The F-111 and Combat Lancer (Mar 1968)

The General Dynamics F-111 strike aircraft had first flown in December 1964 and had gathered an unfortunate reputation during its testing and evaluation programme. A complex design in terms of both aerodynamics and avionics, the swing-wing F-111 did have its share of problems but was ultimately to prove to be a superb aircraft for low-level strike, especially in weather conditions that precluded normal operations. The most advanced combat aircraft in the world at the time of its deployment, the F-111A’s performance was impressive. The aircraft had a top speed of 1,650 mph and a range of 1,500 miles with its maximum bomb load of up to 30,000lbs. Its advanced terrain-following and blind-bombing radars gave it a unique capability as a low-level, all-weather strike aircraft. The first production aircraft made its initial flight on 12 February 1967 and was delivered to Nellis AFB, Nevada in July of that year. In an attempt to answer some of the criticisms of the aircraft’s performance, it was decided to form a small detachment for an operational deployment to Southeast Asia. The 4480th TFW was formed at Nellis AFB on 15 July 1967 and Detachment 1 of the 4481st TFS was prepared for the deployment to Takhli under the command of Col Ivan Dethman. The unit of six F-111As was redesignated as Detachment 1 of the 428th TFS when the Wing was upgraded to the 474th TFW. Despite misgivings by the air and ground crews that the aircraft was not yet ready for combat, political pressure overcame military caution and the Detachment took off from Nellis on 15 March 1968 and deployed to Thailand under the code name Combat Lancer. Col Dethman and Capt Rick Matteis flew the first combat mission on 25 March, the first mission of a short and unhappy deployment.