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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

Flying the F/A-18F Super Hornet
Parts 1 and 2

Dr Carlo Kopp, MAIAA, MIEEE
Originally published  Australian Aviation
May/June, 2001
© 2001,  2006 Carlo Kopp

APA Notice

This  article  predates the  mid December, 2006,  announcement by Defence that Super Hornets may be sought as gap fillers for the RAAF, and subsequent decision to acquire these aircraft. The article does not constitute  an  endorsement  of  that  proposal in any fashion and should not be  interpreted to be such  by any parties. It concentrates primarily on the history and flying qualities of the aircraft. Any attempt to present this article as an endorsement of the Super Hornet decision   will  be considered  to  be  intentional and mischievous misrepresentation.

1 Part 1 History and Analysis

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will become over the next decade the mainstay of the US Navy's carrier-borne fighter fleet. As one of the very fewfighter aircraft to remain in production around the end of the decade, it is also very likely to be carefully scrutinised as a potential replacement for the RAAF's F/A-18A/B Hornet fleet. 

Therefore this aircraft is of considerable interest to the Australian observer. In this two part feature the author  will explore the F/A-18E/F in some detail, including a demonstration flight performed during the 2001 Avalon airshow. 

The best starting point for any discussion of the F/A-18E/F is the historical background of this aircraft. 

1.1 Evolution of the Hornet

The genesis of the F/A-18 family of fighters is the period of the early seventies. At this time USN Carrier Air Wings were equipped with a mix of the MDC F-4 Phantom, the Grumman A-6E Intruder, the LTV A-7B/E Corsair, with the then new F-14A beginning to enter service. The F-14A, born from the late 1960s VFX/VFAX studies, was to replace initially the F-4 Phantom family, while plugging the gap in fleet air defence capability resulting from the collapse of the Phoenix equipped F-111B program. 

US Navy planning at that time envisaged a future force structure centred upon the F-14 family. The TF30 equipped F-14A was to be a transitional model, soon to be replaced in production by the more agile F-14B, equipped with the F401 engine, a derivative of the F100-PW-100 used in the F-15A. A follow-on multirole variant of the F-14B, designated the F-14C, was to replace the A-6E and the bombing capability of the F-4 series. This was a force structure designed to project force up to 600 NMI from the carrier battle group, in heavily defended airspace. 

In the funding collapse following the Vietnam conflict, the F-14B and F-14C died. This was in part due to a large cost growth in the F-14A, which almost bankrupted Grumman, but also in part to a massive reduction in available funding during this period. Only the F-14A remained in production, to be supplanted by the F110 powered F-14B and F-14D models during the final years of production. 

The A-6E soldiered on, intended to be upgraded during the early nineties to the A-6G configuration, and eventually replaced by the A-12A Avenger II (Dorito) stealth bomber. With the collapse of the Evil Empire, the A-6G and A-12A both died in the following budgetary upheavals, with the A-6E leaving service during the 1990s. 

The F-14 was a superb replacement for the F-4 in the fleet air defence role, but its high cost and resulting reductions in numbers meant that no replacement would available for the multirole F-4 series, which performed a significant portion of the fleet's strike operations. The USN was thus confronted with the problem of how to provide a fighter bomber cheaper than the F-14 series, to replace the F-4 and the increasingly less survivable A-4 Skyhawk and A-7 Corsair bomb trucks. 

A range of studies were performed to define a fighter to fulfill this role, as a second generation VFAX program. These included analyses of a navalised F-15 strike fighter, which were rejected due to the air force centred design optimisations of the basic aircraft - the wing design of an F-15 is not well adapted to carrier recoveries. The reality of the role to be performed was, however, was that the fighter would end up inevitably in the size and weight class of the F-4 or F-15. The dictates of Breguet's equation in payload radius impose a given airframe size.

At this time the USAF was experimenting with the idea of lightweight fighters to supplement the relatively expensive F-15A air superiority fighter, and very expensive F-111D/F strike fighter. The LightWeight Fighter (LWF) program yielded the Northrop YF-17A and the GD YF-16A. The General Dynamics fighter became the Lawn Dart/Viper/Falcon, or production F-16A-D multirole fighter. 

The Office of the Secretary of Defence (OSD), frustrated at perceived USN intransigence over the F-14 program, subsequently directed the Navy to pursue a similar program, with the aim of replacing the F-4, A-4 and A-7 with a similar lightweight fighter to the F-16. Given the USN's long standing aim of a force structure capable of power projection to a 600 NMI radius, this was not a popular directive. However, might is right, and the USN eventually proceeded with a lightweight fighter, based upon the YF-17 demonstrator. The new F/A-18A was based upon the aerodynamic design of the YF-17, but enlarged as much as the DoD bureaucracy would permit - to an empty weight of 21,000 lb, or about 2/3 that of the F-15A. 

The F/A-18A was optimised from the outset as a dual role fighter, with BVR missile capability, superb manoeuvrability for the period, and a fully digital weapon system and glass cockpit which allowed reconfiguration between air-air and air-ground software modes at the touch of a pushbutton. Reliability and low support costs were deemed a priority, and the engines and electronics were significantly derated against contemporary designs to achieve an unprecedented mean Time Between Failure for the period. Top end performance was sacrificed to achieve cost and reliability optimisation. 

The production F/A-18A entered service in VMFA/VFA or fighter-attack squadrons, progressively replacing fleet A-4, A-7 and F-4 squadrons with a single type. When introduced, it offered close in combat capability which was difficult to contest by most of its contemporaries, as the hybrid wing design and digital fly by wire controls provided exceptional high AoA manoeuvre and low speed turning performance. The aircraft's principal limitation was in its combat radius - the combination of leaky turbojet engines, pylon drag and 11,000 lb of internal fuel resulted in an effective unrefuelled radius between 250-400 NMI, depending on load, profile, combat fuel reserves and external tank configuration. 

The F/A-18A/B was exported to Australia, Canada and Spain. It was supplanted in production by the F/A-18C/D, which had slightly uprated engines to offset weight growth, and a range of various avionic and detail modifications. This aircraft was exported to Switzerland, Kuwait, Malaysia and Finland. As an export product, the F/A-18 faced a lightweight fighter market saturated with cheaper and non-BVR capable F-16As, and a heavyweight fighter market saturated with F-15A-D (Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan). As a result, it never achieved the hoped for volume of export sales. 

Operationally the F/A-18A-D series has proved to be a popular aircraft, with excellent operational reliability, handling and flexible weapons capabilities. Its principal limitation was in combat radius performance, which proved to be a major issue with the progressive retirement of the A-6 fleet, which provided the USN's primary KA-6D tanker aircraft. As the larger KA-3D tankers had already been retired, tanking capacity was becoming an ever scarcer commodity by the nineties. 

The nineties also resulted in ongoing budgetary and force structure cuts, as the post Cold War drawdown continued. As noted earlier, the A-12A and A-6 upgrades died, and the F-14D production was terminated. The USN's primary role of Cold War blue water maritime control, aimed at defeating the USSR's massive SSN and Backfire strike forces, was supplanted by littoral warfare, in effect modern gunboat diplomacy intended to provide a rapid reaction capability to deal with problem nations disturbing the peace. USN carriers played key roles in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, the 1990's Balkans campaigns, the ongoing war of attrition against Saddam Hussein's regime, and the late nineties standoff between Taiwan and the PRC, during which the PRC threatened Taiwan with ballistic missiles. 

This is an environment in which top end air superiority and deep penetration strike capabilities are considered ancillary to the capability to flexibly strike against well defended coastal targets, suppress integrated air defences and provide air support and top cover for amphibious forces. Indeed, with the retirement of the A-6E, the remaining F-14 force has been progressively adapted to deliver guided and unguided bombs, earning the new informal label of Bombcat. 

By the early nineties it was clear that the aging F-14 fleet would have to be replaced over the coming decade or so, and a replacement concurrently provided to plug the gap left by the never replaced A-6E fleet. The core requirements for such a replacement aircraft were a combat radius competitive against the 600 NMI class F-14/A-6 combination, and CAP endurance in fleet defence operations competitive against the F-14 series. 

During the early nineties considerable effort was expended in studies aimed at adapting the new USAF F-22A to carrier operations, as the F-22N. Problems soon arose, as the baseline land-based F-22 is not optimised for the unique carrier environment. The most difficult issue proved to be the wing - the unhappy experience of the USN with blown flaps on the F-4 series, the obvious solution to achieving the required recovery speeds for trapping such a large aircraft, led to the adoption of a swing wing configuration. This in turn pushed up the cost of the redesign, since the stealth characteristics (ie shaping) would have to be completely requalified, adding already to the considerable costs of a structural redesign and avionic system redesign. In effect the F-22N would be a new aircraft, resulting in little saving through commonality. Given the required number of aircraft, this proved to be unaffordable to a USN already under major budgetary pressures. 

What the USN needed was a aircraft which could eventually replace the aging F-14 and F/A-18A-D fleet, plug the hole left by the A-6E and KA-6D, and do so within a restricted development budget and timeline. 

The result of these pressures is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.   

1.2 The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

The Super Hornet is substantially a new aircraft, which shares only limited structural commonality with the F/A-18A-D family of fighters. While the F/A-18E/F forward fuselage is derived from the F/A-18C design, the wing, centre and aft fuselage, tail surfaces and powerplants are entirely new. The baseline avionic system is however largely derived from the F/A-18C, with planned growth through further evolved derivatives of the radar, EW and core avionic systems, and entirely new systems where appropriate. 

The designation F/A-18E/F reflects the fact that the aircraft is derived from the F/A-18A-D, even if it is a significantly larger airframe design - the program was implemented as an Engineering Change Proposal (ECP) to avoid a costly demonstration program and fly-off, as has occurred with the F-22/YF-23 and JSF. A side effect of this idiosyncrasy in nomenclature is that the F/A-18E/F is frequently dismissed as just another Hornet, yet the aircraft is different in many respects. 

From a design perspective, the most notable change in the Super Hornet is its size, designed around an internal fuel (JP5) capacity of 14,700 lb, or 36% more than the F/A-18C/E. This most closely compares to the F-15C, which has around 10% less internal fuel than the Super Hornet. 

Sizing around a 36% greater internal fuel load, with the aim of retaining the established agility performance of the F/A-18C, resulted in a larger wing of 500 sqft area, against the 400 sqft area of the F/A-18C, a 20% increase. The consequent sizing changes result in a 30,885 lb empty weight (31,500 lb basic weight) aircraft, a 30% increase against the F/A-18C. Not surprisingly, the aircraft's empty weight is 8% greater than the F-15C, reflecting the structural realities of catapult launches and tailhook recoveries. 

The larger F414 engine, a refanned and evolved F404 variant, delivers 20,700 lb static SL thrust in afterburner, which is around 8% less than the F100-PW-220 in the F-15C. 

The simplest metric of the F/A-18E/F is that it is an F-15A-D sized F/A-18C derivative, optimised for the naval environment. The similarity in size between the F/A-18E/F and F-15A-D is no coincidence - as the original VFAX studies in the 1960s and 1970s showed, this is the optimal fighter size for the given combat radius. In effect, the F/A-18E/F is what the F/A-18A Hornet should have been from the outset, had it not been hobbled at birth by a budget driven bureaucracy. 

Size is where the similarity between the Super Hornet and Eagle end, since the Super Hornet is optimised aerodynamically around the F/A-18A-D configuration, with a focus on transonic manoeuvre and load carrying performance, and carrier recovery characteristics. In terms of raw performance, the Super Hornet is very similar to the F/A-18C, but provides significantly better CAP endurance and operating radius by virtue of its larger wing and internal fuel load. 

With three 480 USG drop tanks, full internal fuel, combat and reserve fuel allowances, 8 x AIM-120 AMRAAMs and 2 x AIM-9 Sidewinders, the aircraft has a point intercept radius in excess of 650 NMI, with some assumptions made about expended missiles. This is radius performance in the class of the F-15C. 

Like the F/A-18A-D, the F/A-18E/F was designed from the outset for a dual role fighter bomber mission environment. The enlarged wings have three hardpoints each, typically loaded with a pair of 480 USG tanks inboard and weapons on the pair of outboard stations. The wingtip Sidewinder rail is retained. 

A notable aerodynamic feature is a significantly enlarged strake design over the baseline Hornet, intended to improve vortex lifting characteristics in high AoA manoeuvre, and reduce the static stability margin to enhance pitching characteristics - Boeing cite pitch rates in excess of 40 degrees per second. 

Structurally the Super Hornet is built largely from aluminium alloys, with extensive use of carbon fibre composite skins in the wings, and titanium in several critical areas. The design load factor limit of 7.5G is identical to the F/A-18A-D. 

The most notable visual difference between the F/A-18A-D and F/A-18E/F, to the casual observer, are the engine inlets. These are are fixed in geometry, but using a rectangular geometry more akin to the F-15 design. 

The inlets represent a key design optimisation intended to reduce the aircraft's forward sector radar cross section. The edge alignment of the inlet leading edges is designed to scatter radiation to the sides, and fixed fanlike reflecting structure in the inlet tunnel performs a role analogous to the mesh on the inlets of the F-117A, keeping microwave illumination off the rotating fan blades.

The F/A-18E aircraft makes considerable use of panel join serration and edge alignment. Close inspection of the aircraft shows considerable attention paid to the removal or filling of unnecessary surface join gaps and resonant cavities. Where the F/A-18A-D used grilles to cover various accessory exhaust and inlet ducts, the F/A-18E/F uses centimetric band opaque perforated panels. Careful attention has been paid to the alignment of many panel boundaries and edges, to scatter travelling waves away from the aircraft boresight. 

It would be fair to say that the F/A-18E/F employs the most extensive radar cross section reduction measures of any contemporary fighter, other than the very low observable F-22 and planned JSF. While the F/A-18E/F is not a true stealth fighter like the F-22, it will have a forward sector RCS arguably an order of magnitude smaller than seventies designed fighters. Since every deciBel of RCS reduction counts until you get into the range of weapon payload RCS, the F/A-18E/F represents the reasonable limit of what is worth doing on a fighter carrying external stores. None of the RCS reduction features employed in the F/A-18E/F are visible on any of the three Eurocanards, which raises interesting questions about the relative forward sector RCS reduction performance of these types. 

The Super Hornet employs a further evolved derivative of the F/A-18C avionic package. While the AN/APG-73 radar, common to the RAAF HUG, is retained, provisions will be made in production blocks for the AN/APG-79 (formerly AN/APG-73 RUG III phased array) Active Electronically Steered Array (AESA) retrofit. The new ATFLIR targeting pod will also be used, employing a new midwave 4-5 micron band Focal Plane Array high resolution imager. 

The new ATFLIR is a high resolution midwave design, which is a generation in technology beyond most of the FLIR targeting pods currently in operational use. This targeting pod will supplant the existing F/A-18C pod set (Photo Boeing). 

The APG-73 provides very respectable air-ground modes, including synthetic aperture modes (depicted). With the capability to interleave MTI modes with surface mapping modes, the radar provides a potent capability against battlefield and maritime targets . The APG-79 active phased array radar (formerly APG-73 RUG III) is a planned growth feature for the F/A-18E/F family of fighters. It is derived from the baseline APG-73 by the replacement of the planar array antenna with a solid state Active Electronically Steered Antenna array. This will provide the radar with the ability to timeshare operating modes concurrently, as well as improving jam resistance and reducing detectibility through much reduced sidelobes . 

The core avionic computing package is based upon militarised COTS VMEbus PowerPC processors (common to desktop Apple PowerMacs and recently built F-15Es), which are of the order of a hundred times more powerful than the 16-bit generation AN/AYK-14 processors in the F/A-18C. This is a significant advancement in long term supportability, and provides a very robust platform for evolution of the onboard software OFPs. The cockpit software is highly integrated by the standards of Mil-Std-1553B bussed architectures, and provides facilities for display fusion of MIDS datalink, RWR threat information and digital moving map displays. 

While the preproduction aircraft employ a mix of cockpit CRT and AMLCD displays, the intent is to employ high resolution NVG compatible AMLCD panels in production block aircraft. A strike optimised missionised aft cockpit with a large 10 x 8 inch AMLCD display is in development. The JHMCS Helmet Mounted Display will be employed to cue the new thrust vectoring AIM-9X missile, with growth to cue air to surface weapons. 

The EWSP package is build around a late model ALR-67 warning receiver, the now revived ALQ-165 ASPJ defensive jammer, supplemented by the ALE-50 towed decoy and ALE-47 dispenser. Current growth plans include the ALQ-214 RF countermeasures package and ALE-55 fibre optic towed decoy from the IDECM suite. The latter is particularly effective against newer monopulse threat systems, since it can provide for long baseline crosseye jamming.

The current configuration of the F/A-18E/F avionic package is the most advanced of any production aircraft based upon a Mil-Std-1553B bussed federated architecture, and is surpassed only by the much newer F-22A and JSF architectures. It is very likely that growth variants of the F/A-18E/F will see the progressive incorporation of avionics technology used in the JSF. 

In terms of broad comparisons, the F/A-18E/F most closely compares to the late model F-15 variants. While it does not have the supersonic optimised wing and top end BVR combat and supersonic agility performance of APG-63(V)2 phased array fitted F-15C models, it has a more recent avionic package, radar cross section reduction measures absent on the F-15 and a very modern defensive EW package. In most key respects, the Super Hornet is a substantial improvement over the established F/A-18A-D models, especially in combat radius performance. While the aircraft is frequently criticised for not offering a dazzling supersonic agility and thrust/weight performance increase over the baseline F/A-18C, this was not a primary design objective. Rather, the aim was to provide a low risk near term growth aircraft exploiting the established technology investment in the F/A-18C, and utilising newer technologies such as RCS reduction, integrated MIDS datalink and advanced countermeasures to improve the aircraft's survivability and lethality without the cost penalties of a clean sheet new design. 

At this time Boeing and the USN have planned growth paths for the basic aircraft in avionics and weapons, and a new engine derived from the F-22/JSF technology base is seen to be an attractive addition, but as yet is unfunded. Considerable development has also been committed to an electronic combat derivative of the F/A-18F, colloquially termed the F/A-18G. This aircraft would replace the EA-6B Prowler, which is often considered too slow to keep up with strike packages, with a fully combat capable escort jammer and HARM shooter. The Airborne Electronic Attack Variant F/A-18F derivative would employ wing tip pods with receiver equipment, a mission avionics package in the M-61 gun bay, and a mixed payload of AN/ALQ-99 derivative high power support jamming pods and AGM-88 HARM or derivative anti-radiation missiles. This aircraft would in concept most closely resemble a fusion of the F-4G Weasel and EF-111A/EA-6B models into a single type, which would retain most of the multirole capabilities of the basic F/A-18F aircraft. 

The use of a buddy refuelling pod in conjunction with four 480 USG wing tanks is envisaged as a standard role for the F/A-18E/F, to provide a tactical tanking lost with the KA-6D. As the last KS-3 Viking tankers will soon be out of life, the F/A-18E/F is likely to become the sole tanker asset available to carrier airwings. Unlike the KA-6D and KS-3, it is not going to be an easy kill for an opposing fighter force, and since it is substantially faster it will be much more effective in reactive or emergency refuelling situations. 

In terms of meeting the USN's aim for a low risk F-14/A-6 and F/A-18A-D replacement, in a timescale and budget compatible with current circumstances, and prior to the production of the high risk high payoff full stealth JSF, the F/A-18E/F clearly meets this objective. 

Supersonic over the Bass Strait

2 Part 2 A Cockpit Perspective

One of the privileges of being a defence analyst and writer is the occasional opportunity to indulge in flying some very interesting aircraft. This Avalon airshow Boeing very graciously invited me to partake in the pleasures of flying the F/A-18F Super Hornet, equipped with the latest revision of the digital flight control system. The aircraft far exceeded my expectations in both handling qualities and ease of cockpit use. 

The aircraft flown, BuNo 165797, was one of a pair of production aircraft brought out to the Avalon airshow, and operated by the US Navy at NAS Lemoore for weapons delivery trials. In terms of configuration these aircraft were equipped with a unclassified software load, designated 18EI "V". 

The cockpit configuration of these aircraft represents early production status, using cathode ray tube MultiFunction Displays (MFD, formerly Digital Display Indicators or DDI) for the left and right cockpit displays and touch sensitive Up Front Control (UFC) panel, but full colour AMLCD panels for the centre moving map display. The aft cockpit had the centre MFD installed above the UFC panel. 

Production configuration aircraft will have the aft cockpit UFC installed above the centre colour MFD, with growth variants using a much larger 8 x 10 inch AMLCD display for tactical situation data and moving maps. The aft cockpit does not have provisions for displaying HUD camera video on the UFC or MFDs. Modes for the MFDs are all selectable by pushbuttons on the bezels. Production aircraft will use high resolution colour AMLCD panels in all displays, including the UFC.

The cockpit layout follows the basic style of late model F/A-18C aircraft, with an improved engine and fuel status display. Pilot feedback saw Boeing restore a rotary switch for the bingo fuel setting on this panel. 

The controls are standard stick and throttles, with mechanical linkages between cockpits for all but the rudder pedals. Mode controls for the weapon system are all incorporated in the HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) controls, in addition to a master mode selector switch for A/A or A/G in the upper right of the cockpit. A single switch is also available to disable all aircraft electronic emissions from a single point, under EMCON conditions. 

Like other modern Boeing cockpits, the system is very easy to operate with well laid out mode select controls, and the capability to display any format on any particular display. We flew the aircraft with the left MFD configured as a HUD symbology repeater, the centre MFD as a moving map with overlayed navigation symbology and compass rosette, and the right MFD as the radar display. 


2.1 Flying the Super Hornet

My demonstration pilot was Dave Desmond, Boeing's Chief Experimental Test Pilot on the F/A-18E/F program and a former US Marine Corps F/A-18A-D operational pilot, who has flown every USN/USMC Hornet model since 1981. During the Super Hornet flight test program he performed much of the high G handling tests for the aircraft with various load configurations. The dazzling Avalon flight demonstrations were flown by Boeing Senior Experimental Test Pilot Mike Bryan, a former USN operational pilot. 

Preparation for the flight was meticulous, with 1.5 hours earlier in the week dedicated to G-suit and helmet fitting, and a 2 hour preflight briefing which included detailed discussion of emergency handling and aircraft recovery procedures should an ill behaved avian find its way through the windshield. 

Two areas were available for demonstration flying, an overwater corridor south of Avalon and east of King Island for supersonic runs, and a Hornet Box east of Colac for overland flight demonstrations. Both were loaded into the computer and displayed on the moving map, a very convenient feature once airborne. Weather conditions were cool, but clear with very little cloud cover, ideal for a VFR sortie. The aircraft configuration was very light, with full internal fuel and all stations empty. 

The plan for the sortie was to demonstrate some of the aircraft's handling characteristics and avionics, with the caveat that my very few hours of recent aerobatic time would set bounds on how much we could explore the envelope. Needless to say, 2 second increments of 5.5 G on a 200 HP Z.242L piston aerobatic trainer set limits on how much manoeuvre tolerance you can gain in a hurry! 

After the customary preflight walkaround I was strapped in and hooked up, upon which Dave briefed me on the use of the MFDs and UFC. Once Dave strapped in, the APU was started and then the engines. Oxygen is generated by the OBOGS which requires an operating engine. The pretakeoff BIT was initiated on the MFD and the computer waggled all of the control surfaces - we dispensed with the habitual freedom of controls movement test. All bit status information is tabulated on the MFD and all failed BIT tests flagged as degraded on the MFD. 

With engines turning, cockpit closed and seats armed, we taxied to the holding point and waited our turn in the queue for runway access. 

For takeoff, Dave selected full afterburner and rotated at 105 KIAS. Once airborne, we levelled off and accelerated to 370 KIAS for a 45 degree pull up and full power climbout at 250 KIAS. The RoC off the runway was around 27,000 FPM and we climbed to FL200 ft in about 1.5 minutes from brake release. We reached FL260 at 297 KIAS and Dave handed the aircraft over to me with the customary stick waggle, pulling the throttles out of afterburner. 

My first manoeuvre was a 360 degree left aileron roll at about 1/2 stick input. The aircraft's response was very crisp and full roll rate achieved very quickly, at about 120 degrees/sec. The roll recovery was a little messy, by force of habit I applied opposite stick to arrest the roll rate sharply and ended up 15 degrees into a right roll before I neutralised the stick position. The Flight Control System (FCS) reacts very sharply to control inputs and is perfectly damped from a pilot's perspective, the aircraft reacts almost instantaneously with G and roll rates proportional to stick deflection, at all airspeeds. Typically one inch of stick deflection produces 2 G of load factor, with very light and comfortable stick force for small control inputs. The Super Hornet can be flown very precisely with gentle control handling, and is very easy to point. 

While I maintained heading and altitude at Mach 0.95, Dave lit up the APG-73 and demonstrated the interleaved surface search mode. In this mode the radar interleaves synthetic Maritime Moving Target Indicator (MMTI) tracks with raw video, the latter allowing the pilot to gauge the size of the surface track. We locked up a pair of large transport vessels tracking the coastline on opposite headings. The size differences were clearly evident in surface search mode.

Rolling through 360, supersonic.

Once we completed the radar demo, Dave suggested I do a supersonic run and explore supersonic handling. I pushed the throttles past the detente into full afterburner and the aircraft accelerated through the sound barrier, with only a gentle bump to indicate that we had gone supersonic, the FCS smoothing out the Mach dither very effectively. Ten minutes into the sortie, at 735 KTAS/485 IAS/M1.18 I initiated a half stick 360 left aileron roll, and recovered the roll cleanly. The handling was indistinguishable from the subsonic roll, with a roll rate of about 120 degrees/sec for a half stick input. At Dave's suggestion, I pulled the throttle back out of burner and initiated a climbing supersonic 2.0G heading change to point at 330 degrees to the Hornet Box over Colac. The aircraft turns very smoothly and little stick force is required to hold 2G, virtually no lateral stick input adjustments were required to keep the nose on the horizon. Airspeed bled off fairly slowly despite the applied G and altitude change. 

While I maintained heading at 280 KIAS/FL350 kft, Dave selected the Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) mode on the APG-73 and we started hunting for some road traffic along the coastline at about 40-50 NMI slant range. Within seconds a row of tracks appeared across the scope, as expected outlining the Princes Highway near Colac. Some tracks intermittently appeared and disappeared, as trees blocked the line of sight between the radar and moving vehicles. Dave attempted a single target track on at least two targets but the foliage produced repeated dropouts - as much as we tried we couldn't cheat the physics of radar absorption. 

We crossed the coastline, feet dry, to enter the Hornet box.   

2.2 The Virtual Speedbrake

The next handling demonstration involved involved the speedbrake and some high alpha low speed handling, an area in which many fighters experience problems in maintaining direction and avoiding a departure into uncontrolled flight. 

The first demonstration involved the virtual speedbrake effectiveness and handling in this configuration. The F/A-18A-D, like the F-15 series, employs an upper fuselage hydraulically deployed speedbrake. The Super Hornet has no such device, yet achieves the same effect through what can only be described as digital magic. The speedbrake function is produced by a balanced deployment of opposing flight control surfaces, generating drag without loss of flight control authority or change in aircraft pitch attitude. 

Dave demonstrated the speedbrake function, and I was asked to observe over the shoulder and in the mirrors the raised ailerons, lowered trailing flaps, raised spoilers and splayed out rudders. Deceleration is smooth and there is no observable pitch change. 

At Mach 0.63 Dave invited me to fly another 360 aileron roll, to observe that the aircraft retains considerable control authority despite the fact that the rudders are splayed out, and the ailerons, spoilers and flaps are generating balanced opposing pitching moments. I applied roughly 1/2 stick input and the aircraft very cleanly rolled through 360 degrees at about 90 degrees/sec roll rate. I commented on the lower roll rate and Dave observed that we were significantly slower, he then proceeded to demonstrate the roll again with a full stick input, producing around 180 degrees/sec with a slight overshoot on recovery. The aircraft feels very stable throughout the manoeuvre and there is no observable change in control forces or control input response by the FCS. 


2.3 High Alpha Handling

We then proceeded with some high alpha handling. Entry into this regime involved pulling back the power, while I tracked the control movements hands on, Dave progressively increased the amount of aft stick to maintain a constant airspeed around 90 KIAS. Power is concurrently added to maintain altitude and airspeed, and the aircraft was stable at 43 degrees alpha. Dave then demonstrated a full 360 degree aileron roll while maintaining over 40 alpha and close to full aft stick. Having worked through several manoeuvres, we took at break to explore further radar modes. Dave selected the high resolution spot SAR mode and slewed the patch map over Colac. After several sweeps the image sharpened up and we could resolve individual buildings and streets in the town, clearly contrasted against Lake Colac. The difference in groundmap quality against the sixties technology real-beam mapping APQ-161 truly reflects the 4 decades of intervening technological evolution. Having explored main street Colac for several minutes, we turned our attention to the Avalon airfield.

At about Mach 0.6 at FL200 Dave selected SAR spot mapping and slewed the radar over the Avalon parking area. With the nose pointing to Avalon, a few miles east of Colac, we had very little lateral Doppler and at Dave's prompting I slewed the nose about 30 degrees to the right to get a larger angle off the nose. Within several seconds the picture began to sharpen up, and Dave adjusted the patch position so we could observe the corral and pilot's hut from whence we had departed less than an hour ago. It took little effort to resolve the parked aircraft and the hut, the fence posts along the runway resonated nicely and we got a clean row of dots across the picture. Exploring the image, the fields full of parked cars were easily resolved, as were the row of chalets, the control tower and taxiways. Picture contrast was excellent and the synthetic image was highly stable. 

An attack with a glide weapon like an AGM-154 JSOW or winged GBU-31/32 variant would be very easy to execute with a delivery accuracy of mere feet, in zero visibility conditions, using this mode. 

Dave handed the aircraft over and I flew several gentle 1.5G turns, while we discussed the control forces and required inputs per G. Dave switched the radar into real beam mapping mode and pushed the throttles to mil while I pulled the nose up to climb back up to FL280. 

I was invited to fly the aircraft into a high alpha regime. I pulled off the power at Dave's instruction and applied aft stick to bleed off airspeed while holding altitude. At about 30 degrees alpha a distinct rumbling sound developed, as the airflow over the aircraft began to break up into turbulent flow, yet the handling did not perceptibly change. Stick force however did increase noticeably, as I approached 3/4 aft stick deflection I needed both hands to comfortably pull the stick back further. Holding 90 KIAS I pulled the aircraft gradually back to 48 degrees alpha, while Dave worked the throttles. 

The aircraft was very stable throughout entry and the progressive increase in AoA, there was no perceptible rolling sensitivity in lateral stick inputs, the knife edge balance preceding a wing drop which one would intuitively expect as a result of the aircraft's speed and angle of attack was absent. From the pilot's perspective, the feel is very solid and smooth. 

Small lateral stick inputs yielded a proportionate response, there was no perceptible reduction in control input sensitivity in this regime. To exit from the manoeuvre, I released the aft stick pressure, and as the aircraft unloaded Dave pulled back the power.   

2.4 Flying the Pirouette

The pirouette manoeuvre was developed at the request of operational pilots, as a high alpha low speed reversal, akin in its purpose to the classical yo-yo. In a high yo-yo, the pilot unloads in a tight turn, climbing and decelerating, then rolls 90 degrees and pulls through 180 degrees to reverse direction, leaving the aircraft pointing at the target with an altitude advantage. The pirouette is an in-plane reversal manoeuvre which resembles a conventional stall turn or hammerhead in a piston aircraft. 

To execute the pirouette at low speed, the aircraft is placed into a high alpha attitude, and as airspeed drops to around 100-200 KIAS and full back-stick is held in, full lateral stick and rudder are applied into the direction of the reversal. 

The stick and rudder force for the pirouette entry are light, compared to the aft stick force, and the aircraft very smoothly slices around in-plane, wings level, to point in the opposite direction. The stick and pedal inputs are in effect the same as for a snap roll, but the FCS software senses the attitude and control inputs and executes the pirouette. Without the FCS code designed to do this, most fighters would depart and possibly do so in a direction other than that intended by the pilot. 

To demonstrate the pirouette, Dave asked me to take the controls and apply progressively more aft stick to bleed off airspeed. As we hit 155 KIAS, 20 degrees alpha at 1.9G load factor, I followed his instructions and applied full right rudder and stick. The aircraft pivoted around, slowing to 80 KIAS over the top and with controls neutralised accelerated quickly to 215 KIAS coming out of the manoeuvre. 

The pirouette is almost ridiculously easy to fly, and the aircraft does so very smoothly, at no point does the pilot feel an impending departure or other loss of controllability. 

Having played through the key radar modes and worked through the basic high alpha manoeuvres, Dave was unable to tempt me into the inverted stall and pull through manoeuvre which I had a mere one hour ago looked forward to trying. My lack of currency had been catching up with me, and we agreed it was time to exercise the aircraft through a couple of touch and goes and then call it a day. We departed at a leisurely pace from the Hornet box for some circuits at Avalon.

2.5 Air-Air Radar Modes

Enroute to the Avalon circuit I requested some more radar airwork, specifically another attempt at acquiring some airborne targets. Sadly, the scarcity of airborne traffic in the vicinity resulted in a non target-rich environment. Dave selected the air-air master mode, and put the radar into B-scan search display while attempting to acquire a target. In the B-scan mode, the MFD shows an azimuth vs elevation view of the antenna field of regard. The TDC (Throttle Designator Controller) two axis control switch is used to slew the search box bars through the radar field of view. The pilot can select the velocity range within which targets are acquired and outside which they are rejected. 

We acquired a target very quickly, but its altitude indicated that some hapless motorist was being painted for an AIM-7 shot! Resetting the velocities to more realistic numbers yielded little success. A bad afternoon for BVR practice. 

At my request, Dave selected the AIM-7 Sparrow HUD mode, AIM-120 AMRAAM being absent in this software load. This presented a circle on the HUD and left MFD, with a range arc and supporting data. 

Much to my disappointment, uncooperative afternoon air traffic denied me the opportunity to play BVR shooter! I looked forward to the possible opportunity to practice a BVR engagement against a fat juicy RPT heavy out of Tullamarine, alas I was unlucky. 

I slowed to 250 KIAS and ducked under the 2,500 ft CTA step to position for an oblique downwind join, while Dave made the radio calls and demonstrated an air-air track with AIM-9 selected, against an aircraft in the Avalon circuit. 

2.6 In the Circuit

I joined the circuit on an oblique late and very wide downwind for runway 18, pulling back the power to slow down through 200 KIAS down to about 150 KIAS at 1,500 ft and turning into a very wide base for a long final. The aim was to get plenty of time to set up for the proper glideslope. Dave lowered the gear and flaps, as only emergency gear deployment controls are present in the aft cockpit. There was no perceptible pitching during undercarriage deployment. 

Dirty, with flap deployed, at 125-130 KIAS the aircraft is very smooth and stable and exceptionally easy to point very precisely. The HUD mode for landing has a very nice extended synthetic horizon line, and a glideslope vector marker as well as the velocity vector symbol. Dave trimmed the aircraft properly. 

My power adjustments were producing an excessive sink rate entering finals, and on Dave's instructions I added power to get back on the glideslope. With a light crosswind from the east, very little rudder was required to get the few degrees of crab angle for a good centreline on finals. With the forward cockpit ejection seat blocking my view, the bulging sides of the canopy provided enough forward view to lean sideways and keep the aircraft comfortably on the centreline. With HUD symbology on the left MFD, the glideslope pipper is easily tracked to verify whether the descent is above or below the required glideslope.

Short finals, Runway 18, Avalon. Note the crab angle.

As we crossed the threshold I began to raise the nose slightly to flare and was promptly told to drive it in - we hit the runway at a nominal sink rate of around 10 ft/sec, all of which was absorbed by the sturdy naval undercarriage. The aircraft swayed about 5 degrees in a slight rolling motion but within a couple of seconds righted itself as we rolled along 18. Rolling along the runway, Dave instructed me to apply a little right and then left rudder input to try out the nosewheel steering, which is quite firm. With about half of the runway gone, Dave applied mil power and on his call I gently rotated the aircraft off the runway. 

We climbed up to about 1,500 ft in the circuit, and turned smoothly on to downwind. The second circuit was considerably tighter, a large pelican sighted at our altitude during the turn to final thankfully did not require an evasive manoeuvre to avoid. Again, the aircraft's smooth and stable handling in landing configuration made the circuit easy to fly precisely. Another no-flare touchdown, upon which Dave took the controls, applied mil power, rotated and then accelerated along the runway to sharply pull up in a 40 degree climb at 125 KIAS. As the aircraft hit 1,000 ft, Dave rolled the aircraft on its wingtip and flew a very tight join on downwind for a very tight circuit and descent on to finals for a showpiece landing. We stopped at about one third runway length, where I was given a demonstration of the carrier optimised nosewheel steering. The aircraft swung around almost on the spot to point downwind for a backtracking taxi to the parking area. 

The flight was over, and in minutes I would have to part with an aircraft which was a sheer pleasure to fly, even at the very edge of the envelope. We taxied back with 1.1 hrs elapsed and 4,000 lb of fuel remaining.  

Boeing's F/A-18E/F Chief Experimental Test Pilot Dave Desmond and the author, post sortie.

2.7 Observations

The Super Hornet is a fighter with exceptional handling qualities, even by modern fighter standards, which even a novice can handle comfortably and with confidence at the edge of the low speed manoeuvre envelope. 

The point which Boeing and the US Navy have made most convincingly, is that the aircraft's flight control software is so robust that even a beginner on the type can fly it without embarrassing himself too badly. Sceptics should note that test pilot comments about fighters with this generation of flight controls being as easy to fly as a Cessna 172 are indeed correct. There is no room for argument here, as I had the opportunity to observe first hand! 

In the hands of an experienced combat pilot, such flight control software means that the pilot can be wholly focussed on the furball in progress, and need not devote any thought to pushing the aircraft past the edge into a uncontrolled departure and resulting risk of a ground impact or successful enemy missile shot. The importance of a substantially departure resistant aircraft, especially if encumbered with stores, cannot be understated - carefree handling translates directly into combat effectiveness. 

In a low speed post-merge manoeuvring fight, with a high off-boresight 4th generation missile and Helmet Mounted Display, the Super Hornet will be a very difficult opponent for any current Russian fighter, even the Su-27/30. The analogue and early generation digital flight controls with hard-wired or hard-coded AoA limiters used in the Russian aircraft are a generation behind the Super Hornet and a much more experienced pilot will be required for the Russian types to match the ease with which the Super Hornet handles high alpha flight regimes. 

The reports emanating from carrier landing trials performed in the US cannot be disputed, the aircraft is a sheer delight in the circuit and will take much of the anxiety out of night and bad weather traps, especially for nugget fighter-attack pilots. 

The cockpit ergonomics build upon two decades of Hornet experience, and make for a very comfortable and easy to use cockpit environment. Again, a novice pilot will find the MFD modes easy to navigate and easy to follow. The colour moving map display makes navigational orientation ridiculously easy, against the mental chores of VOR/DME/TACAN, radar mapping and INS/map-on-the-knee navigation. The prospect of MIDS/RWR/radar/IFF tracks being overlayed on the moving map will take much effort out of maintaining wider area situational awareness. 

The radar is very easy to use in MMTI, GMTI and SAR spot mapping modes, and provides an excellent tool for highly accurate all weather maritime strike, littoral strike and battlefield interdiction operations. In particular, the ability to interleave MTI and surface mapping modes is exceptionally useful for resolving and identifying moving surface targets of opportunity. 

In conclusion, the reports of the Hornet's exceptional high alpha handling characteristics are provably correct. Established Hornet users should not be disappointed by this aircraft! 

A key role in USN service will be tactical tanking, using a buddy refuelling store. With the loss of the KA-6D fleet and impending retirement of the KS-3 Viking tankers, the F/A-18E/F will become the sole carrier based tactical tanking asset. Unlike the KA-6D and KS-3, an F/A-18E/F gas truck is not a tanker to be trifled with by hostile fighters (Photo Boeing)


3 Acknowledgements

Thanks to Boeing and the US Navy F/A-18E/F Program Office for their efforts in enabling the author to fly the F/A-18F, and especially Boeing's F/A-18E/F Chief Experimental Test Pilot Dave Desmond.

Imagery - US Navy, Boeing.

F/A-18E and F/A-18F (© 2010, Jeroen Oude Wolbers).

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