McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet Multirole Carrier-based Strike Fighter
The versatile McDonnell Douglas FA-18 Hornet was used by the USN and USMC to succeed a variety of aged carrier-based fighting aircraft.
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The McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18 "Hornet" emerged as one of the very successful 4th Generation Fighter entries of the latter Cold War years. It was developed from the outset with a multi-role capability, able to undertake the fleet defense interceptor role as well as the ground attack role with minimal configuration. This benefitted the United States Navy (USN) who relied on specialized products like the Grumman F-14 Tomcat for the fleet defense role and the Grumman A-6 Intruder/Vought A-7 Corsair II for its carrier strike arm (the Tomcat received its "Bombcat" strike capability only late in its service career). The F/A-18 emerged from the ashes of the terminated VFAX (Naval Fighter-Attack, eXperimental) program which sought a new lightweight, multirole-minded fighter for the USN to replace it aged stock of fighter/strike platforms then in service. With the project's ballooning costs and ultimate termination during August of 1974, the USN was forced to review two competing United States Air Force (USAF) aircraft - the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17 "Cobra"
. These aircraft then evolved along their own lines, the YF-16 becoming the USAF's F-16 "Fighting Falcon"
with the YF-17 growing into the USN's F/A-18 "Hornet".
The YF-17 was revised for the USN requirement, becoming a dimensionally larger and heavier product. While Northrop led the way as the primary contractor of the YF-17, it held little experience in delivering USN aircraft and partnered with Navy powerhouse McDonnell Douglas to finalize their Cobra. McDonnell Douglas found much success in these Cold War years selling the various American military branches on such classic aircraft as the F-4 Phantom II and the F-15 Eagle. Between the General Dynamic and McDonnell Douglas/Northrop designs, the USN elected on May 2nd, 1975 to pursue the YF-17 Cobra model. From this then stemmed the idea that two distinct versions of the platform would emerge - the fighter-minded "F-18" and the ground-attack-minded "A-18" until the move proved cost prohibitive resulting in a dual-purpose airframe designated as the "F/A-18 Hornet". Eleven aircraft in this mold then followed for developmental purposes, the first of these flying on November 18th, 1978.
Rise of the Hornet
As completed, the F/A-18 proved a whole new aircraft when compared to its YF-17 Cobra roots. As with all Navy aircraft, the design featured folding wing sections for improved carrier hangar storage. Fly-By-Wire (FBW) controlling was standard and allowed for the necessary agility required of fighter types during air-to-air combat. HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) allowed for both of the pilot's hands to rest on the most important control systems of their aircraft - the throttle and flight stick while a HUD (Head-Up Display) system placed much pertinent mission information ahead of the pilot without the need for him to look down at the instrument panel. Within the nose cone of the aircraft was a powerful Hughes AN/APG-65 series radar system for interception of incoming aerial threats above or below the aircraft. Power for the aircraft came from 2 x General Electric GE404 series afterburning turbofan engines allowing for speeds to reach Mach 1.8 - nearly 1,200 miles per hour at 40,000 feet altitude. The dual-engine arrangement allowed the aircraft to continue on a single engine in the event of a loss of one powerplant.
The aircraft was given one of the more iconic design forms of the Cold War - certainly exuding an insect-like appearance with its design lines and contouring. The cockpit was situated just aft of the nose in the usual way, the pilot under a simple, yet unobstructed canopy offering excellent vision all-around the aircraft. The engines were fitted in a side-by-side arrangement aspirated through rounded intakes straddling the fuselage and positioned just aft of the cockpit walls. The engines exhausted through conventional exhaust rings at the rear of the aircraft. A pair of vertical tail fins were seated noticeably far ahead of the exhaust rings and were noticeably canted outwardly giving the F/A-18 a portion of its distinct appearance. Horizontal planes at the tail were fitted along either engine nacelle in the typical fashion. The wing mainplanes were swept along their leading edges only and mid-mounted along the sides of the aircraft. Each not only held a folding feature but also wingtip launch rails for AIM-9 "Sidewinder" short-range air-to-air missiles as standard. There were underwing hardpoints for ordnance-carrying as well as hardpoint positions under the fuselage. The wings emanated from wingroot extensions that ran from ahead of the sides of the cockpit to the wing mainplane leading edges - another distinct physical characteristic of the aircraft. The undercarriage was all-retractable and included a two-wheeled nose leg and single-wheeled main legs. An arrestor hook was fitted under the tail unit for carrier landings. A collapsible in-flight refueling probe was hidden under a panel along the upper left starboard side of the nose.
Hornets in Action
Introduced on January 7th, 1983, the Hornet did not wait long to see its "baptism of fire" for it was already in a combat zone as early as April 1986 when American aircraft bombed Libya during Operation El Dorado Canyon in response to the earlier terrorist bombing of West Berlin which killed three and injured 230. Hornets began their career serving alongside F-14 Tomcat fleet defense interceptors until they overtook them in this role some two decades later - the classic, though expensive, Tomcats being formally retired during 2006. The aircraft then took part in the world's first "digital war" as part of the coalition in 1991's Operation Desert Storm against Iraqi forces. Hornets proved their value as both fighter and strike platform when they were able to contend with enemy aerial threats and then continue on their ground strike missions without modification. Again the aircraft returned to the Persian Gulf Theater in anger when charged with attacking Iraqi defenses during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.