The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet is a twin-engine, supersonic, all-weather, carrier-capable, multirole combat jet, designed as both a fighter and attack aircraft (hence the F/A designation). Designed by McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing) and Northrop (now part of Northrop Grumman), the F/A-18 was derived from the latter’s YF-17 in the 1970s for use by the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The Hornet is also used by the air forces of several other nations, and since 1986, by the U.S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels.
Hornet programme and development
The U.S. Navy started the Naval Fighter-Attack, Experimental (VFAX) program to procure a multirole aircraft to replace the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, the A-7 Corsair II, and the remaining McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs, and to complement the F-14 Tomcat. Vice Admiral Kent Lee, then head of Naval Air Systems Command, was the lead advocate for the VFAX against strong opposition from many Navy officers, including Vice Admiral William D. Houser, deputy chief of naval operations for air warfare – the highest-ranking naval aviator.
The F/A-18 is a twin engine, midwing, multimission tactical aircraft. It is highly maneuverable, due to its good thrust-to-weight ratio, digital fly-by-wire control system, and leading-edge extensions, which allow the Hornet to remain controllable at high angles of attack. The trapezoidal wing has a 20-degree sweepback on the leading edge and a straight trailing edge. The wing has full-span, leading-edge flaps and the trailing edge has single-slotted flaps and ailerons over the entire span.
Canted vertical stabilizers are another distinguishing design element, one among several other such elements that enable the Hornet’s excellent high angle of attack ability, including oversized horizontal stabilators, oversized trailing-edge flaps that operate as flaperons, large full-length leading-edge slats, and flight control computer programming that multiplies the movement of each control surface at low speeds and moves the vertical rudders inboard instead of simply left and right. The Hornet’s normally high angle of attack performance envelope was put to rigorous testing and enhanced in the NASA F-18 High Alpha Research Vehicle (HARV). NASA used the F-18 HARV to demonstrate flight handling characteristics at high angle-of-attack (alpha) of 65–70 degrees using thrust vectoring vanes. F/A-18 stabilators were also used as canards on NASA’s F-15S/MTD.
The Hornet was among the first aircraft to heavily use multifunction displays, which at the switch of a button allow a pilot to perform either fighter or attack roles or both. This “force multiplier” ability gives the operational commander more flexibility to employ tactical aircraft in a fast-changing battle scenario. It was the first Navy aircraft to incorporate a digital multiplexing avionics bus, enabling easy upgrades.
The Hornet is also notable for having been designed to reduce maintenance, and as a result, has required far less downtime than its heavier counterparts, the F-14 Tomcat and the A-6 Intruder. Its mean time between failures is three times greater than any other Navy strike aircraft, and requires half the maintenance time. Its General Electric F404 engines were also innovative in that they were designed with operability, reliability, and maintainability first. The engine, while unexceptional in rated performance, demonstrates exceptional robustness under various conditions and is resistant to stall and flameout. The F404 engine connects to the airframe at only 10 points and can be replaced without special equipment; a four-person team can remove the engine within 20 minutes. The aircraft has a top speed of Mach 1.8 at 40,000 ft.
A 1989 USMC study found that single-seat fighters were well suited to air-to-air combat missions, while dual-seat fighters were favored for complex strike missions against heavy air and ground defenses in adverse weather—the question being not so much as to whether a second pair of eyes would be useful, but as to having the second crewman sit in the same fighter or in a second fighter. Single-seat fighters that lacked wingmen were shown to be especially vulnerable.
The F/A-18 first saw combat action in April 1986, when VFA-131, VFA-132, VMFA-314, and VMFA-323 Hornets from USS Coral Sea flew Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) missions against Libyan air defenses during Operation Prairie Fire and an attack on Benghazi as part of Operation El Dorado Canyon. During the Gulf War of 1991, the Navy deployed 106 F/A-18A/C Hornets and Marine Corps deployed 84 F/A-18A/C/D Hornets. F/A-18 pilots were credited with two kills during the Gulf War, both MiG-21s. On 17 January, the first day of the war, U.S. Navy pilots Lieutenant Commander Mark I. Fox and his wingman, Lieutenant Nick Mongilio were sent from USS Saratoga in the Red Sea to bomb an airfield in southwestern Iraq. While en route, they were warned by an E-2C of approaching MiG-21 aircraft. The Hornets shot down the two MiGs with AIM-7 and AIM-9 missiles in a brief dogfight. The F/A-18s, each carrying four 2,000 lb (910 kg) bombs, then resumed their bombing run before returning to Saratoga.
The Hornet’s survivability was demonstrated when a Hornet took hits in both engines and flew 125 mi (201 km) back to base. It was repaired and flying within a few days. F/A-18s flew 4,551 sorties with 10 Hornets damaged including three losses, one confirmed lost to enemy fire.All three losses were U.S. Navy F/A-18s, with two of their pilots lost. On 17 January 1991, Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher of VFA-81 was shot down and killed in the crash of his aircraft.An unclassified summary of a 2001 CIA report suggests that Speicher’s aircraft was shot down by a missile fired from an Iraqi Air Force aircraft, most likely a MiG-25.
Cockpit and avionics systems
While the general configuration of the YF-17 was retained, the F-18 became a completely new airplane. To meet the single-place fighter and attack mission capability, full use was made of new technology in digital computers. Coupled with cathode ray tubes for cockpit displays and appropriate controls based on thorough pilot evaluations in simulators, a single airplane and subsystems configuration for both missions was evolved.
During development, two-place trainer versions were added, to be built in limited numbers as TF/A-18s, intermingled with the basic F/As. Minimum changes were made to incorporate the second cockpit, with the two-seat airplanes retaining the ability to perform combat missions.
Making the first flight in November 1978, the F/A-18 and its two-place derivative [subsequently redesignated the F/A-18B] underwent most of their development testing at the Naval Air Test Center under the new single-site testing concept. While much attention was focused on development problems, these were largely typical of those in any new program, with their resolution being part of the development process. For the most part, these occurred in the basic aircraft hardware rather than in the digital electronic systems.
The original F/A-18A (single seat) and F/A-18B (dual seat) became operational in 1983 replacing Navy and Marine Corps F-4s and A-7s. It quickly became the battle group commander’s mainstay because of its capability, versatility and availability. Reliability and ease of maintenance were emphasized in its design, and F/A-18s have consistently flown three times more hours without failure than other Navy tactical aircraft, while requiring half the maintenance time.
The Hornet has been battle tested and has proved itself to be exactly what its designers intended: a highly reliable and versatile strike fighter. The F/A-18 played an important role in the 1986 strikes against Libya. Flying from USS CORAL SEA (CV 43), F/A-18s launched high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs) against Libyan air defense radars and missile sites, effectively silencing them during the attacks on Benghazi facilities.
Following a successful run of more than 400 A and B models, the US Navy began taking fleet deliveries of improved F/A-18C (single seat) and F/A-18D (dual seat) models in September 1987. These Hornets carry the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the infrared imaging Maverick air-to-ground missile. Two years later, the C/D models came with improved night attack capabilities. The new components included a navigation forward looking infrared (NAVFLIR) pod, a raster head-up display, night vision goggles, special cockpit lighting compatible with the night vision devices, a digital color moving map and an independent multipurpose color display.
F/A-18Cs have synthetic aperture ground mapping radar with a doppler beam sharpening mode to generate ground maps. This ground mapping capability that permits crews to locate and attack targets in adverse weather and poor visibility or to precisely update the aircraft’s location relative to targets during the approach, a capability that improves bombing accuracy. New production F/A-18Cs received the APG-73 radar upgrade radars starting in 1994, providing more precise and clear radar displays.
The F/A-18C Nigh Attack Hornet has a pod-mounted Hughes AN/AAR-50 thermal imaging navigation set, a Loral AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk FLIR targeting pod, and GEC Cat’s Eyes pilot’s night vision goggles. Some 48 F/A-18D two-seat Hornets are configured as the F/A-18D (RC) reconnaissance version, with the M61A1 cannon replaced by a pallet-mounted electro-optical suite comprising a blister-mounted IR linescan and two roll-stabilized sensor units, with all of these units recording onto video tape.
On the first day of Operation Desert Storm, two F/A-18s, each carrying four 2,000 lb. bombs, shot down two Iraqi MiGs and then proceeded to deliver their bombs on target. Throughout the Gulf War, squadrons of U.S. Navy, Marine and Canadian F/A-18s operated around the clock, setting records daily in reliability, survivability and ton-miles of ordnance delivered.
The Navy announced 18 May 1998 that its East Coast F/A-18 squadrons will relocate to Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach VA and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in Beaufort, SC. The jets will move from Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Jacksonville FL which was ordered closed by the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Nine operational squadrons and the Fleet Replacement Squadron — a total of 156 planes — will move to Oceana. Two squadrons totaling 24 planes will move to Beaufort. The first squadron will move in the fall of 1998 and all 11 fleet squadrons and the Fleet Replacement Squadron completed their moves by October 1999.
Throughout its service, annual upgrades to F/A-18 weapon systems, sensors, etc. continued. The latest lot of the F/A-18C/D has grown to be far more capable (night attack, precision strike, low observable technologies, etc.) than the original F/A-18A/B; however, by 1991, it was becoming clear that avionics cooling, electrical, and space constraints would begin to limit future growth. Additionally, another operational deficiency was beginning to develop. As the F/A-18C/D empty weight increased the aircraft were returning to the carrier with less than optimal reserve fuel and/or unexpended weapons. The additional range and “bring back” is not as essential to shore based operations. F/A-18A/B/C/D aircraft will fly for years with the U.S. Marine Corps and eight international customers: Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand. Although the F/A-18C/D’s future growth is now limited, it will also continue to fill a critical role in the U.S. Navy’s carrier battle group for many years to come and will be an excellent complement to the larger, longer range, more capable F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The F/A-18A is the single-seat variant and the F/A-18B is the two-seat variant. The space for the two-seat cockpit is provided by a relocation of avionics equipment and a 6% reduction in internal fuel; two-seat Hornets are otherwise fully combat-capable. The B-model is used primarily for training.
In 1992, the original Hughes AN/APG-65 radar was replaced with the Hughes (now Raytheon) AN/APG-73, a faster and more capable radar. A-model Hornets that have been upgraded to the AN/APG-73 are designated F/A-18A+.
The F/A-18C is the single-seat variant and the F/A-18D is the two-seat variant. The D-model can be configured for training or as an all-weather strike craft. The “missionized” D model’s rear seat is configured for a Marine Corps Naval Flight Officer who functions as a Weapons and Sensors Officer to assist in operating the weapons systems. The F/A-18D is primarily operated by the U.S. Marine Corps in the night attack and Forward Air Controller (Airborne) (FAC(A)) roles.
The F/A-18C and D models are the result of a block upgrade in 1987 incorporating upgraded radar, avionics, and the capacity to carry new missiles such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile and AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-84 Harpoon air-to-surface missiles. Other upgrades include the Martin-Baker NACES (Navy Aircrew Common ejection seat), and a self-protection jammer. A synthetic aperture ground mapping radar enables the pilot to locate targets in poor visibility conditions. C and D models delivered since 1989 also have improved night attack abilities, consisting of the Hughes AN/AAR-50 thermal navigation pod, the Loral AN/AAS-38 NITE Hawk FLIR (forward looking infrared array) targeting pod, night vision goggles, and two full-color (formerly monochrome) multi-function display (MFDs) and a color moving map.
In addition, 60 D-model Hornets are configured as the night attack F/A-18D (RC) with ability for reconnaissance. These could be outfitted with the ATARS electro-optical sensor package that includes a sensor pod and equipment mounted in the place of the M61 cannon.
Beginning in 1992, the F404-GE-402 enhanced performance engine, providing approximately 10% more maximum static thrust became the standard Hornet engine. Since 1993, the AAS-38A NITE Hawk added a designator/ranger laser, allowing it to self-mark targets. The later AAS-38B added the ability to strike targets designated by lasers from other aircraft.
Production of the C- and D- models ended in 2000. The last F/A-18C was assembled in Finland and delivered to the Finnish Air Force in August 2000. The last F/A-18D was delivered to the U.S. Marine Corps in August 2000.
In April 2018, the US Navy announced the retirement of the F/A-18C from combat roles after a final deployment that had ended the month prior.
E/F Super Hornet
Other US variants
- F-18(R): This was a proposed reconnaissance version of the F/A-18A. It included a sensor package that replaced the 20 mm cannon. The first of two prototypes flew in August 1984. Small numbers were produced.
- RF-18D: Proposed two-seat reconnaissance version for the US Marine Corps in the mid-1980s. It was to carry a radar reconnaissance pod. The system was canceled after it was unfunded in 1988. This ability was later realized on the F/A-18D(RC).
- TF-18A: Two-seat training version of the F/A-18A fighter, later redesignated F/A-18B.
- F-18 HARV: Single-seat High Alpha Research Vehicle for NASA. High angles of attack using thrust vectoring, modifications to the flight controls, and forebody strakes.
- X-53 Active Aeroelastic Wing: A NASA F/A-18 has been modified to demonstrate the Active Aeroelastic Wing technology, and was designated X-53 in December 2006.
- F-18L: A proposed land-based export version of the single-seat F-18A with air-superiority and attack capabilities. This variant was to be lightened by the removal of carrier landing capability and assembled by Northrop. Customers preferred the standard Hornet and the F-18L never entered mass production.
- (A)F/A-18A: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Royal Australian Air Force.
- (A)F/A-18B: Two-seat training version for the Royal Australian Air Force.
- “F/A-18A” was the original company designation, designations of “AF-18A” & “ATF-18A” have also been applied. Assembled in Australia (excluding the first two (A)F/A-18Bs) by Aero-Space Technologies of Australia (ASTA) from 1985 through to 1990, from kits produced by McDonnell Douglas with increasing local content in the later aircraft. Originally the most notable differences between an Australian (A)F/A-18A/B and a US F/A-18A/B were the lack of a catapult attachment, replacing the carrier tailhook with a lighter land arresting hook, and the automatic carrier landing system with an Instrument Landing System. Australian Hornets have been involved in several major upgrade programs. This program called HUG (Hornet Upgrade) has had a few evolutions over the years. The first was to give Australian Hornets F/A-18C model avionics. The second and current upgrade program (HUG 2.2) updates the fleet’s avionics even further.
- CF-18 Hornet
- CF-18A: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The official Canadian designation is CF-188A Hornet.
- CF-18B: Two-seat training and combat version for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The official Canadian designation is CF-188B Hornet.
- EF-18 Hornet
- EF-18A: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Spanish Air Force. The Spanish Air Force designation is C.15. They were first upgraded to the EF-18A+ version in 1992 and from 2003 to 2004 to 2013 they were locally upgraded by EADS CASA and Indra Sistemas with better avionics, TPAC, data presentation, navigation, software and ECM suit. The AN/APG-65 radar was upgraded to the V3 version and the aircraft also received the AL-400 Radar Warning Receiver and the ASQ-600 emission detector and were certified to operate with Iris-T, Meteor, GBU-48 and Taurus . This version is locally known as EF-18M/C.15M.
- EF-18B: Two-seat training version for the Spanish Air Force. The Spanish Air Force designation is CE.15. They were first upgraded to the EF-18B+ version in 1992.
- KAF-18 Hornet
- KAF-18C: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Kuwait Air Force
- KAF-18D: Two-seat training version for the Kuwait Air Force
- F-18C/D Hornet The Finnish Air Force uses F/A-18C/D Hornets, with a Finland-specific mid-life update. The first seven Hornets (D models) were produced by McDonnell Douglas. The 57 single-seat F-18C model units were assembled by Patria in Finland. These variants were delivered without air-to-ground capability so the letter A was dropped from the name. They were later upgraded to carry air-to-ground weaponry.
- F-18C/D Hornet.Switzerland uses F-18C/D, later Swiss specific mid-life update. The Swiss F-18s had no ground attack capability originally, until hardware was retrofitted.
|Crew||1 / 2|
|Length||56 ft 1 in (17.1 m)|
|Wingspan||40 ft 4 in (12.3 m)|
|Height||15 ft 5 in (4.7 m)|
||410 sq ft (38 m2)|
|Empty weight||23,000 lb (10,433 kg)|
||36,970 lb (16,769 kg)|
|Max take off weight||51,900 lb (23,541 kg)|
|Power plant (Dry thrust)
||2 × General Electric F404-GE-402 afterburning turbofan engines, 11,000 lbf (49 kN) thrust each|
|Power plant (Thrust with afterburner)
||17,750 lbf (79.0 kN)|
|Maximum speed (Sea level)
|Maximum speed (High altitude)||Mach 1.8 (1,190 mph, 1,915 km/h)|
||1,800 nmi (2,100 mi, 3,300 km)|
||50,000 ft (15,000 m)|
|Rate of climb||50,000 ft/min (250 m/s)|
|Wing loading||93 lb/sq ft (450 kg/m2)|
|Design load factor|
The F / A-18 Hornet is already a plane in the process of retirement.
- Royal Australian Air Force – 55 F/A-18A and 16 F/A-18Bs in operation as of 2008.
- Royal Canadian Air Force – 57 F/A-18A y 18 F/A-18B.
- Finnish Air Force – 55 F-18Cs and 7 F-18Ds in use as of 2015.
- Kuwait Air Force – 31 F/A-18Cs and 8 F/A-18Ds in service as of November 2008.
- Royal Malaysian Air Force – 8 F/A-18Ds in operation as of November 2008.
- Spanish Air Force – 85 F/A-18A/B in service.
- Swiss Air Force – 25 F/A-18Cs and 5 F/A-18Ds in service as of October 2017.
- United States Marine Corps 187 F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets active.