McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet — U.S. Navy’s Do-It-All Aircraft By:

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Most U.S. Air Force fighters look pretty elegant up close. The Wing Nuts are fairly compulsive about maintenance, and their aircraft always seem to operate out of the sort of spotless five-star facilities where one might otherwise perform brain surgery.

United States Marine Corps F18 Hornet fighter plane in flight
A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet approaches a U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender for refueling over the United Arab Emirates on February 11, 2022. Image: Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ruano/U.S. Air Force

The F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II are all sleek, sexy and beautiful. Oddly, that was not my impression the first time I got up close and personal with an F/A-18. The Hornet, at least the one I crawled all over, looked more like a souped-up farm truck.

United States Navy EA-18G Growler electronic warfare airplane
A U.S. Navy E/A-18G Growler, an electronic warfare aircraft, flies in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on September 25, 2020. Image: Staff Sgt. Justin Parsons/U.S. Air Force

Now, don’t get me wrong. It was an epically powerful truck, but it was still fairly utilitarian. This is obviously one profoundly rugged airplane. The landing gear look like you could drop the thing from the top of a tall building and have it come through unscathed. Additionally, there were exposed lifting hooks and such that seemed to spoil the plane’s naturally clean lines.

FA-18 Hornet fires air-to-air missile during Exercise Gallant Eagle 88
An F/A-18 Hornet fires an AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) during Exercise Gallant Eagle ’88. Image: PH1 Flynn/U.S. Navy

The Navy’s solution to these few eccentricities was the generous application of raw unfiltered power. In action, the Hornet is quite the manly machine.

FA-18 Hornet launches from USS Theodore Roosevelt
An F/A-18 Hornet prepares to launch from the the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). Theodore Roosevelt is underway preparing for future deployments. PH3 Alex Millar/U.S. Navy

The F/A-18 was actually indirectly born of the US Air Force Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program begun in earnest in the 1970’s. At around the same time, the Navy embarked upon their Naval Fighter-Attack, Experimental (VFAX) enterprise.

F/A-18 Hornet lands on USS Coral Sea in 1985
An F/A-18 Hornet aircraft approaches for a landing on the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (CV-43) on October 1, 1985. Image: PH1 Perry E. Thorsvik/U.S. Navy

The goal of VFAX was to procure a single relatively inexpensive tactical aircraft that would replace the A-7 Corsair II, the A-4 Skyhawk, and the F-4 Phantom II. The desired airplane was supposed to be a one-size-fits-all solution for missions ranging from ground attack up through fleet air superiority.

FA-18 Hornet cockpit nighttime
A nighttime view of the cockpit of an early production F/A-18 Hornet aircraft. This United States Navy plane is aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea. Image: PH1 Thorsvik/U.S. Navy

The overall intent was that the VFAX airplane would serve alongside the F-14 Tomcat, but would otherwise replace most everything else. That was indeed an honorable goal.

F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from USS John C Stennis F-14 Tomcat
A F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter launches off the deck of the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) aircraft carrier. An F-14 Tomcat fighter waits its turn in the foreground. Image: Senior Airman Joe Laws, U.S. Air Force

These sundry aviation programs are astronomically expensive. We Americans make the finest combat aircraft on the planet, but efficiency has never been our strong suit. In 1973, Congress told the Navy to find some ways to save money.

FA-18 Hornet lands on USS Harry S Truman aircraft carrier
An F/A-18 Hornet makes an arrested landing on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75). Image: PH1 Ryan O Connor/U.S. Navy

While a stripped-down F-14 and navalized version of the F-15 were briefly considered, they both still cost an absolute fortune. That’s when Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger noticed that the Air Force was busy doing something very similar right down the street. He directed the Navy to drop by and see if anything seemed interesting.

The Air Force LWF program had been distilled down to the single-engine General Dynamics YF-16 and the twin-engine Northrop YF-17. After an extensive flyoff, the Air Force was smitten with the F-16 and tried to interest the Navy in the nimble little plane. However, Naval aviators were none too keen on striking out over vast expanses of water looking for an aircraft carrier in a spindly little single-engine airplane with such narrow landing gear.

YF-16 and YF-17 in flight
An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft in flight. Both are armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Image: R.L. House/NARA

However, the loser YF-17 looked promising. The Navy asked Northrop to tweak the YF-17 to make it better suited for carrier operations. In 1977, the new plane was rechristened the F-18 Hornet. The Squids were thrilled with their sparkly new play toy.

US Navy EA-18 Growlers and USMC FA-18C Hornets
Two U.S. Navy E/A-18G Growlers and two Marine F/A-18C Hornets fly in formation during Operation Inherent Resolve during September 2020. Image: Staff Sgt. Justin Parsons/U.S. Air Force

The F-18 turned out to be an exceptionally versatile airplane. It had been drastically modified from the original YF-17 to make it tougher, more forgiving and more powerful.

bombs loaded on FA-18 Operation Desert Storm
Ordnancemen load a bomb on an F/A-18 Hornet aircraft during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Image: PH3 Terry Simmons/U.S. Navy

The original plan was to buy F-18 fighter versions along with dedicated A-18 attack planes. However, with a little judicious tweaking and the addition of advanced multifunction displays, state-of-the-art weapons and cutting-edge avionics, the result was the multirole F/A-18. The new Hornet represented the elusive effective tactical compromise.

FA-18 readied for flight aboard USS George Washington
An F/A 18 Hornet is directed to catapult 2 on the flight deck aboard the USS George Washington (CVN-73). The George Washington is enroute to relieve the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63). Image: U.S. Navy

Along the way, Northrop joined forces with McDonnell Douglas to leverage the latter company’s extensive experience building carrier aircraft. However, this relationship soured over potential export contracts. Lawyers got involved, and McDonnell Douglas ultimately paid Northrop $50 million for the rights to build the airplane. That turned out to be a pretty solid investment.

The F/A-18 Hornet was a great airplane loved and respected by both its pilots and ground crews. However, it had fairly short legs.

FA-18 Super Hornet launches from USS Ronald Reagan
An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). Image: PH2 Class Richard L.J. Gourley/U.S. Navy

In an effort at enhancing performance and extending range, in the mid-1990’s the Navy commissioned McDonnell Douglas to build a longer, heavier version of the basic F/A-18. The resulting F/A-18E/F Super Hornet was a much more capable machine. The Super Hornet ultimately replaced the F-14 Tomcat while serving operationally alongside the earlier Hornets.

FA-18 Super Hornet Italy
An F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares for a training mission at Aviano Air Base, Italy in 2022. Image: Senior Airman Noah Sudolcan/U.S. Air Force

The American Military Industrial Complex is a bucket of snakes. Eventually, McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing, and they sold Super Hornets to the U.S., Australia and Kuwait.

FA-18 launches from catapult of aircraft carrier
An F/A-18 Super Hornet assigned to the “Kestrels” of the Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 137 lands on the USS Ronald Reagan. Image: PH3 Charles D. Gaddis IV/U.S. Navy

The Super Hornet was an improvement on the original smaller version from its advanced AESA (Active Electronically-Scanned Array) radar in the nose all the way back to its larger, more powerful engines in the tail. The new airplane was 20% larger and up to 15,000 pounds heavier than its svelte forebear.

FA-18 Super Hornet during sunset on USS Nimitz
An F/A-18E Super Hornet from the “Kestrels” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 137 makes an arrested landing on the USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Image: PH2: Lorenzo Fekieta-Martinez/U.S. Navy

The Super Hornet really is a one-size-fits-all combat aircraft. It features some stealth characteristics to minimize its radar cross section and can serve in ground attack, air superiority, electronic warfare and aerial tanker roles.

FA-18 Super Hornet US Marine Corps
An F/A-18 Super Hornet assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 314 takes off from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Image: Cpl. Darien J. Bjorndal/U.S. Marine Corps

When equipped with the Aerial Refueling System (ARS), the Super Hornet tanker carries an external 330 U.S. gal tank with an associated hose reel on the centerline along with four external 480 U.S. gal tanks and its internal tanks.

Blue Angels FA-18 Super Hornet
A Blue Angels F/A-18 Super Hornet is parked on the apron at Naval Air Facility El Centro. Image: PH3 Drew Verbis/U.S. Navy

When operational, one-fifth of the air wing is typically dedicated to tanker duty. Thusly configured, these Super Hornets have a markedly shorter service life due to the extra weight and wear and tear stemming from packing all that go juice.

The F/A-18 in all its variants has spread high explosive freedom across every battlefield Uncle Sam has visited since Libya in 1986. Hornets and Super Hornets have flown combat missions against Iraqi insurgents, the Taliban, ISIS, the Houthis, and the sundry low-rent terrorists who call Somalia home.

FA-18 Hornet Breaklock maneuver 1999
An F/A-18 Hornet aircraft fires a flare as it performs a “Breaklock” maneuver during an Air Power demonstration in Exercise Tandem Thrust ’99. Image: PHAN Alex Witte, USN

Along the way, they have also brought down a pair of MiG-21’s as well as an Su-22 in aerial combat. 

aviation maintenance FA-18 USS Coral Sea
An aviation maintenance sailor services an F/A-18 Hornet aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in 1985. Image: PH1 Perry E. Thorsvik/U.S. Navy

In 2009, the Navy first deployed the EA-18G Growler carrier-based electronic warfare aircraft. The Growler enjoys 90% commonality with the standard Super Hornet airframe and can accompany Super Hornets through all phases of their combat operations.

Blue Angels flying F-18 fighters during training in 1987
Four F/A-18 Hornet aircraft of the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron fly during a training session in 1987. They would later transition to Super Hornets. Image: PH1 Chuck Mussi/U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight exhibition team has operated Super Hornets since 2021.

Blue Angels in diamond formation
The Blue Angels are officially named the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. It is one of the world’s premier flight demonstration squadrons. Image: PH2 Rodriquez/U.S. Navy

In 2022, Tom Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski launched Top Gun: Maverick. Most everybody on the planet saw that movie. Maverick and his elite flight crews flew one- and two-seat F/A-18 Super Hornets on a fairly contrived mission against a nameless threat country that was quite obviously Iran.

sailors stand by to launch FA-18 Enduring Freedom
Sailors stand by while an F/A-18 Hornet launches from the flight deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) during Operation Enduring Freedom. Image: PH1 Sabrina Fine/U.S. Navy

All of the pilot scenes in the film were actually shot with the actors riding in the rear seats of two-seat Super Hornets flown by Navy pilots. 

F-14 and F-18 prepare to launch from USS Enterprise 1985
An F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft (left) and an F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft are readied for catapult launch from the nucelar-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 1985. Image: NARA

F/A-35 Lightnings would have been a more realistic choice. However, the movie makers insisted on shooting the aerial sequences in real aircraft, and there are no two-seat versions of the F/A-35. The spectacular end result brought in a whopping $1.496 billion dollars.

final flight of F-18 Hornets
F/A-18 Hornets with Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA(AW)) 533 during the squadron’s final flight prior to transition to the F-35B Lighting II. Image: Sgt. Cheyeanne Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps

The F/A-18 in all its many variants is one of the post-Cold War military’s greatest success stories. Despite a sticker price of $55.7 million per airframe, the Super Hornet is, amazingly enough, still a relative bargain for its genre.

FA-18 on flight deck of USS Saratoga Operation Desert Storm
An F/A-18 Hornet aircraft stands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-60) during Operation Desert Storm. Image: PH2 Bruce Davis/U.S. Navy

Fast, powerful, rugged and versatile, the Hornet and its variants will continue to soldier on in U.S. service well into the 2030’s.

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