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Aircraft History

The McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet was a groundbreaking aircraft from its very first flight. It holds the honors of being of the US Navy’s first carrier-based true multirole fighter, the first aircraft with carbon-fiber wings, and the first fighter aircraft with a fully digital fly-by-wire flight control system. What began as the “loser” of the US Air Force’s LWF program evolved into a prolific front-line fighter and attack aircraft that served the needs of the United States and seven other countries for nearly forty years.

The VFAX Programs

Tupolev Tu-26 “Backfire” (credit Bernhard Gröhl)

In the early 1960s, the US Navy’s principal concern was the fleet defense mission. The discovery of the Tu-26 “Backfire” by US intelligence caused worry among Navy admirals that the Soviet Union would soon be capable of attacking carrier fleets, launching sea-skimming cruise missiles from well outside the defensible range of the carrier.

In response to this new threat, the Navy began the VFAX program, intended to develop a long-range, highly maneuverable air superiority and fleet defense aircraft. The program mirrored the US Air Force’s concurrent F-X program, which ultimately resulted in the F-15 Eagle. VFAX was intended to replace the Navy’s aging fleet of fighter aircraft, especially the F-111Bs, which were seen as very lacking in the fleet defense role.

Grumman F-14A Tomcat (credit PHAN Kevin Eller)

Grumman Aerospace proposed combining its design experience with the F-111B and the A-6 Intruder to produce a new aircraft, named Design 303. The new aircraft would be built around a pair of new technologies originally developed for the F- 111B: the powerful AN/AWG-9 radar and the long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile.

The combination of the AWG-9 and AIM-54, placed in a smaller, more agile airframe, was compelling enough to convince the Navy to restructure the design requirements of the VFAX program. The result was the VFX program, which ultimately produced the F-14 Tomcat, the Navy’s new frontline fleet defense and air superiority fighter.

The F-14 enjoyed immediate success as a fleet defense aircraft, but by the 1970s, it became apparent that it was too expensive and maintenance-heavy to supplant all existing Navy fighters. The Secretary of Defense, William H. Clements Jr., ordered the Navy to seek proposals for a smaller, cheaper alternative to the F-14. Grumman responded with a proposal for the F-14X, a lightweight, less expensive variant of the F-14. McDonnell-Douglas suggested navalizing the F-15. Both of those were rejected by Clements.

VAdm Kent Lee (NHHC)

At the time, the only two major proponents of the lightweight multirole fighter concept were VAdm. Kent Lee, commander of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), and VAdm. William Houser, Deputy Chief Naval Officer. Though Houser and Lee had very different ideas of what a multirole fighter would look like, they were alone among the Navy brass in believing that the future of the combat aircraft was multirole capability.

Lee’s motivations stemmed partially from his experience at sea, where he estimated that around fifty man-hours of maintenance effort were being expended for every one hour an aircraft spends in-flight. When Lee was selected to serve as NAVAIR’s Commander, he began to advocate for a single airframe that could replace F-4s, A-7s, and A-4s. Likewise, Houser had become disillusioned with the existing Navy doctrine during his deployments, seeing firsthand the difficulty in flying and maintaining numerous types of aircraft, each with their own maintenance practices and parts requirements.

Now that the F-14 had been swept aside as a potential replacement for the Navy’s fleet of fighter and strike aircraft, Lee saw an opportunity to realize his vision. After doggedly advocating his viewpoint to Clements, Clements went along with Lee’s recommendation, and Lee was given the green light. The Navy then began another VFAX program under Lee’s stewardship, this time with a greater emphasis on multirole capability.

Lee’s opinions were still unpopular with the other admirals, which made it difficult for Lee to secure Congressional funding for the new project. Concurrent with the VFAX proposals, the US Air Force had also been looking for a lightweight fighter (LWF) to complement its expensive F-15s. The House Armed Services Committee, looking to reduce costs, ordered the Navy and Air Force to combine their efforts. Funding was diverted from VFAX into a new program, titled Navy Air Combat Fighter (NACF). NACF would be a new naval aircraft developed from the contenders already participating in the Air Force’s LWF competition.

The YF-17 “Cobra”

YF-16 and YF-17 (credit R.L. House)

Five defense companies submitted proposals for the LWF competition, but only two were selected to participate: Northrop and General Dynamics. Northrop had already developed its popular F-5E Tiger II into an internal project titled N-300. The N-300 added distinctive leading-edge root extensions (LERX) and more powerful engines to the F-5E, among other improvements. The N-300 evolved into the P-530, which modified the design of the LERXes, giving the P-530 much improved maneuverability at high angles of attack. Northrop selected the P-530 as its LWF contender, slightly modifying it into the P-600. General Dynamics meanwhile had produced the Model 401, later designated the YF-16, and both companies were awarded contracts of approximately $38 million to develop their proposals into functional prototypes.

International and domestic interest in the LWF program grew, and with it the stakes of the competition. In response to the ballooning demand, the USAF merged the LWF program into the new Air Combat Fighter (ACF) program. The ACF program solidified the requirement that the LWF contenders be truly multirole aircraft.

The YF-16 and YF-17 were tested by the US Air Force in a series of trial flights, and in 1975, the YF- 16 was selected to be the new USAF lightweight fighter. The YF-16 had superior acceleration, climb rates, endurance, and turn rate. Its selection as the winner of the LWF competition secured it numerous procurement orders among the USAF and NATO allies.

Because the NACF program ran simultaneously with the ACF program, both General Dynamics and Northrop had also developed naval variants of their contenders. Neither firm had prior experience developing carrier aircraft. General Dynamics paired with Vought to develop the Vought Model 1600, a proposal for a strengthened, carrier-capable F-16; Northrop paired with McDonnell-Douglas to propose the F-18, a carrier-capable YF-17 variant.

Though the YF-16 had won the USAF competition, the Navy wasn’t happy with its single engine and narrow landing gear. Thus, in 1975, The Navy announced its selection of the YF-17, which was to be transformed into a carrier-based multirole combat aircraft.

Development of the F-18

McDonnell-Douglas and Northrop combined forces to develop the YF-17 into the F-18, then called Model 267. Both companies agreed to split manufacturing responsibilities evenly: McDonnell-Douglas would build the forward fuselage, wings, and stabilators; Northrop would build the center and aft fuselage components and the vertical stabilizers. Final assembly would be at McDonnell-Douglas.

The F-18 was largely similar in appearance to the YF-17 but underwent many structural and exterior changes to meet the stringent requirements of a carrier-based aircraft. The entire aircraft was strengthened to withstand the forces of carrier launch and recovery, and the undercarriage and tailhook were enlarged and fortified. The wings and stabilizers were enlarged, and the fuselage widened, and the extra size was used to boost the internal fuel capacity by 4,460 pounds, sufficient to meet US Navy blue-water reserve requirements. A fully digital fly-by-wire system with quadruple- redundant flight control computers was added, making the F-18 the first fighter aircraft with such a control system. Accessories were added to support catapult launches. In all, the modifications brought the gross weight of the F-18 to 37,000 pounds, a 10,000-pound increase over the YF-17.

First preproduction F-18 on display, Oct 1978 (USN)

Originally, the F-18 was to be developed in three variants: An F-18 fighter variant, an A- 18 attack variant, and a TF-18 trainer variant. The F-18 and A-18 variants would later be combined when improvements in the avionics and weapons capability of the aircraft allowed a single variant to perform both roles effectively. On March 1, 1977, the F-18 was given the “Hornet” moniker.

McDonnell-Douglas agreed to be the prime contractor for the naval F-18, with Northrop taking ownership of the proposed land-based F-18L export variant. The F-18L would never come to fruition, and Northrop and McDonnell-Douglas would end their partnership on bad terms when export variants of the F-18A drew sales away from the upcoming F-18L. Northrop would later sue McDonnell-Douglas, claiming that the latter illegally used technologies developed by Northrop for the F-20 Tigershark, a lawsuit that ultimately ended in a settlement award of $50 million paid to Northrop. In exchange, McDonnell-Douglas was free to sell the F-18, both internationally and domestically.

On September 13, 1978, the first production F-18 Hornet rolled off the assembly line. Unlike previous aircraft, which underwent flight testing at their place of manufacture, the F-18 was flight-tested at the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland. Its first production flight occurred in November 1978, launching from Pax River, and flown by a US Navy-trained test pilot instead of a civilian employed by the manufacturer.

F/A-18A and B Deployment

F/A-18As aboard the USS Constellation, “Battle E” award, 1986 (USN)

Following the completion of Navy flight testing, the F-18A and B models began appearing at fleet replacement squadrons (FRS) on both coasts. VMFA-314, based at MCAS El Toro, became the first squadron to receive the F-18 in January 1983. On April 1, 1984, the Secretary of the Navy announced that the new aircraft would be designated the F/A-18 Hornet, in recognition of its multirole capability.

The F/A-18 spent a short amount of time grounded prior to its first deployment, after fatigue cracks began appearing on the vertical stabilizers. The cracks were found to be due to the turbulent airflow from the LERXes that passed across the stabilizers. The stabilizers were strengthened and the LERXes were redesigned. Years later, small fences would be placed atop each LERX, to divert tip vortices away from the stabilizers. These changes additionally gave the Hornet a small boost in controllability at high angles of attack.

The Hornet saw its first combat deployment between February and August of 1985, aboard the USS Constellation. Naval aviators were pleased with its reliability in contrast to the F-14. In April 1986, F/A-18s saw action for the first time aboard the USS Coral Sea, on deployment off the coast of Libya for Operation Prairie Fire, with VFA- 131, VFA-132, VMFA-314, and VMFA-323 aboard.

The A and B model Hornet was also awarded the distinct privilege of being selected as the eighth aircraft type to be flown by the US Navy’s Blue Angels, replacing the A-4 Skyhawk in November 1986.

In total, more than 400 F/A-18A and B Hornets were produced.

F/A-18C and D Deployment

In 1987, development of the F/A-18C began, commencing with Lot 10. The C and D models incorporated numerous improvements, including upgraded avionics that added the ability for the Hornet to employ advanced, modern weapons such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM, AGM-65 Maverick, and AGM-84 Harpoon. Lot 10 also added the airborne self-protection jammer (ASPJ) and a ground- mapping synthetic aperture radar.

As with the A and B models, the F/A-18C was the single-seat variant, the D having two seats. The D model could be configured either as a training variant or as an all-weather strike craft, as used by the Marines.

In 1989, the C and D models were further upgraded with expanded night attack capability by including the AN/AAR-50 navpod, the AN/AAS-38 forward looking infrared (FLIR), the LITENING II targeting pod, and night vision goggles. 1989 also saw the Hornet gain three full-color multipurpose displays, including adding color moving-map capability to the center AMPCD.

F/A-18C aboard USS Kitty Hawk during Operation Enduring Freedom (credit PH3 John E. Woods)

In 1989, during the first Gulf War, F/A-18 Hornet pilots successfully shot down two MiG-21s during a strike mission. The pilots were able to switch from the air-to- ground to air-to-air role, destroy the MiGs within 40 seconds of the E-2C’s initial contact, then swap back to air-to-ground and complete their strike, cementing the credibility of the multirole concept. (You can play an Instant Action mission inspired by these events in DCS, if you own the Persian Gulf map.)

Through the 1990s, US F/A-18Cs and Ds served in Operation Southern Watch and Operation Enduring Freedom while continuing to see further technology improvements. The F404-GE-402 turbofan engine was incorporated in 1992, adding 10% more static thrust. In 1993, Hornets began equipping the AN/AAS-38A laser target designator/ranger (LTD/R), giving them the ability to target their own laser-guided munitions. A year later the avionics received another bump, swapping the venerable AN/APG-65 for the powerful and precise AN/APG-73 attack radar.

F/A-18Cs fly during the retirement ceremony (USN) October 2, 2019.

Production of the F/A-18C and D Hornets ended in August 2000. The last C model was assembled in Finland for the Finnish Air Force. Hornets continued to serve the US for the next two decades. The C model’s last cruise was aboard the USS Carl Vinson, which ended in April of 2018, whereupon the Navy announced that the C models would be retired from combat duty in February 2019. The aircraft was honored with a retirement ceremony, but a few C- model Hornets continued to fly in training duty as aggressor aircraft, or in the service of the Blue Angels.

The final flight of an F/A-18C for the US Navy was on In all, nearly one thousand C and D model Hornets were produced, and C models served in the armed forces of eight countries. Though the United States has retired the C-model Hornets, the model still serves in the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Finnish Air Force, the Kuwait Air Force, and the Swiss Air Force.

The US Navy has since replaced its carrier fighter fleet with the F/A-18E and F Super Hornet, representing a major leap forward in the Hornet’s capability and lethality on the battlefield. Though the E and F models share the name and same basic appearance as the C and D models, they are a completely different design, with enlarged fuselage and wings, an entirely new avionics suite and cockpit, upgraded engines, and many other improvements.

There are three US Navy F/A-18C Hornets on display in the US, with more coming as the Blue Angels transition to the F/A-18E and F models:

• BuNo 163106, painted in Blue Angels #2 livery, is at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA • BuNo 163439, painted in Blue Angels #1 livery, is at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC • BuNo 163437 is outside the Headquarters, Naval Air Force Atlantic, at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia