By Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz, 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs / Published May 19, 2014
Capt. Christopher Smoak and his father, Cameron Smoak, stand next to an F-111A Aardvark display May 9, 2014, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Cameron crewed the airframe during the 1970s. The father and son searched for the tail numbers Cameron was responsible for many years before discovering 66-016 on display at Cannon AFB. Christopher is a pilot with the 318th Special Operations Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFNS) --
Developed in the 1960s, the F-111A Aardvark began its tenure of service with the Air Force in 1967. In its 31 operational years, the F-111 performed bombing missions in Cambodia and Libya, participated in operations Linebacker and Linebacker II, and was credited with flying the longest combat mission in history.
In the three decades before the F-111A was officially retired however, the aircraft saw more than just combat. Each aircraft in the Aardvark fleet was a constant presence in the lives of the Airmen who flew and turned wrenches on it, and like a cherished photograph, the F-111A remains a tangible representation of the past for the service members who lived their lives alongside the celebrated aircraft.
Cameron Smoak happens to be one of those Airmen.
Cameron, who enlisted of his own accord during the Vietnam Conflict, was a member of the 474th Organized Maintenance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, one of the first installations to play host to the newly-minted F-111A.
As a crew chief, Cameron was directly responsible for two tail numbers of the '66 series, the first-ever production model of the F-111A: tail 66-013 and tail 66-016.
"I was stationed at Nellis (AFB) from 1973 to 1976," Mr. Smoak said. "During that time, our jets were rotating between home station and Takhli Air Base, Thailand, regularly. Though I never went to Thailand myself, I spent a lot of time ensuring those aircraft were operational. They had tremendous capabilities, but they required a lot of TLC."
Cameron separated from the Air Force after 3.5 years, leaving behind 66-013 and 66-016. Little did he know, it would take four decades and another generation of Smoak servicemen before the crew chief would lay eyes on his aircraft again.
"As I became interested in the Air Force and subsequently became an officer and pilot, my father began to reflect on his time in service," said Capt. Christopher Smoak, a 318th Special Operations Squadron pilot. "We both conducted an extensive search to find out what had become of the two tails my father had crewed, but all we discovered was that a portion of the F-111A fleet had been sent to the boneyard while others were sold to the Royal Australian air force. It was unclear what exactly had become of 66-013 and 66-016."
For years, the efforts of Christopher and his father yielded no results and the F-111A trail went cold. It wasn't until Christopher concluded a 5-year tour at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and received orders to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, that fate dealt the father and son a lucky hand.
"I found three F-111s in Clovis, New Mexico," Christopher said. "After curiously passing by one of the tails, I noticed it happened to be a '66 series. Upon closer inspection I discovered that it was in fact 66-016, my dad's tail. It was at Cannon of all places; just where I happened to be stationed."
On a windy day in May, Cameron approached the aircraft he'd poured his blood, sweat and tears into for the first time in more than 40 years. His son was not far behind.
"I have such fond memories of this plane," Mr. Smoak said, the emotion evident in his voice. "I made amazing friends and my wife gave birth to our eldest son during the time I worked on 66-016; it was such a big part of our lives together, though I don't think I really understood that at the time."
Although minor modifications have been made to his much-loved F-111A, Cameron said he would know it anywhere.
"I recognize it alright," he said. "I crawled all over that bad boy. To have spent so many years searching for it and to find it here, permanently enshrined in a place of honor; it deserves nothing less."