F-111B: This U.S Navy Epic Fail Paved the Way to the F-14 Tomcat

F-111B 9 photos
Photo: Wikimedia Commons ( Fair Use)
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In the world of Navy jet fighters, think of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat as built like a heavyweight boxer. A strong, flexible, and supremely powerful machine with deadly accurate weaponry.
By comparison, the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B that preceded the Tomcat was like that very same boxer after not putting on the gloves for a few years and dedicating that time to trying a pint of every single flavor of Häagen-Dazs. In short, the F-111B was kind of like an F-14 that'd refused the Jenny Craig diet.

As you may have guessed, the F111B project has its origins in the original operational General Dynamics F-111A variant of the same aircraft. Dubbed the "Aardvark" only after its retirement because the Air Force sort of just forgot, the F-111A was a sturdy workhorse for the Air Force.

It wasn't any good at dogfighting, granted, not even a little. But these were the days during the American war in Vietnam when the military foolishly believed the days of air to air combat were over. So, who cared? Or so was the conjecture of the time...

Don't get it twisted. The joint project between General Dynamics  and Grumman used a similar formula to succeed at what the F-14 eventually became iconic for. Just fatter, lazier, and more bloated than a Wall Street stockbroker after his third consecutive night of Wagyu steak for dinner.

F\-111 B
Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Fair Use)
This formula, was of course, for the Navy's top fleet defense fighter, bomber interceptor, and air-superiority platform. Like the Tomcat, the F-111B sports variable geometry swing wings that changed their angle forward at slower speeds and swept back during high transonic and supersonic flight.

The A and B variants of the F-11 share the same basic airframe with a few tell-tale distinctions between them. Firstly, and most obviously, you'd never see the A variant on the deck of an American carrier.

Furthermore, the B variant has a nose section 8.5 feet (2.59 m) shorter due to its having to squeeze itself into aircraft elevators designed for smaller aircraft. The 3.5 feet (1.07 m) longer wingspan was said to improve on-station endurance periods by at least a slim margin.

If it wasn't obvious just how huge and unwieldy the F-111B was, here are some figures that put it into perspective. With a length of 68 feet, 10 inches (20.98 m), and a height of 15 feet 9 inches (4.80 m), the F-111B nearly equaled the dimensions of a B-17 Flying Fortress strategic heavy bomber. But twin Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-3 turbofan engines ensured the lumbering swing-wing interceptor could crack 1.3 times the speed of sound with afterburners turned on.

F\-111 B
Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Fair Use)
Assuming future wars were as clear of enemy fighters as the Americans first thought, it looked like the F-111B was almost ready for prototype testing. General Dynamics contracted Grumman to help ensure the design was up to the rigors of carrier landings. But things were not as rosy as they seemed.

The prototype carrier interceptor was fast and likely capable of shooting down Soviet jet bombers from long range with radar-guided AIM 54 Phoenix missiles. But if enemy jet fighters did make an appearance, to the chagrin of Navy High Command who banked on them being a thing of the past, the F-111B was all but useless.

For one thing, the gargantuan 88,000-pound (39,900 kg) fully-loaded and armed airframe had a roll rate like a farm pig rolling around in semi-firm mud. Not a good attribute with a MiG-21 aiming their cannons right up the exhaust pipes.

But at least the swing-winged jet would be able to use raw speed to escape such a situation, right? Well, that's assuming the engines don't fail first, as they did on one flight in prototype number four. That incident resulted in the complete loss of their airframe. Problems mounted so quickly that only a single F111B saw carrier operations testing aboard the USS Coral Sea.

F\-111 B
Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Fair Use)
Soon after, the Navy decided to cancel the F-111B project before one of its gargantuan flaws got a Navy test pilot killed. When General Dynamic finally admitted they didn't have a bloody clue how to build a Navy fighter correctly, they promptly gave the keys to the project in the sole hands of Grumman. The  Long Island, New York-based design firm carried over the engines and a few other components from the F-111B into what would become the first Tomcat.

As we all know, the Tomcat is perhaps the most famous Naval fighter of all time, in any period. On the other hand, General Dynamics went on to design the successful F-16 Fighting Falcon program. Not a bad way to wipe your hands clean of this whole mess.

Today, only two F-111B airframes are known to survive. One in a boneyard in the Mojave Desert, and the other Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake, where it's awaiting a top to bottom restoration. Check back for more wacky airplane profiles and so much more right here on autoevolution.
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