by Budd Davisson
The Hornet has been a highly controversial airplane from the day it was initially proposed. Hornet detractors point at their hero, the massive F-14, and say the Hornet isnít worthy of following in that great airplaneís steps. No range, no load, no nothiní.
Well, folks, guess what? Right or wrong, the Tomcatís on itís way out and the Hornet will soon be the only combat airplane on deck.
The Hornet had a confused birth for several reasons, not the least of which is that, as itís known today, the Hornet is a MacDonald-Douglas airplaneóonly itís not. The airplane was designed and originally built by Northrup.
Confusing things even more, the Hornet wasnít designed for the Navy. Plus at the time of its birth it was a failure: as the XF-17, it was the loser in the USAF design competition eventually won by the F-16. That was in early 1975.
The same year the Northrup XF-17 lost the USAF competition, Navy brass was casting around for a less expensive, cheaper-to-operate airplane they could use to replace the aging Phantoms, A4ís and A6ís in the fleet. If you look at that grouping closely youíll realize they were biting off a mighty big chunk: they wanted one airplane to be a fighter and a specialized tactical attack machine. They wanted to raise aerial multi-tasking to new levels.
At one time, fighting wars meant only one thing: can we beat what the Russians are flying? Thatís no longer the case. Recent wars have meant something else: can we get in, drop a lot of ordnance and, at the same time knock down lesser trained pilots flying ex-Russian aircraft? Then, another factor joined the mix: is there a way we can go to war on the cheap? Where can we save a few bucks? And thatís a big part of the rationale behind the original decision to build the Hornet.
The Hornet had to be a capable airplane and, in todayís world, for the most part, it has more than met the Navyís objectives. It operates at far less cost than a Tomcat, for instance, requiring something like half the number of manhours to keep it flying.
The Hornet was designed from the ground up to be a digital airplane: itís a computer freakís dream. Even the very early ìAî models were strictly fly-by-wire airplanes in which the pilot flies the computer and the computer flies the airplane.
As the airplane has evolved after its initial operational deployment in 1983 (wowóitís already been in the fleet 22 years!) the digitalization of the flight deck has continued until the latest models have all-glass cockpits with touch screen controls. Plus their combat systems are increasingly designed for the dropping of fewer, but smarter, weapons. The concept is simple: donít bomb the general area, put it through the window of the bossís bedroom.
Pilots love the airplane because itís so easy to fly and takes a lot of the pucker factor out of landing on the boat. The larger, more powerful Super Hornet has added more duties to the design including acting as aerial tankers and the latest F/A-18G, the ìGrowlerî will even replace the EA-6Bís in the electronic warfare role.
Itís only a matter of time before the only fixed wing airplanes on a carrier will be the Hornet and the CODís. Now if they can just find a way they can modify the airplane to replace those pesky helicopters.