The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum is proud to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the F/A-18 Hornet. Below is a snapshot of the aircraft and its significance throughout history:
The McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet is a twin-engine supersonic, all-weather carrier-capable multi-role combat jet, designed to dogfight and attack ground targets (F/A designation for Fighter/Attack). Designed by McDonnell Douglas and Northrop, the F/A-18 was derived from the latter’s YF-17 in the 1970s for use by the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The Hornet is also used by the air forces of several other nations. The U.S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels has used the Hornet since 1986.
The F/A-18 has a top speed of Mach 1.8. It can carry a wide variety of bombs and missiles, including air-to-air and air-to-ground, supplemented by the 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon. It is powered by two General Electric F404 turbofan engines, which give the aircraft a high thrust-to-weight ratio. The F/A-18 has excellent aerodynamic characteristics, primarily attributed to its leading edge extensions (LEX). The fighter’s primary missions are fighter escort, fleet air defense, Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), air interdiction, close air support and aerial reconnaissance. Its versatility and reliability have proven it to be a valuable carrier asset, though it has been criticized for its lack of range and payload compared to its earlier contemporaries, such as the Grumman F-14 Tomcat in the fighter and strike fighter role, and the Grumman A-6 Intruder and LTV A-7 Corsair II in the attack role.
The F/A-18 Hornet provided the baseline design for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a larger, evolutionary redesign of the F/A-18. Compared to the Hornet, the Super Hornet is larger, is heavier, and has improved range and payload. The F/A-18E/F was originally proposed as an alternative to an all-new aircraft to replace existing dedicated attack aircraft such as the A-6. The larger variant was also directed to replace the aging F-14 Tomcat, thus serving a complementary role with Hornets in the U.S. Navy, and serving a wider range of roles including refueling tanker. The Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic jamming platform was also developed from the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
Entry into service
F/A 18 Hornets on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75)
McDonnell Douglas rolled out the first F/A-18A on 13 September 1978, in blue-on-white colors marked with “Navy” on the left and “Marines” on the right. Its first flight was on 18 November. In a break with tradition, the Navy pioneered the “principal site concept” with the F/A-18, where almost all testing was done at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, instead of near the site of manufacture, and using Navy and Marine Corps test pilots instead of civilians early in development. In March 1979, Lt. Cdr. John Padgett became the first Navy pilot to fly the F/A-18.
Following trials and operational testing by VX-4 and VX-5, Hornets began to fill the Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS) VFA-125, VFA-106, and VMFAT-101, where pilots are introduced to the F/A-18. The Hornet entered operational service with Marine Corps squadron VMFA-314 at MCAS El Toro on 7 January 1983,and with Navy squadron VFA-25 in March 1983, replacing F-4s and A-7Es, respectively.
The initial fleet reports were complimentary, indicating that the Hornet was extraordinarily reliable, a major change from its predecessor, the F-4J. Other squadrons that switched to F/A-18 are VFA-146 “Blue diamonds”, and VFA-147 “Argonauts”. In January 1985, the VFA-131 “Wildcats” and the VFA-132 “Privateers” moved from Naval Air Station Lemoore, California to Naval Air Station Cecil Field, Florida, and became the Atlantic Fleet’s first F/A-18 squadrons.
The Blue Angels’ No. 6 F/A-18A
The US Navy’s Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron switched to the F/A-18 Hornet in 1986, when it replaced the A-4 Skyhawk. The Blue Angels perform in F/A-18A and B models at air shows and other special events across the US and worldwide. Blue Angels pilots must have 1,350 hours and an aircraft carrier certification. The two-seat B model is typically used to give rides to VIPs, but can also fill in for other aircraft in the squadron in a normal show, if the need arises.
The F/A-18 first saw combat action in April 1986, when VFA-131, VFA-132, VMFA-314, and VMFA-323 Hornets from USS Coral Sea flew SEAD missions against Libyan air defenses during Operation Prairie Fire and an attack on Benghazi as part of Operation El Dorado Canyon.
During the Gulf War of 1991, the Navy deployed 106 F/A-18A/C Hornets and Marine Corps deployed 84 F/A-18A/C/D Hornets. F/A-18 pilots were credited with two kills during the Gulf War, both MiG-21s. On 17 January, the first day of the war, U.S. Navy pilots Lieutenant Commander Mark I. Fox and his wingman, Lieutenant Nick Mongilio were sent from the USS Saratoga in the Red Sea to bomb an airfield in southwestern Iraq. While en route, they were warned by an E-2C of approaching MiG-21 aircraft. The Hornets shot down the two MiGs with AIM-7 and AIM-9 missiles in a brief dogfight. The F/A-18s, each carrying four 2,000 lb (910 kg) bombs, then resumed their bombing run before returning to Saratoga.
The Hornet’s survivability was demonstrated when a Hornet took hits in both engines and flew 125 mi (201 km) back to base. It was repaired and flying within a few days. F/A-18s flew 4,551 sorties with 10 Hornets damaged including two losses. The two losses were U.S. Navy F/A-18s and their pilots were lost. On 17 January 1991, Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher of VFA-81 was shot down and killed in the crash of his aircraft. The other F/A-18, piloted by Lieutenant Robert Dwyer was lost over the North Persian Gulf after a successful mission to Iraq; he was officially listed as killed in action, body not recovered.
As the A-6 Intruder was retired in the 1990s, its role was filled by the F/A-18. The F/A-18 demonstrated its versatility and reliability during Operation Desert Storm, shooting down enemy fighters and subsequently bombing enemy targets with the same aircraft on the same mission. It broke records for tactical aircraft in availability, reliability, and maintainability.
Both U.S. Navy F/A-18A/C models and Marine F/A-18A/C/D models were used continuously in Operation Southern Watch and over Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. U.S. Navy Hornets flew during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 from carriers operating in the North Arabian Sea. Both the F/A-18A/C and newer F/A-18E/F variants were used during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, operating from aircraft carriers as well from an air base in Kuwait. Later in the conflict USMC A+, C, and primarily D models operated from bases within Iraq.
An F/A-18C was accidentally downed in a friendly fire incident by a Patriot missile when a pilot tried to evade two missiles fired at him and crashed. Two others collided over Iraq in May 2005. In January 2007, two Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets collided in midair and crashed in the Persian Gulf.
Though U.S. Navy aircraft have generally not sold well on the export market, the F/A-18 has been purchased and is in operation with several foreign air services. Export Hornets are typically similar to U.S. models of a similar manufacture date. Since none of the customers operate aircraft carriers, all export models have been sold without the automatic carrier landing system, and Royal Australian Air Force further removed the catapult attachment on the nose gear. Except for Canada, all export customers purchased their Hornets through the U.S. Navy, via the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Program, where the Navy acts as the purchasing manager but incurs no financial gain or loss. Canada, the largest Hornet operator outside of the U.S., ordered its aircraft directly from the manufacturer.
Three RAAF F/A-18As in 2013
The Royal Australian Air Force purchased 57 F/A-18A fighters and 18 F/A-18B two-seat trainers to replace its Dassault Mirage IIIOs. Numerous options were considered for the replacement, notably the F-15A Eagle, the F-16 Falcon, and the then new F/A-18 Hornet. The F-15 was discounted because the version offered had no ground-attack capability. The F-16 was considered unsuitable largely due to having only one engine. Australia selected the F/A-18 in October 1981. Original differences between the Australian and US Navy’s standard F/A-18 were the removed nose wheel tie bar for catapult launch (later re-fitted with a dummy version to remove nose wheel shimmy), addition of a high frequency radio, an Australian fatigue data analysis system, an improved video and voice recorder, and the use of ILS/VOR (Instrument Landing System/Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range) instead of the carrier landing system.
The first two aircraft were produced in the US, with the remainder assembled in Australia at Government Aircraft Factories. F/A-18 deliveries to the RAAF began on 29 October 1984, and continued until May 1990. In 2001, Australia deployed four aircraft to Diego Garcia, in an air defense role, during coalition operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2003, 75 Squadron deployed 14 F/A-18s to Qatar as part of Operation Falconer and these aircraft saw action during the invasion of Iraq. Australia had 71 Hornets in service in 2006, after four were lost to crashes.
The fleet was upgraded beginning in the late 1990s to extend their service lives to 2015. They were expected to be retired then and replaced by the F-35 Lightning II. Several of the Australian Hornets have had refits applied to extend their service lives until the planned retirement date of 2020. In addition to the F/A-18A and F/A-18B Hornets, Australia has purchased 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets, with deliveries beginning in 2009.
Canadian CF-188A Hornet off the coast of Hawaii. Note the “false cockpit” painted on the underside of the aircraft, intended to confuse enemy pilots during dogfights.
Canada was the first export customer for the Hornet, replacing the CF-104 Starfighter (air reconnaissance & strike), the McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo (air interception) and the CF-116 Freedom Fighter (ground attack). The Canadian Forces Air Command ordered 98 A models (Canadian designation CF-188A/CF-18A) and 40 B models (designation CF-188B/CF-18B).
In 1991, Canada committed 26 CF-18s to the Gulf War, based in Qatar. These aircraft primarily provided Combat Air Patrol duties, although late in the air war began to perform air strikes on Iraqi ground targets. On January 30, 1991, two CF-18s on CAP detected and attacked an Iraqi TNC-45 patrol boat. The vessel was repeatedly strafed and damaged by 20mm cannon fire, but an attempt to sink the ship with air to air missiles failed. The ship was subsequently sunk by American aircraft, but the Canadian CF-18s received partial credit for its destruction. In June 1999, 18 CF-18s were deployed to Aviano AB, Italy, where they participated in both the air-to-ground and air-to-air roles in the former Yugoslavia.
Sixty two CF-18A and 18 CF-18B aircraft took part in the Incremental Modernization Project which was completed in two phases. The program was launched in 2001 and the last updated aircraft was delivered in March 2010. The aims were to improve air-to-air and air-to-ground combat abilities, upgrade sensors and the defensive suite, and replace the datalinks and communications systems on board the CF-18 from the F/A-18A and F/A-18B standard to the current F/A-18C and D standard.
In July 2010 the Canadian government announced plans to replace the remaining CF-18 fleet with 65 F-35 Lightning IIs, with deliveries scheduled to start in 2016.
The Finnish Air Force (Suomen Ilmavoimat) ordered 64 F-18C/Ds (57 C models, seven D models) with delivery started on 7 June 1995. The Hornet replaced the MiG-21bis and Saab 35 Draken in Finnish service. The Finnish Hornets were initially to be used only for air defense, hence the F-18 designation. The F-18C includes the ASPJ (Airborne-Self-Protection-Jammer) jamming pod ALQ-165. The US Navy later included the ALQ-165 on their F/A-18E/F Super Hornet procurement.
One fighter was destroyed in a mid-air collision in 2001. A damaged F-18C was rebuilt into a F-18D. To do so, a forward section of a Canadian CF-18B was purchased and incorporated. The modified fighter crashed during a test flight in January 2010. The cause of the crash was determined to be due to a faulty tailplane servo cylinder.
Finland is upgrading its fleet of F-18s with new avionics, including helmet mounted sights (HMS), new cockpit displays, sensors and standard NATO data link. Several of the 63 Hornets remaining are going to be fitted to carry air-to-ground ordnance such as the AGM-158 JASSM, in effect returning to the original F/A-18 multi-role configuration. The upgrade includes also the procurement and integration of new AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. This Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) is estimated to cost between €1–1.6 billion and work is scheduled to be finished by 2016. After the upgrades the aircraft are to remain in active service until 2020–2025.
The Kuwait Air Force (Al Quwwat Aj Jawwaiya Al Kuwaitiya) ordered 32 F/A-18C and eight F/A-18D Hornets in 1988 and delivery started in October 1991.The F/A-18C/Ds replaced A-4KU Skyhawk. Kuwait Air Force Hornets have flown missions over Iraq during Operation Southern Watch in the 1990s. They have also participated in military exercises with the air forces of other Gulf nations. Kuwait had 39 F/A-18C/D Hornets in service in 2008.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force (Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia) has eight F/A-18Ds. The air force split their order between the F/A-18 and the Mikoyan MiG-29. Three Hornets were employed together with five UK-made BAE Hawk 208 in an airstrike on the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo terrorist hideout on March 5, 2013, occupying part of Borneo, just before the joint forces of Malaysian Army and Royal Malaysia Police operatives launched an assault in the 2013 Lahad Datu standoff.
The Spanish Air Force (Ejército del Aire) ordered 60 EF-18A model and 12 EF-18B model Hornets (the “E” standing for “España”, Spain), named respectively as C.15 and CE.15 by Spanish AF. Delivery of the Spanish version started on 22 November 1985. These fighters were upgraded to F-18A+/B+ standard, close to F/A-18C/D (plus version includes later mission and armament computers, databuses, data-storage set, new wiring, pylon modifications and software, new abilities as AN/AAS-38B NITE Hawk targeting FLIR pods).
In 1995 Spain obtained 24 ex-USN F/A-18A Hornets, with six more on option. These were delivered from December 1995 until December 1999. Before delivery, they were modified to EF-18A+ standard. This was the first sale of USN surplus Hornets.
Spanish Hornets operate as an all-weather interceptor 60% of the time and as an all-weather day/night attack aircraft for the remainder. In case of war, each of the front-line squadrons would take a primary role: 121 is tasked with tactical air support and maritime operations; 151 and 122 are assigned to all-weather interception and air combat roles; and 152 is assigned the SEAD mission. Air refueling is provided by KC-130Hs and Boeing 707TTs. Pilot conversion to EF-18 is centralized in 153 Squadron (Ala 15). Squadron 462’s role is air defense of the Canary Islands, being responsible for fighter and attack missions from Gando AB.
Spanish Air Force EF-18 Hornets have flown Ground Attack, SEAD, combat air patrol (CAP) combat missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, under NATO command, in Aviano detachment (Italy). They shared the base with Canadian and USMC F/A-18s. Six Spanish Hornets had been lost in accidents by 2003.
Over Yugoslavia, eight EF-18s, based at Aviano AB, participated in bombing raids in Operation Allied Force in 1999. Over Bosnia, they also performed missions for air-to-air combat air patrol, close air support air-to-ground, photo reconnaissance, forward air controller-airborne, and tactical air controller-airborne. Over Libya, four Spanish Hornets participated in enforcing a no-fly zone.
The Swiss Air Force purchased 26 C models and eight D models. One D model was lost in a crash. Delivery of the aircraft started on 25 January 1996.
In late 2007 Switzerland requested to be included in F/A-18C/D Upgrade 25 Program, to extend the useful life of its F/A-18C/Ds. The program includes significant upgrades to the avionics and mission computer, 20 ATFLIR surveillance and targeting pods, and 44 sets of AN/ALR-67v3 ECM equipment. In October 2008 the Swiss Hornet fleet reached the 50,000 flight hour milestone.
The F/A-18C and F/A-18D were considered by the French Navy (Marine Nationale) during the 1980s for deployment on their aircraft carriers Clemenceau and Foch and again in the 1990s for the later nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, in the event that the Dassault Rafale M was not brought into service when originally planned.
Austria, Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Philippines, Poland, and Singapore evaluated the Hornet but did not purchase it. Thailand ordered four C and four D model Hornets but the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s resulted in the order being canceled. The U.S. DoD then purchased the Hornets in production for the Marine Corps.
The F/A-18A and F-18L land-based version competed for a fighter contract from Greece in the 1980s. The Greek government chose F-16 and Mirage 2000 instead.
The F/A-18A is the single-seat variant and the F/A-18B is the two-seat variant. The space for the two-seat cockpit is provided by a relocation of avionic equipment and a 6% reduction in internal fuel; two-seat Hornets are otherwise fully combat-capable. The B model is used primarily for training.
In 1992, the original Hughes AN/APG-65 radar was replaced with the Hughes (now Raytheon) AN/APG-73, a faster and more capable radar. A model Hornets that have been upgraded to the AN/APG-73 are designated F/A-18A+.
The F/A-18C is the single-seat variant and the F/A-18D is the two-seat variant. The D-model can be configured for training or as an all-weather strike craft. The “missionized” D model’s rear seat is configured for a Marine Corps Naval Flight Officer who functions as a Weapons and Sensors Officer to assist in operating the weapons systems. The F/A-18D is primarily operated by the U.S. Marine Corps in the night attack and Forward Air Controller (Airborne) (FAC(A)) roles.
The F/A-18C and D models are the result of a block upgrade in 1987 incorporating upgraded radar, avionics, and the capacity to carry new missiles such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile and AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-84 Harpoon air-to-surface missiles. Other upgrades include the Martin-Baker NACES (Navy Aircrew Common Ejection Seat), and a self-protection jammer. A synthetic aperture ground mapping radar enables the pilot to locate targets in poor visibility conditions. C and D models delivered since 1989 also have improved night attack abilities, consisting of the Hughes AN/AAR-50 thermal navigation pod, the Loral AN/AAS-38 NITE Hawk FLIR (forward looking infrared array) targeting pod, night vision goggles, and two full-color (formerly monochrome) multi-function display (MFDs) and a color moving map.
In addition, 60 D-model Hornets are configured as the night attack F/A-18D (RC) with ability for reconnaissance. These could be outfitted with the ATARS electro-optical sensor package that includes a sensor pod and equipment mounted in the place of the M61 cannon.
Beginning in 1992, the F404-GE-402 enhanced performance engine, providing approximately 10% more maximum static thrust became the standard Hornet engine. Since 1993, the AAS-38A NITE Hawk added a designator/ranger laser, allowing it to self-mark targets. The later AAS-38B added the ability to strike targets designated by lasers from other aircraft.
Production of the F/A-18C ended in 1999. In 2000, the last F/A-18D was delivered to the U.S. Marine Corps.
E/F Super Hornet
The single-seat F/A-18E and two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornets carry over the name and design concept of the original F/A-18, but have been extensively redesigned. The Super Hornet has a new, 25% larger airframe, larger rectangular air intakes, more powerful GE F414 engines based on F/A-18’s F404, and upgraded avionics suite. Like the Marine Corps’ F/A-18D, the Navy’s F/A-18F carries a Naval Flight Officer as a second crewman in a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) role. The Super Hornet aircraft is in production and has equipped 22 squadrons.
The EA-18G Growler is an electronic warfare version of the two-seat F/A-18F, which entered production in 2007. The Growler will replace the Navy’s EA-6B Prowler and carries a Naval Flight Officer as a second crewman in an Electronic Countermeasures Officer (ECMO) role.
Australia is the only nation other than the United States to operate the Super Hornet.
Other US variants
- This was a proposed reconnaissance version of the F/A-18A. It included a sensor package that replaced the 20 mm cannon. The first of two prototypes flew in August 1984. Small numbers were produced.
- Proposed two-seat reconnaissance version for the US Marine Corps in the mid-1980s. It was to carry a radar reconnaissance pod. The system was canceled after it was unfunded in 1988. This ability was later realized on the F/A-18D(RC).
- Two-seat training version of the F/A-18A fighter, later redesignated F/A-18B.
- F-18 HARV
- Single-seat High Alpha Research Vehicle for NASA. High angles of attack using thrust vectoring, modifications to the flight controls, and forebody strakes
- X-53 Active Aeroelastic Wing
- A NASA F/A-18 has been modified to demonstrate the Active Aeroelastic Wing technology, and was designated X-53 in December 2006.
These designations are not part of 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.
- This was a lighter land-based version of the F/A-18 Hornet. It was designed to be a single-seat air-superiority fighter and ground-attack aircraft. It was originally intended to be assembled by Northrop as the export version of the F/A-18 Hornet. The F-18L was lighter via removing carrier landing capability. Despite the advantages, customers preferred the standard Hornet, and the F-18L never entered mass production.
- (A)F/A-18A: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Royal Australian Air Force.
- (A)F/A-18B: Two-seat training version for the Royal Australian Air Force.
- “F/A-18A” was the original company designation, designations of “AF-18A” & “ATF-18A” have also been applied. Assembled in Australia (excluding the first two (A)F/A-18Bs) by Aero-Space Technologies of Australia (ASTA) from 1985 through to 1990, from kits produced by McDonnell Douglas with increasing local content in the later aircraft. Originally the most notable differences between an Australian (A)F/A-18A/B and a US F/A-18A/B were the lack of a catapult attachment, replacing the carrier tailhook with a lighter land arresting hook, and the automatic carrier landing system with an Instrument Landing System. Australian Hornets have been involved in several major upgrade programs. This program called HUG (Hornet Upgrade) has had a few evolutions over the years. The first was to give Australian Hornets F/A-18C model avionics. The second and current upgrade program (HUG 2.2) updates the fleet’s avionics even further.
- CF-18 Hornet
- CF-18A: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The official Canadian designation is CF-188A Hornet.
- CF-18B: Two-seat training and combat version for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The official Canadian designation is CF-188B Hornet.
- EF-18 Hornet
- EF-18A: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Spanish Air Force. The Spanish Air Force designation is C.15.
- EF-18B: Two-seat training version for the Spanish Air Force. The Spanish Air Force designation is CE.15.
- KAF-18 Hornet
- KAF-18C: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Kuwait Air Force
- KAF-18D: Two-seat training version for the Kuwait Air Force
- F-18C/D Hornet
- The Finnish Air Force uses F/A-18C/D Hornets, with a Finland-specific mid-life update. The first seven Hornets (D models) were produced by McDonnell Douglas. The 57 single-seat F-18C model units were assembled by Patria in Finland.
- F-18C/D Hornet
- Switzerland uses F-18C/D,later Swiss specific mid-life update. The Swiss F-18s had no ground attack capability originally, until hardware was retrofitted.