Gareth Stringer's 2010 blogGAR Entries

JAN 11 2010
Tales from the Vark side

Well, we’re not even a fortnight in to the New Year and already the 2010 airshow season is beginning to capture the imagination of aviation enthusiasts. This is in no small part due to the announcement from Waddington International Airshow’s organisers that they are working hard to try and secure participation from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in the shape of the mighty General Dynamics F-111.

This would of course be a real coup with the jet due to retire in December of this year and it is some time since 'The Pig', as the Australian's call it, has been seen in the UK. As to whether it will happen, who knows, but let’s not underestimate the power of the Battle of Britain’s 70th anniversary and make sure you keep everything crossed! Believe it or not, this September also marks the 40th anniversary of the aircraft's arrival in the UK as Upper Heyford received its first jets in 1970, so an appearance this year would be doubly appropriate. The encouraging thing is that Waddington and a number of other shows are working together to secure participation and this can only be a positive move which could see some star performers visiting for a number of events this summer. Let’s hope so anyway.

For me, the F-111 will always be a bit special as I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with the 48 TFW at RAF Lakenheath when I was much younger, specifically the 494th TFS Panthers. I even did a week’s work experience at 'The Heath' while most of my school mates were in banks, building societies and architect's offices. This was organised with the blessing of the MOD and I stayed with a good friend and his family – Joe Sadler was a MSGT in the USAF, an F-111 maintainer and we had originally met at Mildenhall Air Fete after I responded to an advert he posted in one of the aviation magazines trading patches, stickers and prints.

Obviously I wasn’t going to be able to take the air with the 494th so on the first day Joe dropped me off with a rapid response maintenance unit who worked to fix jets that called in with a problem just prior to departure. Not much went wrong on day one so I spent most of it lying on the grass verge by the taxiway watching the Varks come and go. How I wish I’d had a digital camera then! A few of the days that followed were ruined by the weather so we spent plenty of time in the hangars and I loved every minute despite gaining little in the way of work experience! Things got even better when four Holloman AFB F-15s came in with four Shaw AFB F-16s on my last day, the Friday afternoon, and I was able to clamber all over them! Other than some great memories, the 494th presented me with an F-111 name badge as a parting gift to mark my week with the unit, a nice touch and I still treasure it to this day as you can see.

The week did leave a lasting impression though. The F-111 was (is) a monstrously capable aircraft, despite the desperately poor start it made to its service career in Vietnam. It’s certainly one of those platforms that improved immeasurably with age and the F-111Fs at Lakenheath impressed with their Pave Tack targeting pods and laser guided munitions, so ably demonstrated during the first Gulf War when the aircraft, statistically, was one of the most capable strike aircraft in theatre and the only one to utilise the 5000lb GU-28. The side by side seating encourages superb crew co-operation and the guys at Lakenheath were incredibly proud of the aircraft and their achievements in NATO exercises and in training against other air forces.

It’s been interesting this week as there are many younger aviation enthusiasts and photographers who have never actually seen an Aardvark in the flesh. In case they're not aware, I can tell them now that the F-111 is a large, noisy and extremely impressive aircraft, perfect for airshows in other words. The RAAF displays have of course become famous for their frequent use of the ‘dump and burn’ where fuel is vented from the rear of the aircraft and the afterburners lit on the Pratt and Whitney TF30 engines – resulting in an extraordinary sheet of flame behind the aircraft. I only saw this once in person, when the RAAF brought the aircraft to Boscombe Down for the Air Tournament International in 1990. I was so amazed that I only managed one picture and that was rubbish (nothing changes)! A bit of hunting round on You Tube will show you all you need to know about the dump and burn and more recent displays have included both topside burns and some off a missed approach, both of which are eye-opening to say the least.

I’m extremely grateful to have enjoyed so many good times with the F-111 when I was in my teens and I truly hope that some of those guys and girls who are the same age now get a chance to see her this year. They won’t get another opportunity and I can guarantee they’ll enjoy every minute. It's all too easy to take things for granted and we're all guilty of missing things only once they're gone. The Varks were a common sight when we had the F-111Fs at Lakenheath and the Es and EF-111As at Upper Heyford and I had to chuckle when GAR colleague Paul Dunn commented this morning that he'd like to go back and have a word with his teenage-self as he didn't bother to photograph them at some of the shows back then. It's something that no one will miss out on should we get the chance this year I'm sure! On that note I must thank my GAR colleagues Karl Drage and John Higgins for the images which grace this page. I have heaps of prints here but really must get a scanner which is good enough to do them justice. I will get that sorted and get some of my archive prints on display here at GAR.

In other news, while we didn’t go anywhere last week as the UK froze under copious quantities of snow and ice, we did have an extremely productive time. A couple of slightly vague plans for base visits look like they are coming to fruition and one or two have come about out of nowhere, which is always nice. The upshot is that we’ll be bringing you some great content over the next few months, hopefully with much of interest while you’re waiting for the airshow calendar to kick in. On which note, we will be bringing you plenty of information in the run-up to the display season with organiser and participant interviews already lined-up. More news to comeon those in due course.

GAR wants to interact with its readers so if you have a question for the author or a comment to make on this feature, please click on the button below. The best comments will appear right here on GAR.

Deprecated: mysql_connect(): The mysql extension is deprecated and will be removed in the future: use mysqli or PDO instead in /var/sites/g/globalaviationresource.com/public_html/comments/displaycomments.php on line 8

Global Aviation Resource's photographic and written work is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without express written permission.

If you would like to discuss using any of our imagery or feature content please contact us.