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Flying the Aardvark

By Col. Stan Gudmundson

Fri, Dec 7th, 2012
Posted in All Commentary

By John S. Plantikow (Pilot) and Stanley J. Gudmundson (RN)

I spent seven years flying in the right seat of an FB-111A. If there were anything I would do the rest of my life it would be to fly the 111 for two or three hours every day. What a great airplane.

The aircraft itself however, was considered to be very controversial as a result, among other things, of SecDef McNamara’s decision to field it for both the Air Force and Navy. Consequently it was never given an official name as other USAF airplanes are.

Those of in the crew force had our own name for it. Because of its long nose we called it the aardvark, which is Dutch for earth pig. Actually that was appropriate since our mission and the airplane were dedicated to low-level nape of the earth flying. Or put another way, we and it liked being down in the weeds. Down in the weeds being defined by the aircraft’s terrain following radar system that would have us flying at 1,000 feet above the ground at the highest clearance plane setting and 200 feet at its lowest.

We generally didn’t fly supersonic unless we were training at Red Flag in Nevada or conducting a simulated attack on a Navy carrier battle group off the east coast. Code named Seabat these latter exercises occurred a couple of times a year. Essentially, we “launched the fleet” against the Navy using every flyable aircraft from either Plattsurgh AFB, NY or Pease AFB, NH. FB-111s made multiple attacks from all sorts of directions on the battle group.

Four of the sorties were flown at supersonic speeds to simulate cruise missile attacks. Two aircraft flew two each and I was fortunate to fly two of them. After departing Plattsburgh, we refueled with KC-135s and then began our supersonic runs. We swept the wings back to 72 degrees, acclerated, then climbed to 40,000 feet to Mach 2.2.

At 150 to 200 miles from the battle group we engaged the terrain following radar system to the flight control system for an automatic descent to low altitude. That provided a ten degree pitch down and an inspiring descent rate of more than 24,000 feet a minute. As we descended we remained in minimum afterburner. As we reached thicker air, the aircraft slowed from Mach 2.2 to around Mach 1.2 or 1.3.

The supersonic runs my pilot and I flew didn’t start out just exactly right however. Johnno selected afterburner on both engines but one afterburner (A/B) wouldn’t light. After trying to light it a few times I suggested to John that we put the aircraft into a descent to help us get through Mach 1 to see if the A/B would work at supersonic.

He looked at me as if I was nuts but decided to try it anyway. It worked and we were off to the races. Air acts goofy near and above the speed of sound and requires some fancy engine inlet designs to make an aircraft fly supersonic. So why did this work for us? Haven’t a clue.

What was the sensation flying a mission like that? Initially it was pretty hard to have much of a sensation at all given that we were in heavy weather for both runs. Until we broke out VFR it was much like being in the simulator.

Afterburner operation in most airplanes is really just dumping raw fuel in back of the engine and igniting it for increased thrust. That means that most of the aircraft with afterburners like the 111 are enormously inefficient in A/B. The 111’s empty weight was about 50,000 pounds, carried 32,500 pounds internally, and in stage 5, burned over 100,000 pounds of fuel an hour. Moreover, there was a five-minute time limit we could not exceed when the aircraft reached a certain temperature because of heat buildup on the airframe.

The FB-111 was designated as a Mach 2.2 aircraft. We discovered though that the engines could push us an awful faster than that. The SR-71, in contrast, weighed about 60,000 pounds and carried a little over 80,000 pounds of fuel. Even with its much more powerful engines it would burn around 30,000 pounds of fuel an hour, at Mach 3+ at and over 70,000 feet. Such was the effect of an engine and inlet design that provided for more efficient ram jet operation.

After accelerating, cruising for a time at Mach 2.2, and engaging the automatic TFR system to the autopilot, we were next anticipating reaching 5,000 feet above the water. The radar altimeter rang in and the aircraft pitched down another 2 degrees to 12 degrees at that altitude. That may not seem like much, but believe me it is normally a windscreen full of dirt. That pitchover told us that the system was operating properly. Especially important for us because we couldn’t yet see the water. As we got closer to our 1,000 foot clearance plane setting, the aircraft began to level off. Since we knew the TFR was working just fine, we selected the 200 feet setting. We broke out at about 1,500 feet above the ocean to see the Navy fleet in front of us.

Since I first enlisted in the Navy to start my military career and after having spent a year on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, this was a real treat for me. The rate of closure to the fleet was just indescribable. You can’t buy an experience like this. Perhaps this is why video games bore me. We passed over the battle group at a little over 900 knots. That’s 1,035 miles per hour.

We did that twice. We had to go back to the tanker of course after the first pass for more fuel. And on the last pass we made our exit from the area by flying around a huge opaque white waterspout that extended from a heavy cloud to the water’s surface.

And what did we all learn from this? You will have to ask the Navy.

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