“I stood up and made a gesture of surrender, and they were all over me. Funny thing, the first thing to come off was my Seiko watch . . . then they got around to my gun and knife.”
When Bill Wilson was captured by the North Vietnamese, one of his captors pointed an accusing finger at him, exclaiming: “YOU! F-One Eleven!” and, with a sweeping palm down gesture, “WHOOOOSH!” It was a simple eloquence that described the fear and awe that the North Vietnamese felt for the swing-wing marauders that came in the night, unheralded, to sow their seeds of destruction with pin-point accuracy. When Wilson collected his “Golden BB”, he had been flying the F-111 for just over a year.
Originally known as the TFX (Tactical Fighter “X”), the F-111 was conceived to meet a U.S. Air Force requirement for a new tactical fighter-bomber. In 1960 the Department of Defense combined the USAF’s requirement with a Navy need for a new air superiority fighter. The USAF’s F-111A first flew in December 1964, and the first production models were delivered to the USAF in 1967. Meanwhile, the Navy’s F-111B program was canceled. In all, 566 F-111s of all series were built; 159 of them were F-111As. Although the F-111 was unofficially referred to as the Aardvark, it did not receive the name officially until it was retired in 1996.
An interesting feature of the aircraft was its variable-geometry wings. While in the air, the wings could be swept forward for takeoffs, landings or slow speed flight, and swept rearward for high-speed flight. The F-111 could also fly at very low level and hit targets in bad weather.
In the spring of 1968 the USAF operationally tested the F-111A in Southeast Asia with mixed success. In 1972, after correcting early problems, the USAF returned the F-111A to Southeast Asia for Operation Linebacker II as former F-111A weapon system officer (WSO) Bill Wilson remembers in Lou Drendel book F-111 In Action. “My last mission was by far the most memorable, though the memories are anything but happy. It was our second mission of Linebacker II. Our first mission was the strike against Hoa Lac Airfield on the night of December 18. Following that mission, we had a break of four days to allow the operations people to distribute the missions equally among all of the crews. During that break, I made the mistake of asking the Ops Officer for a mission to “downtown”. We had never been to any of the targets close in to Hanoi, and both Bob [Wilson’s pilot, Capt. Robert Sponeybarger] and I were curious about the area. We had confidence in the F-111 and our tactics, and I guess we were eager to prove that we could challenge the most formidable air defense system ever devised and survive. It was not the first dangerous mission I had volunteered for, but I later promised myself that it was the last.
“The target we were assigned was the river docks right in the center of Hanoi. Now, “downtown” was a euphemism used to describe the magic ten mile radius of the most intensive air defenses around Hanoi. I really hadn’t expected to be sent right to the center of it!
“We took off from Takhli about 2100, climbed to a medium altitude, and proceeded up through the Plain des Jars area of Laos into the Gorilla’s Head area of North Vietnam, where we began our let-down to penetration altitude.
“This was December 22, which was really the height of the battle. The enemy was not as exhausted as he would become a week later, and the air defense crews were at their sharpest. We had been striking all around the Hanoi area, and, in fact, the river docks had been hit previously. Most of the strikes had been coming in from the south-east, since this gave the crews a more direct route out of the area, and minimized their exposure to the defenses. We figured that they would be looking more closely at these southeast approaches, so we planned our run-in to the target from the north. After stabilizing in the TFR mode, we crossed into North Vietnam at 500 feet. The closer we got to Hanoi, the more we hugged the terrain. Our last leg before turning south was on the north side of Thud Ridge, which gave us complete masking from the air defense radars. When we came around the corner and turned south, we broke out of the weather. We were at three hundred feet, and there was a broken overcast above, with a full moon showing through the breaks in the clouds. Hardly the ideal F-111 weather. Visibility under the overcast was unlimited, and we could see the lights of Hanoi in the distance. We picked up our final run-in heading at Duc Noi, about 10 miles due north of the target. At this point we were doing about 480 knots, and my impressions of the world outside the airplane are fragmentary, limited as they had to be since I was spending the majority of my time on the radar. I remember that they never did turn the lights off. They were welding the superstructure of the Paul Doumer Bridge, which we used for our radar offset in the final attack phase. We started to pick up some AAA fire, mostly 37-57mm stuff, five miles before we got to the target. It was the typical stuff, coming up in clips of five, red and orange golf balls and, though there was a lot of it, it was all behind us since they didn’t have us on radar and it was all directed at our sound. At that time I remember feeling a little let-down. since I had expected much heavier resistance. We had seen bigger stuff . . . 85 and 100mm . . . on a previous mission to Thai Nguyen. We later learned that the enemy had stopped shooting the big guns at low-level high speed targets because the rapid rate of traverse required was throwing the gun crews off the gun mounts and injuring them, and they had no hope of hitting us anyway. [As Drendel explains, many of the civilian casualties claimed by North Vietnam to have been inflicted by U.S. bombers were actually self-inflicted by the large caliber shells detonating at low altitude and spewing shrapnel indiscriminately about the countryside.]
“But, though they weren’t coming close to us with their AAA, they were quite effectively tracing our path in the sky. They had developed the tactics of blasting away with small arms fire . . . straight up . . . along this path, in the hope of getting a lucky hit. Two nights previous to our mission, one of the airplanes had come back with a hit in the extreme rear of its tailpipe. The previous night an airplane had returned with a hit in the stabilator. It seemed that they were getting the hang of their new tactics. And if I had been superstitious at all, I probably wouldn’t have flown the mission at all. Every one of the previous F-111s lost had a call sign ending in 3, and they had all gone down on a Monday night. December 22 was a Monday, and our call sign was Jackal 33.
“Our weapons system pickled off the twelve 500 pound Snakeyes as we roared over the docks at better than 550 miles an hour. With the F-111’s sophisticated system, and the good radar offset we had gotten from the Doumer Bridge, there was never much doubt that we would hit the target, and we could see the docks exploding as we rolled off the target and headed for the turn point for our initial leg back to base. As soon as we looked back in the cockpit, we saw that we had a utility hydraulic failure light. We didn’t think much of it at the time . . . we hadn’t felt any hits on the airplane, and we had gotten one of these lights on a previous mission. It was more of a minor irritation than anything else. But less than a minute later, we got a right engine fire warning light. We went through the bold-face procedures, shutting the engine down. (Bold face refers to the instructions for emergency operations which appear in the flight manual.) I called Moonbeam, reporting that we were off the target and had lost an engine, and they acknowledged the call.
“We had just reached the first set of foothills and I had told Bob that we could start to climb, when I heard him say: “What the hell . . . !” I looked up from the radar to see him moving the control stick like he was operating a butter churn, and I saw that the entire warning-caution light panel was lit. There was no doubt about our next move, and with Bob’s command, “Eject! Eject!”, we fired the capsule rockets.