(Image: David Skeggs. The stripped hulk of F-111B 152714 at Mojave Airport in 2008)
At first glance it looks like the bare, stripped-out hulk of a General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, the supersonic medium-range bomber that served the United States Air Force between 1967 and the late ’90s. And in many ways, it is; but this is an Aardvark with a difference, betrayed most noticeably by its shorter nose designed to allow it to fit on aircraft carrier deck lifts. The forlorn fuselage is actually the remains of an F-111B, the short-lived US Navy variant developed during the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) programme.
The General Dynamics/Grumman F-111B was developed in tandem with its Air Force counterpart, the F-111A, to create a common fighter aircraft. The Navy requirement that the platform be able to carry the large AWG-9 radar and AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, and outmanoeuvre an F-4 Phantom, necessitated a big, heavy airframe. (The USAF F-111A would later be adopted as a strike jet).
(Image: USN. F-111B prototype 151974 landing on the USS Coral Sea)
General Dynamics had little experience of developing naval aircraft, and teamed up with Grumman, which specialised in carrier-based fighters. But development of the F-111B was plagued by excessive weight and an engine that didn’t produce enough thrust. As such, the aircraft was under-powered. In May 1968, Congress voted not to fund production, and the big interceptor was cancelled two months later.
Realising the end was near, Grumman began studying alternatives. The company settled on its Model 303 design, which took the engines, swing-wing configuration, AWG-9 radar and Phoenix missiles from the F-111B. Grumman repackaged these into a smaller, lighter interceptor. Of course, everything is relative; the Model 303 would become the iconic F-14 Tomcat, the heaviest US fighter ever to operate from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Seven General Dynamics/Grumman F-111B airframes had been built and flown between 1965 and the 1969. The first five (numbered 151970 to 151974) were prototypes fitted with TF30-P-3 engines. No. 4 and No. 5 also had a lightened airframe in a bid to save weight. The last two (serial numbers 152714 (pictured top) and 152715) also had lightened structures and were powered by the improved TF30-P-12 engines. The first three prototypes were fitted with ejection seats, while the remainder sported crew escape capsules common to production F-111s.
(Image: Google Earth. F-111B 152715 stored at NAWS China Lake)
All five prototypes were either destroyed during testing or scrapped soon after. Only the pre-production airframes lingered on as the decades passed. F-111B 152714 remained in use for Hughes missile trials for a year after the programme ended. She last flew in 1969 and was stripped for parts in 1971. The empty hulk was spotted in a scrapyard near Mojave Airport, California, on October 8, 2008 (top). She may now have been scrapped.
That leaves only the final F-111B, 152715, which has long languished in storage in a small boneyard at NAWS China Lake (here). Though the B-model’s tenure was short-lived, the F-111A evolved into a formidable strike aircraft and remained in USAF service until 1998. The Aardvark was also operated by the Royal Australian Air Force. When the RAAF retired its F-111s in 2010, they chose to bury them in a landfill rather than scrapping them.