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.
In practice, the base F/A-18 design proved a versatile mount. It was an agile, aggressive fighter airframe with natural dual-role capabilities which allowed for warplanners to utilize one airframe for various role and allowed politicians to force the retirement of other competing, aging designs in play since the days of the Vietnam War. The F/A-18 did suffer some noticeable limitations when compared to these outgoing types - its range was always an issue which often times forced external fuel tanks to be carried as standard. Additionally, it lacked the payload-carrying capabilities of the strike aircraft it replaced. On the whole, however, the aircraft was a thoroughbred nonetheless and able to tackle the various roles assigned to it - fleet defense, reconnaissance, ground attack - without the need for multiple specialized airframes - a simple function in the cockpit allowed the Hornet pilot to go from air-to-air to air-to-ground roles in an instant.
Upon entering service in 1983, the Hornet first appeared in its early single-seat F/A-18A model form and this was followed by the F/A-18B with its two-seat configuration. Retaining the combat capabilities of the A-model, the B-model line installed a second cockpit aft of the first and lost some of its internal fuel storage space, limited range somewhat. B-models have been largely leaned on for training purposes due to their dual-cockpit arrangements. Both the USN and USMC have taken on stocks of the type. From 1994 onwards, the original APG-65 radars were given up in favor of the faster-processing APG-73 series producing the F/A-18+ ("plus") Hornet designation.
Then followed the F/A-18C which was an improved single-seat model form and first flew in 1986. The line introduced a refined avionics suite with improved radar systems and digital processing while also bringing support for the AIM-120 AMRAAM ("Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile") missile, the AGM-65 "Maverick" air-to-surface missile, and the AGM-84 "Harpoon" anti-ship missile (adding a much-needed maritime patrol and engage capability). The two-seat version of this mark then became the F/A-18D and both served the USN and United States Marine Corps (USMC) branches as all-weather fighters, attack aircraft, and Forward Air Controller (FAC) platforms. The all-weather capability was aided by the onboard ground mapping radar allowing for flying and fighting in adverse weather / low-light-level conditions. Night vision equipment (FLIR, NVG) and applicable support systems was brought along in these models from 1992 onwards while improved GE F404 turbofan engines also came about. The final USMC D-model arrived in 2000.
C- and D-models feature the GE F404-GE-402 turbofan outputting 11,000lbf on dry thrust and 17,750lbf with afterburner engaged. Maximum speed is 1,190 miles per hour with a range out to 1,250 miles. Combat radius is 460 miles. Its service ceiling reaches 50,000 feet with a rate-of-climb nearing 50,000 feet per minute. These qualities allow for it to serve as a highly effective fleet defense fighter and interceptor.
Armament for Hornets includes a standard 20mm M61A1 Vulcan six-barreled Gatling gun near the nose for close-in work to which 578 x 20mm projectiles are carried aboard. There are a total of nine hardpoints featured with two under each wing as well as the two wingtip launch rails and three under-fuselage areas. The centerline position is usually taken up by a jettisonable external fuel tank while wingtip launchers are reserved for AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Prior to use of the AMRAAM missile, the aircraft carried the AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range series. For its ground attack role, the aircraft is cleared to carry and launch various air-to-surface munitions including missiles, guided/precision ordnance, rocket pods, and nuclear-tipped bombs. This includes 70mm and 127mm "Zuni" rockets (via pod launchers), the SLAM-ER missile, the AGM-88 anti-radar missile, the AGM-154 "Joint Stand-Off Weapon" (JSOW), and the Taurus Cruise Missile.
Beyond its use by the USN and USMC, the F/A-18 line has been adopted by Australia (A- and B-models), Canada (as the "CF-18 Hornet"), Finland (C- and D-models), Kuwait (C- and D-models), Malaysia (limited stock of D-models), Spain (Hornet A+ and B+ models), and Switzerland (C- and D-models) to date (2014). Despite the introduction of the "Super Hornet" (detailed below), the U.S. military still operates A-, B-, C-, and D-models of the Hornet making up a large portion of the USN/USMC fleet defense arm as well as its ground attack reach. The aircraft also serves as the latest airframe-of-choice for the famous "Blue Angels" aerobatic flight team of the United States Navy.
To date, 1,480 F/A-18 Hornets have been produced by McDonnell Douglas/Boeing. Boeing serves as its primary contractor following the 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas. The McDonnell Douglas name exists as a subsidiary to Boeing. The F/A-18 Hornet competes on the global stage with the likes of the French Dassault Rafale, the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen, the American General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Chinese JF-17 Thunder, the Russian Mikoyan MiG-29 "Fulcrum", and the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 "Flanker".
The Super Hornet, Growler, and Advanced Super Hornet
The F/A-18 was later developed into a highly effective two-seater through the F/A-18E/F "Super Hornet" model series (detailed elsewhere on this site). This aircraft incorporated a second crewmember seated in tandem and improved on operational ranges and ordnance-carrying capabilities while using more powerful GE turbofan engines. There are beneficial structural changes and hardpoints were increased to eleven from the standard nine positions - the work essentially producing the "definitive Hornet". Currently (2014), Boeing is also developing the E/F Super Hornet model into the "Advanced Super Hornet" for those Lockheed F-35 Lightning II customers still awaiting delivery of their 5th Generation Fighter. Boeing is attempting to fill the void through this interim solution as the F-35's formal introduction is continually delayed for various reasons. The Boeing EA-18G "Growler" is a special-mission variant of the Super Hornet succeeding the Grumman EA-6B "Prowler" line in the Electronic Warfare Aircraft (EWA) role.
June 2016 - Two squadrons-worth of "classic" F/A-18 Hornets are being refurbished for service with the United States Marine Corps (USMC). In a project with Boeing whose contract was awarded in 2014, these airframes were pulled from the "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona to continue active service with all-new parts including a Raytheon mechanical radar fit. The aircraft are known under the F/A-18C+ designation. The aircraft are intended as an interim measure until F-35 "Lightning II" strength can be achieved.
August 2017 - Swiss-owned F/A-18 Hornets are in line for a modernization following the U.S. State Department's approval of a $15 million deal. The Swiss Air Force flies C- and D-models.
July 2018 - The Swiss government has announced formal a plan to replace its fleet of aging F-5E and F-5F Tiger fighters as well as its fleet of F/A18C and D-model Hornets. The $8.45 billion effort is named "Air2030".
September 2018 - The U.S. government has approved a plan for Canada to purchase twenty-five ex-Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 hornet strike fighters.
December 2018 - The USMC F/A-18C and D-model fighter fleet is scheduled to be replaced in full by Lockheed F-35B and C-models sometime after 2027.
January 2019 - Canada has finalized a deal with Australia to purchase ex-RAAF F/A-18 Hornet fighters. Deliveries are expected over the summer of 2019.
January 2019 - Raytheon will head up an initiative to install APG-79(v)4 series radar on existing USMC F/A-18C and D-models. This will provide the aging fighter line with more modern Active, Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar fits. The work is scheduled to be completed by 2022.
March 2020 - Australia is set to sell off a stock of some 46 ex-RAAF F/A-18 A/B model Hornets to private tactical airpower training firm Air USA.
June 2020 - The Royal Canadian Air Force has finalized plans for a nearly $1 billion USD program to upgrade its aging fleet of CF-18 fighters. As many as 36 CF-18 airframes are in line for the modernization that will include updated radar, avionics, and weapons support to keep the system viable for the next few decades until a replacement can be had.
July 2021 - The nation of Spain has locally developed and released a software update for its fleet of aging F/A-18 Hornet fighters to help extend their useful service lives.
Australia; Canada (CF-18); Finland; Kuwait; Malaysia; Spain; Switzerland; United States
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Air-to-Air Combat, Fighter
General ability to actively engage other aircraft of similar form and function, typically through guns, missiles, and/or aerial rockets.
Ability to intercept inbound aerial threats by way of high-performance, typically speed and rate-of-climb.
✓Ground Attack (Bombing, Strafing)
Ability to conduct aerial bombing of ground targets by way of (but not limited to) guns, bombs, missiles, rockets, and the like.
Equipped to search, track, and engage enemy surface elements through visual acquisition, radar support, and onboard weaponry.
✓Maritime / Navy
Land-based or shipborne capability for operating over-water in various maritime-related roles while supported by allied naval surface elements.
60.7 ft (18.50 m)
44.9 ft (13.68 m)
16.0 ft (4.87 m)
22,928 lb (10,400 kg)
51,809 lb (23,500 kg)
+28,881 lb (+13,100 kg)
(Showcased structural values pertain to the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet production variant)
monoplane / shoulder-mounted / swept-back
Design utilizes a single primary wing mainplane; this represent the most popular mainplane arrangement.
Mainplanes are mounted at the upper section of the fuselage, generally at the imaginary line intersecting the pilot's shoulders.
The planform features wing sweep back along the leading edges of the mainplane, promoting higher operating speeds.
(Structural descriptors pertains to the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet production variant)
2 x General Electric F404-GE-402 afterburning turbofan engines developing 17,750 lb of thrust each.
(Not all ordnance types may be represented in the showcase above)
Hardpoint Mountings: 9 (including wingtip mounts)
YF-17 "Cobra" - Prototype developed by Northrop to go up against the YF-16 in the USAF Light-Weight Fighter Competition (LWF) to which the YF-17 prototype lost.
F/A-18 - Base Production Model Designation manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, merged now with Boeing Corporation.
F/A-18A - Initial Production Model; single-seat
F/A-18B - Two-seat production version of single-seat A-model; originally designated as the TF/A-18A.
F/A-18C - Electronic and System improvements; replaced the F/A-18A model in production; enhanced weapons carrying capabilities; later models fitted with night attack capabilities.
F/A-18C+ - Refurbished C-models with all-new modern avionics and Raytheon radar fit; service with the USMC.
F/A-18D - Two-seat Version of the F/A-18C production model; later models fitted with night attack capability.
F/A-18D(RC) - United States Marine Corps Reconnaissance Model of the F/A-18D.
F/A-18E "Super Hornet" - Single-seat improved Hornet model replacing the retired F-14 Tomcat series.
F/A-18F "Super Hornet" - Two-seat improved Hornet model replacing the retired F-14 Tomcat series.
EA-18G "Growler" - Electronic Warfare Model of the "Super Hornet" line to replace the EA-6B Prowler series.
TF-18A - Original Model Designation for the two-seat F/A-18B.
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