2010 Articles

DEC 07 2010
The F-111's Nellis Swansong - Red Flag 09-3

It's over. The mighty F-111 will no longer grace the skies with its imposing combination of power and elegance. After no less than 37 years service with the RAAF, and nearly 45 years since they were built, the world's last flying F-111s have now landed for the last time. Yet another aviation chapter is closed.

Red Flag 09-3 offered a final opportunity to catch the Pigs operating in the USA and was essentially an experiment with more aircraft participating than usual, and saw the tried and tested two week exercise period being extended to three weeks. The additional third week was designed to focus on close air support and combat search and rescue so, with this in mind, I decided to make two trips down to Nevada - one during the first week and back again for the final week.

To reach the area where the Red Flag jets transit low level into the ranges requires a two hour drive north along the spookily named Extraterrestrial Highway from Nellis AFB, where, at roughly the ten mile mark off the I-15, all mobile phone signals are lost for the day. It’s nothing if not remote!

Although I usually shoot at a spot called Coyote Summit I decided, as I had some time on my hands, that I would also try another location dubbed Telegraph Road which is at the end of a four mile 4x4 track that leads up to a small mountain peak.

Reaching the location was easy enough, a little wet in places as the snow had only just melted, but not enough to cause a problem and, at first glance, it seemed ok for photography, except that there was another peak spoiling my view. Hiking down and then up again was out of the question as it was very nearly a sheer drop but after a quick recce I found that there was a track right next to it.

Navigating along this new rougher and looser road I managed to get into a little trouble half-way down, so, having performed a million point turn I tried to go back where I'd come from, but it was quite simply too steep and too loose. It seemed that I had reached the point of no return and had no option but to continue descending!

I finally found myself at a suitable parking spot and after a steep 20 minute hike to the top of the peak was delighted to find confirmation this was indeed a much better location. Very much out of breath by this stage I decided to reward myself and took a ten minute break to recover.

What next? Time to to make sure the camera settings are good and guess what - it has no battery! So it was back down to the car to pick one up. Another 40 minutes and another recovery break later I was ready, only to find that when the aircraft finally arrived they flew nice and low but directly over the top of me!

At this stage I was left with only two options. Either back-tracking along the original path as it seemed to split into two, and the previously unseen location might have been a better bet, or continuing down as it looked like the track met up with a normal dirt road. Being unsure where this road might lead I decided to try the former.

On only my second step on the hike back down to the car I managed to roll my ankle, dropping my 500mm lens and camera while breaking my fall to avoid total disaster. A later detailed inspection would reveal only cosmetic damage and both still worked fine. Phew – nightmare averted!

Half way back to the split though, the path became seemingly impassable and it began to look like down would be my only way out. This new route was passable thankfully and of course it was downhill - much easier!

Part way down, I stopped to move a rock that threatened to damage the underside of the vehicle, and I decided to put my sensible hat on (for the first time that day) and hiked for about 20 minutes downhill, clearing rocks and assessing if I could make it all the way to the bottom. Guess what - the track ran out! It was lucky I did this really as it had become too steep and too loose to turn around and there would have been no chance of getting back up the whole way.

The only way out now was back the way I'd come and, at this point, it seemed prudent to start formulating a plan in case I couldn’t make it. At times like this you wish you’d paid more attention to those Bear Grylls TV programmes, rather than just squirming when he eats snakes and bugs!

It would clearly take a very long time to hike to the road and it would probably be dark by then. Fortunately I had water and a duvet in the SUV so my plan would be to sleep in there overnight and set off first thing in the morning. With no mobile signal for a hundred odd miles I'd have to hope someone would pick me up, despite being miles from civilisation.

So, onto my final attempt to get back and I had a little difficulty returning to my original parking spot but I ended up having to pretty much gun it to keep my momentum, going forwards and upwards with the SUV bouncing along as the tyres found larger rocks to grip on to. Maybe all was not lost – although I still had the final, seemingly impossible, climb to get out of there.

Again, I decided to floor it and simply disregard any knocks I picked up along the way. It was obviously the right decision as I suddenly found myself back on tarmac and the only significant battle damage was a ripped-off front licence plate and some dings on the camera and lens, but everything seemed to still work as advertised!

These are the lengths we sometimes push ourselves to in order to get ‘the shot’. In retrospect I should have stayed at my original spot which was easy to get out of, but I backed myself into a canyon and was lucky to escape. Lesson learned but this was an important moment in aviation history so what the hell!

A few days later, on my second attempt, I did get the shots from Coyote Summit, even though all the aircraft bar-one flew on the backlit side. It was interesting all the same to see the mighty F-111s flying with their Pave Tacks hanging down and listen in to their radio chatter.

A number of the Australian F-111s that deployed for Red Flag 09/3 used to be based at Nellis AFB back in the 1960s as USAF airframes, flying with the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing. One airframe in particular (A8-113 / ex-USAF 67-0113) made history as it flew the very last combat mission in the Vietnam War when it hit a target in Cambodia just minutes before the conflict officially ended. This flight took place on the 15th August 1973 with the aircraft operating from Takhli Air Base in Thailand, on deployment from its home in Nevada.

When the Australian Air Force discovered that Fred Whitehead, a Red Flag computer operator contractor with the 414th Combat Training Squadron, had actually worked on A8-113 as crew chief while on the USAF inventory, they invited him to launch this significant aircraft from the ramp on its Red Flag missions; a very nice historical touch.

Also of note in this sizeable exercise was a final appearance from the RAF’s Tornado F.3s and I was fortunate to catch them departing for home, fitted with very large external tanks, as they didn’t actually fly during the final week. A further landmark for this Red Flag saw the US Navy flying the old alongside the new, with the EA-6B Prowler sharing duties for the first time with the EA-18G Growler that will eventually replace it.

As the only foreign participation was from the UK and Australia the exercise was dubbed locally as ‘Colonial Flag’ while USAF F-16s from Spangdahlem AFB in Germany were also in attendance with their interesting pave-glass paint which certainly produces some very interesting effects at certain angles.

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