09 March 2010

Four years after its first flight the Republic F-105 Thunderchief in the form of the first production variant, the F-105B, finally reached operational status. Two years prior, though, planning had already begun for the definitive Thunderchief variant, the F-105D, and it was this variant that made up the bulk of the F-105's production run. The USAF's early plans were for 800 F-105s to equip 11 fighter wings of the Tactical Air Command. However, when the US Navy's new McDonnell F-4 Phantom II began smash existing records with its performance, Thunderchief production was abruptly curtailed in favor of the first USAF versions of the Phantom which offered a multirole versatility that the strike-optimized Thunderchief lacked.

Of the 833 Thunderchiefs built, 610 of them were F-105Ds and 143 were the two-seat F-105Fs that would later be converted into the F-105G Wild Weasel aircraft. All were built at Republic's Farmingdale, New York, facility on Long Island.

The Vietnam War, however, decimated the ranks of the F-105s. In the seven years that the F-105 flew combat missions in Vietnam from 1965 right into the 1972 Linebacker II attacks, of the 753 F-105D/F/G models that fought in the war, 395 of them were lost in the war- 296 of those losses were the single seat F-105Ds and the balance of that nearly 400 losses were the F-105F/G models. In addition to those staggering losses in the face of some of the most intense air defenses of the time, an additional 61 F-105s were lost in Southeast Asia from non-combat causes ranging from mechanical failures, engine problems, even mid-air collisions.

When the F-105Ds were withdrawn from combat in 1970, there were only enough Thunderchiefs for three USAF wings- the 347th TFW at Yokota AB in Japan, the 23rd TFW at McConnell AFB, and the 57th FWW at Nellis AFB. In less than two years, those F-105Ds were then passed on to Air National Guard squadrons (yes, squadrons- attrition left only enough Thunderchiefs at this point for single squadrons instead of entire wings) in New Jersey, Kansas, Virigina and the District of Columbia. Three USAF Reserve squadrons briefly operated the F-105D as well, but heavy combat use in Vietnam led to stress and fatigue in the Thunderchief's structure.

The Wild Weasel F-105Gs fared a bit better, having fought on to 1972 before US involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973. Enough of the G model Wild Weasels survived the war to equip three squadrons at George AFB in California where they served as trainers for crews destined for the more advanced McDonnell F-4G Phantom Wild Weasel. The survivors at George AFB ended up with the Georgia ANG.

With few Thunderchiefs left after Vietnam and many having used up their flight hours by the late 1970s, the F-105 had the dubious only of being the only US combat aircraft to be withdrawn from service solely on account of attrition rather than obsolescence.

Source: International Air Power Review, Volume 6, Autumn 2002. "Warplane Classic: The Republic F-105 Thunderchief" by Larry Davis, p120-155.

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