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F/A-18 Hornet: a Dynasty in the Making

F/A-18 Hornet: a Dynasty in the Making

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 isn’t worthy of following in that great airplane’s steps. No range, no load, no nothin’.

Well, folks, guess what? Right or wrong, the Tomcat’s on it’s 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 it’s known today, the Hornet is a MacDonald-Douglas airplane – only it’s not. The airplane was designed and originally built by Northrup.

Confusing things even more, the Hornet wasn’t 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, A4’s and A6’s in the fleet. If you look at that grouping closely you’ll 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? That’s 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 today’s world, for the most part, it has more than met the Navy’s 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: it’s a computer freak’s dream. Even the very early “A” 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 (wow it’s 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: don’t bomb the general area, put it through the window of the boss’s bedroom.

Pilots love the airplane because it’s 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 Growler will even replace the EA-6B’s in the electronic warfare role.

It’s only a matter of time before the only fixed wing airplanes on a carrier will be the Hornet and the COD’s. Now if they can just find a way they can modify the airplane to replace those pesky helicopters.

by Budd Davisson

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  1. The “Super” Hornet also has a built-in headwind, in the form of poor design leading to having to install the wing pylons at an angle to the direction of flight to assure safe dropping of stores.

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