have no official name during its service. 

Nicknamed the "Aardvark" by crews, that name was not made official by the Air Force until the F-111's retirement ceremony in 1996. The Royal Australian Air Force is the only other air force to operate the F-111.