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
be considered to be intentional and mischievous
1 Part 1 History and Analysis
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will become over the next decade the
of the US Navy's carrier-borne fighter fleet. As one of the very
aircraft to remain in production around the end of the decade, it is
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
observer. In this two part feature the author will explore the
in some detail, including a demonstration flight performed during the
The best starting point for any discussion of the F/A-18E/F is
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
with the then new F-14A beginning to enter service. The F-14A, born
the late 1960s VFX/VFAX studies, was to replace initially the F-4
family, while plugging the gap in fleet air defence capability
from the collapse of the Phoenix equipped F-111B program.
US Navy planning at that time envisaged a future force
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,
with the F401 engine, a derivative of the F100-PW-100 used in the
A follow-on multirole variant of the F-14B, designated the F-14C, was
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
battle group, in heavily defended airspace.
In the funding collapse following the Vietnam conflict, the
F-14C died. This was in part due to a large cost growth in the F-14A,
almost bankrupted Grumman, but also in part to a massive reduction in
funding during this period. Only the F-14A remained in production, to
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
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
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
role, but its high cost and resulting reductions in numbers meant that
no replacement would available for the multirole F-4 series, which
a significant portion of the fleet's strike operations. The USN was
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
A-4 Skyhawk and A-7 Corsair bomb trucks.
A range of studies were performed to define a fighter to
role, as a second generation VFAX program. These included analyses of
a navalised F-15 strike fighter, which were rejected due to the air
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
to be performed was, however, was that the fighter would end up
in the size and weight class of the F-4 or F-15. The dictates of
equation in payload radius impose a given airframe size.
At this time the USAF was experimenting with the idea of
fighters to supplement the relatively expensive F-15A air superiority
and very expensive F-111D/F strike fighter. The LightWeight Fighter
program yielded the Northrop YF-17A and the GD YF-16A. The General
fighter became the Lawn Dart/Viper/Falcon, or production F-16A-D
The Office of the Secretary of Defence (OSD), frustrated at
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
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
The F/A-18A was optimised from the outset as a dual role
BVR missile capability, superb manoeuvrability for the period, and a
digital weapon system and glass cockpit which allowed reconfiguration
air-air and air-ground software modes at the touch of a pushbutton.
and low support costs were deemed a priority, and the engines and
were significantly derated against contemporary designs to achieve an
mean Time Between Failure for the period. Top end performance was
to achieve cost and reliability optimisation.
The production F/A-18A entered service in VMFA/VFA or
squadrons, progressively replacing fleet A-4, A-7 and F-4 squadrons
a single type. When introduced, it offered close in combat capability
was difficult to contest by most of its contemporaries, as the hybrid
design and digital fly by wire controls provided exceptional high AoA
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
radius between 250-400 NMI, depending on load, profile, combat fuel
and external tank configuration.
The F/A-18A/B was exported to Australia, Canada and Spain. It
in production by the F/A-18C/D, which had slightly uprated engines to
weight growth, and a range of various avionic and detail modifications.
This aircraft was exported to Switzerland, Kuwait, Malaysia and
As an export product, the F/A-18 faced a lightweight fighter market
with cheaper and non-BVR capable F-16As, and a heavyweight fighter
saturated with F-15A-D (Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan). As a result,
never achieved the hoped for volume of export sales.
Operationally the F/A-18A-D series has proved to be a popular
with excellent operational reliability, handling and flexible weapons
Its principal limitation was in combat radius performance, which proved
to be a major issue with the progressive retirement of the A-6 fleet,
provided the USN's primary KA-6D tanker aircraft. As the larger KA-3D
had already been retired, tanking capacity was becoming an ever scarcer
commodity by the nineties.
The nineties also resulted in ongoing budgetary and force
cuts, as the post Cold War drawdown continued. As noted earlier, the
and A-6 upgrades died, and the F-14D production was terminated. The
primary role of Cold War blue water maritime control, aimed at
the USSR's massive SSN and Backfire strike forces, was supplanted by
warfare, in effect modern gunboat diplomacy intended to provide a
reaction capability to deal with problem nations disturbing the peace.
USN carriers played key roles in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, the
Balkans campaigns, the ongoing war of attrition against Saddam
regime, and the late nineties standoff between Taiwan and the PRC,
which the PRC threatened Taiwan with ballistic missiles.
This is an environment in which top end air superiority and
strike capabilities are considered ancillary to the capability to
strike against well defended coastal targets, suppress integrated air
and provide air support and top cover for amphibious forces. Indeed,
the retirement of the A-6E, the remaining F-14 force has been
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
to be replaced over the coming decade or so, and a replacement
provided to plug the gap left by the never replaced A-6E fleet. The
requirements for such a replacement aircraft were a combat radius
against the 600 NMI class F-14/A-6 combination, and CAP endurance in
defence operations competitive against the F-14 series.
During the early nineties considerable effort was expended in
aimed at adapting the new USAF F-22A to carrier operations, as the
Problems soon arose, as the baseline land-based F-22 is not optimised
the unique carrier environment. The most difficult issue proved to be
wing - the unhappy experience of the USN with blown flaps on the F-4
the obvious solution to achieving the required recovery speeds for
such a large aircraft, led to the adoption of a swing wing
This in turn pushed up the cost of the redesign, since the stealth
(ie shaping) would have to be completely requalified, adding already to
the considerable costs of a structural redesign and avionic system
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
What the USN needed was a aircraft which could eventually
aging F-14 and F/A-18A-D fleet, plug the hole left by the A-6E and
and do so within a restricted development budget and timeline.
The result of these pressures is the F/A-18E/F Super
1.2 The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
The Super Hornet is substantially a new aircraft, which shares
limited structural commonality with the F/A-18A-D family of fighters.
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
new. The baseline avionic system is however largely derived from the
with planned growth through further evolved derivatives of the radar,
and core avionic systems, and entirely new systems where
The designation F/A-18E/F reflects the fact that the aircraft
from the F/A-18A-D, even if it is a significantly larger airframe
- the program was implemented as an Engineering Change Proposal (ECP)
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
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
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
which has around 10% less internal fuel than the Super Hornet.
Sizing around a 36% greater internal fuel load, with the aim
the established agility performance of the F/A-18C, resulted in a
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
(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
reflecting the structural realities of catapult launches and tailhook
The larger F414 engine, a refanned and evolved F404 variant,
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
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
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
at birth by a budget driven bureaucracy.
Size is where the similarity between the Super Hornet and
since the Super Hornet is optimised aerodynamically around the
configuration, with a focus on transonic manoeuvre and load carrying
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
fuel allowances, 8 x AIM-120 AMRAAMs and 2 x AIM-9 Sidewinders, the
has a point intercept radius in excess of 650 NMI, with some
made about expended missiles. This is radius performance in the class
Like the F/A-18A-D, the F/A-18E/F was designed from the outset
dual role fighter bomber mission environment. The enlarged wings have
hardpoints each, typically loaded with a pair of 480 USG tanks inboard
and weapons on the pair of outboard stations. The wingtip Sidewinder
A notable aerodynamic feature is a significantly enlarged
over the baseline Hornet, intended to improve vortex lifting
in high AoA manoeuvre, and reduce the static stability margin to
pitching characteristics - Boeing cite pitch rates in excess of 40
Structurally the Super Hornet is built largely from aluminium
with extensive use of carbon fibre composite skins in the wings, and
in several critical areas. The design load factor limit of 7.5G is
to the F/A-18A-D.
The most notable visual difference between the F/A-18A-D and
to the casual observer, are the engine inlets. These are are fixed in
but using a rectangular geometry more akin to the F-15 design.
The inlets represent a key design optimisation intended to
aircraft's forward sector radar cross section. The edge alignment of
inlet leading edges is designed to scatter radiation to the sides, and
fixed fanlike reflecting structure in the inlet tunnel performs a
analogous to the mesh on the inlets of the F-117A, keeping microwave
off the rotating fan blades.
The F/A-18E aircraft makes considerable use of panel join
and edge alignment. Close inspection of the aircraft shows considerable
attention paid to the removal or filling of unnecessary surface join
and resonant cavities. Where the F/A-18A-D used grilles to cover
accessory exhaust and inlet ducts, the F/A-18E/F uses centimetric band
opaque perforated panels. Careful attention has been paid to the
of many panel boundaries and edges, to scatter travelling waves away
the aircraft boresight.
It would be fair to say that the F/A-18E/F employs the most
radar cross section reduction measures of any contemporary fighter,
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
RCS arguably an order of magnitude smaller than seventies designed
Since every deciBel of RCS reduction counts until you get into the
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
forward sector RCS reduction performance of these types.
The Super Hornet employs a further evolved derivative of the
avionic package. While the AN/APG-73 radar, common to the RAAF HUG, is
retained, provisions will be made in production blocks for the
(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
ATFLIR is a high resolution midwave design, which is a
generation in technology beyond most of the FLIR targeting pods
in operational use. This targeting pod will supplant the existing
pod set (Photo Boeing).
The APG-73 provides very respectable air-ground modes,
synthetic aperture modes (depicted). With the capability to interleave
MTI modes with surface mapping modes, the radar provides a potent
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
from the baseline APG-73 by the replacement of the planar array antenna
with a solid state Active Electronically Steered Antenna array. This
provide the radar with the ability to timeshare operating modes
as well as improving jam resistance and reducing detectibility through
much reduced sidelobes .
The core avionic computing package is based upon militarised
PowerPC processors (common to desktop Apple PowerMacs and recently
F-15Es), which are of the order of a hundred times more powerful than
16-bit generation AN/AYK-14 processors in the F/A-18C. This is a
advancement in long term supportability, and provides a very robust
for evolution of the onboard software OFPs. The cockpit software is
integrated by the standards of Mil-Std-1553B bussed architectures, and
provides facilities for display fusion of MIDS datalink, RWR threat
and digital moving map displays.
While the preproduction aircraft employ a mix of cockpit CRT
displays, the intent is to employ high resolution NVG compatible AMLCD
panels in production block aircraft. A strike optimised missionised
cockpit with a large 10 x 8 inch AMLCD display is in development. The
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
the now revived ALQ-165 ASPJ defensive jammer, supplemented by the
towed decoy and ALE-47 dispenser. Current growth plans include the
RF countermeasures package and ALE-55 fibre optic towed decoy from the
IDECM suite. The latter is particularly effective against newer
threat systems, since it can provide for long baseline crosseye
The current configuration of the F/A-18E/F avionic package is
advanced of any production aircraft based upon a Mil-Std-1553B bussed
architecture, and is surpassed only by the much newer F-22A and JSF
It is very likely that growth variants of the F/A-18E/F will see the
incorporation of avionics technology used in the JSF.
In terms of broad comparisons, the F/A-18E/F most closely
the late model F-15 variants. While it does not have the supersonic
wing and top end BVR combat and supersonic agility performance of
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
defensive EW package. In most key respects, the Super Hornet is a
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
over the baseline F/A-18C, this was not a primary design objective.
the aim was to provide a low risk near term growth aircraft exploiting
the established technology investment in the F/A-18C, and utilising
technologies such as RCS reduction, integrated MIDS datalink and
countermeasures to improve the aircraft's survivability and lethality
the cost penalties of a clean sheet new design.
At this time Boeing and the USN have planned growth paths for
aircraft in avionics and weapons, and a new engine derived from the
technology base is seen to be an attractive addition, but as yet is
Considerable development has also been committed to an electronic
derivative of the F/A-18F, colloquially termed the F/A-18G. This
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
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
high power support jamming pods and AGM-88 HARM or derivative
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
retain most of the multirole capabilities of the basic F/A-18F
The use of a buddy refuelling pod in conjunction with four 480
tanks is envisaged as a standard role for the F/A-18E/F, to provide a
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
to be an easy kill for an opposing fighter force, and since it is
faster it will be much more effective in reactive or emergency
In terms of meeting the USN's aim for a low risk F-14/A-6 and
replacement, in a timescale and budget compatible with current
and prior to the production of the high risk high payoff full stealth
the F/A-18E/F clearly meets this objective.
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
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
my expectations in both handling qualities and ease of cockpit
The aircraft flown, BuNo 165797, was one of a pair of
brought out to the Avalon airshow, and operated by the US Navy at NAS
for weapons delivery trials. In terms of configuration these aircraft
equipped with a unclassified software load, designated 18EI "V".
The cockpit configuration of these aircraft represents early
status, using cathode ray tube MultiFunction Displays (MFD, formerly
Display Indicators or DDI) for the left and right cockpit displays and
touch sensitive Up Front Control (UFC) panel, but full colour AMLCD
for the centre moving map display. The aft cockpit had the centre MFD
above the UFC panel.
Production configuration aircraft will have the aft cockpit
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.
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
the bezels. Production aircraft will use high resolution colour AMLCD
in all displays, including the UFC.
The cockpit layout follows the basic style of late model
with an improved engine and fuel status display. Pilot feedback saw
restore a rotary switch for the bingo fuel setting on this
The controls are standard stick and throttles, with mechanical
between cockpits for all but the rudder pedals. Mode controls for the
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
the upper right of the cockpit. A single switch is also available to
all aircraft electronic emissions from a single point, under EMCON
Like other modern Boeing cockpits, the system is very easy to
with well laid out mode select controls, and the capability to display
any format on any particular display. We flew the aircraft with the
MFD configured as a HUD symbology repeater, the centre MFD as a moving
map with overlayed navigation symbology and compass rosette, and the
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
operational pilot, who has flown every USN/USMC Hornet model since
During the Super Hornet flight test program he performed much of the
G handling tests for the aircraft with various load configurations. The
dazzling Avalon flight demonstrations were flown by Boeing Senior
Test Pilot Mike Bryan, a former USN operational pilot.
Preparation for the flight was meticulous, with 1.5 hours
the week dedicated to G-suit and helmet fitting, and a 2 hour preflight
briefing which included detailed discussion of emergency handling and
recovery procedures should an ill behaved avian find its way through
Two areas were available for demonstration flying, an
south of Avalon and east of King Island for supersonic runs, and a
Box east of Colac for overland flight demonstrations. Both were loaded
into the computer and displayed on the moving map, a very convenient
once airborne. Weather conditions were cool, but clear with very little
cloud cover, ideal for a VFR sortie. The aircraft configuration was
light, with full internal fuel and all stations empty.
The plan for the sortie was to demonstrate some of the
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
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
up, upon which Dave briefed me on the use of the MFDs and UFC. Once
strapped in, the APU was started and then the engines. Oxygen is
by the OBOGS which requires an operating engine. The pretakeoff BIT was
initiated on the MFD and the computer waggled all of the control
- 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
Once airborne, we levelled off and accelerated to 370 KIAS for a 45
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
over to me with the customary stick waggle, pulling the throttles out
My first manoeuvre was a 360 degree left aileron roll at about
input. The aircraft's response was very crisp and full roll rate
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
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,
aircraft reacts almost instantaneously with G and roll rates
to stick deflection, at all airspeeds. Typically one inch of stick
produces 2 G of load factor, with very light and comfortable stick
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
APG-73 and demonstrated the interleaved surface search mode. In this
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
the coastline on opposite headings. The size differences were clearly
in surface search mode.
Once we completed the radar demo, Dave suggested I do a
and explore supersonic handling. I pushed the throttles past the
into full afterburner and the aircraft accelerated through the sound
with only a gentle bump to indicate that we had gone supersonic, the
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
roll, and recovered the roll cleanly. The handling was
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
at 330 degrees to the Hornet Box over Colac. The aircraft turns very
and little stick force is required to hold 2G, virtually no lateral
input adjustments were required to keep the nose on the horizon.
bled off fairly slowly despite the applied G and altitude change.
While I maintained heading at 280 KIAS/FL350 kft, Dave
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
range. Within seconds a row of tracks appeared across the scope, as
outlining the Princes Highway near Colac. Some tracks intermittently
and disappeared, as trees blocked the line of sight between the radar
moving vehicles. Dave attempted a single target track on at least two
but the foliage produced repeated dropouts - as much as we tried we
cheat the physics of radar absorption.
We crossed the coastline, feet dry, to enter the Hornet
2.2 The Virtual Speedbrake
The next handling demonstration involved involved the
and some high alpha low speed handling, an area in which many fighters
experience problems in maintaining direction and avoiding a departure
The first demonstration involved the virtual speedbrake
and handling in this configuration. The F/A-18A-D, like the F-15
employs an upper fuselage hydraulically deployed speedbrake. The Super
Hornet has no such device, yet achieves the same effect through what
only be described as digital magic. The speedbrake function is
by a balanced deployment of opposing flight control surfaces,
drag without loss of flight control authority or change in aircraft
Dave demonstrated the speedbrake function, and I was asked to
over the shoulder and in the mirrors the raised ailerons, lowered
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,
that the aircraft retains considerable control authority despite the
that the rudders are splayed out, and the ailerons, spoilers and flaps
are generating balanced opposing pitching moments. I applied roughly
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
the roll again with a full stick input, producing around 180
with a slight overshoot on recovery. The aircraft feels very stable
the manoeuvre and there is no observable change in control forces or
input response by the FCS.
2.3 High Alpha Handling
We then proceeded with some high alpha handling. Entry into
regime involved pulling back the power, while I tracked the control
hands on, Dave progressively increased the amount of aft stick to
a constant airspeed around 90 KIAS. Power is concurrently added to
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
manoeuvres, we took at break to explore further radar modes. Dave
the high resolution spot SAR mode and slewed the patch map over Colac.
After several sweeps the image sharpened up and we could resolve
buildings and streets in the town, clearly contrasted against Lake
The difference in groundmap quality against the sixties technology
mapping APQ-161 truly reflects the 4 decades of intervening
evolution. Having explored main street Colac for several minutes, we
our attention to the Avalon airfield.
At about Mach 0.6 at FL200 Dave selected SAR spot mapping and
the radar over the Avalon parking area. With the nose pointing to
a few miles east of Colac, we had very little lateral Doppler and at
prompting I slewed the nose about 30 degrees to the right to get a
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
little effort to resolve the parked aircraft and the hut, the fence
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
resolved, as were the row of chalets, the control tower and taxiways.
contrast was excellent and the synthetic image was highly stable.
An attack with a glide weapon like an AGM-154 JSOW or winged
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
while we discussed the control forces and required inputs per G. Dave
the radar into real beam mapping mode and pushed the throttles to mil
I pulled the nose up to climb back up to FL280.
I was invited to fly the aircraft into a high alpha regime. I
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
sound developed, as the airflow over the aircraft began to break up
turbulent flow, yet the handling did not perceptibly change. Stick
however did increase noticeably, as I approached 3/4 aft stick
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
in AoA, there was no perceptible rolling sensitivity in lateral stick
the knife edge balance preceding a wing drop which one would
expect as a result of the aircraft's speed and angle of attack was
From the pilot's perspective, the feel is very solid and smooth.
Small lateral stick inputs yielded a proportionate response,
no perceptible reduction in control input sensitivity in this regime.
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
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,
and decelerating, then rolls 90 degrees and pulls through 180 degrees
reverse direction, leaving the aircraft pointing at the target with an
altitude advantage. The pirouette is an in-plane reversal manoeuvre
resembles a conventional stall turn or hammerhead in a piston
To execute the pirouette at low speed, the aircraft is placed
high alpha attitude, and as airspeed drops to around 100-200 KIAS and
back-stick is held in, full lateral stick and rudder are applied into
direction of the reversal.
The stick and rudder force for the pirouette entry are light,
to the aft stick force, and the aircraft very smoothly slices around
wings level, to point in the opposite direction. The stick and pedal
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
so in a direction other than that intended by the pilot.
To demonstrate the pirouette, Dave asked me to take the
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,
to 80 KIAS over the top and with controls neutralised accelerated
to 215 KIAS coming out of the manoeuvre.
The pirouette is almost ridiculously easy to fly, and the
so very smoothly, at no point does the pilot feel an impending
or other loss of controllability.
Having played through the key radar modes and worked through
high alpha manoeuvres, Dave was unable to tempt me into the inverted
and pull through manoeuvre which I had a mere one hour ago looked
to trying. My lack of currency had been catching up with me, and we
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
specifically another attempt at acquiring some airborne targets. Sadly,
the scarcity of airborne traffic in the vicinity resulted in a non
environment. Dave selected the air-air master mode, and put the radar
B-scan search display while attempting to acquire a target. In the
mode, the MFD shows an azimuth vs elevation view of the antenna field
regard. The TDC (Throttle Designator Controller) two axis control
is used to slew the search box bars through the radar field of view.
pilot can select the velocity range within which targets are acquired
outside which they are rejected.
We acquired a target very quickly, but its altitude indicated
hapless motorist was being painted for an AIM-7 shot! Resetting the
to more realistic numbers yielded little success. A bad afternoon for
At my request, Dave selected the AIM-7 Sparrow HUD mode,
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
me the opportunity to play BVR shooter! I looked forward to the
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
for an oblique downwind join, while Dave made the radio calls and
an air-air track with AIM-9 selected, against an aircraft in the Avalon
2.6 In the Circuit
I joined the circuit on an oblique late and very wide downwind
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
Dave lowered the gear and flaps, as only emergency gear deployment
are present in the aft cockpit. There was no perceptible pitching
Dirty, with flap deployed, at 125-130 KIAS the aircraft is
and stable and exceptionally easy to point very precisely. The HUD mode
for landing has a very nice extended synthetic horizon line, and a
vector marker as well as the velocity vector symbol. Dave trimmed the
My power adjustments were producing an excessive sink rate
finals, and on Dave's instructions I added power to get back on the
With a light crosswind from the east, very little rudder was required
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
the canopy provided enough forward view to lean sideways and keep the
comfortably on the centreline. With HUD symbology on the left MFD, the
glideslope pipper is easily tracked to verify whether the descent is
or below the required glideslope.
18, Avalon. Note the crab angle.
As we crossed the threshold I began to raise the nose slightly
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
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
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
on to downwind. The second circuit was considerably tighter, a large
sighted at our altitude during the turn to final thankfully did not
an evasive manoeuvre to avoid. Again, the aircraft's smooth and stable
handling in landing configuration made the circuit easy to fly
Another no-flare touchdown, upon which Dave took the controls, applied
mil power, rotated and then accelerated along the runway to sharply
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
for a very tight circuit and descent on to finals for a showpiece
We stopped at about one third runway length, where I was given a
of the carrier optimised nosewheel steering. The aircraft swung around
almost on the spot to point downwind for a backtracking taxi to the
The flight was over, and in minutes I would have to part with
which was a sheer pleasure to fly, even at the very edge of the
We taxied back with 1.1 hrs elapsed and 4,000 lb of fuel
Experimental Test Pilot Dave Desmond and the author,
The Super Hornet is a fighter with exceptional handling
even by modern fighter standards, which even a novice can handle
and with confidence at the edge of the low speed manoeuvre
The point which Boeing and the US Navy have made most
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
indeed correct. There is no room for argument here, as I had the
to observe first hand!
In the hands of an experienced combat pilot, such flight
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
a uncontrolled departure and resulting risk of a ground impact or
enemy missile shot. The importance of a substantially departure
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
4th generation missile and Helmet Mounted Display, the Super Hornet
be a very difficult opponent for any current Russian fighter, even the
Su-27/30. The analogue and early generation digital flight controls
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
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,
for nugget fighter-attack pilots.
The cockpit ergonomics build upon two decades of Hornet
and make for a very comfortable and easy to use cockpit environment.
a novice pilot will find the MFD modes easy to navigate and easy to
The colour moving map display makes navigational orientation
easy, against the mental chores of VOR/DME/TACAN, radar mapping and
navigation. The prospect of MIDS/RWR/radar/IFF tracks being overlayed
the moving map will take much effort out of maintaining wider area
The radar is very easy to use in MMTI, GMTI and SAR spot
and provides an excellent tool for highly accurate all weather maritime
strike, littoral strike and battlefield interdiction operations. In
the ability to interleave MTI and surface mapping modes is
useful for resolving and identifying moving surface targets of
In conclusion, the reports of the Hornet's exceptional high
characteristics are provably correct. Established Hornet users should
be disappointed by this aircraft!
A key role in USN
will be tactical tanking, using a buddy
refuelling store. With the loss of the KA-6D fleet and impending
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
truck is not a tanker to be trifled with by hostile fighters (Photo
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
Boeing's F/A-18E/F Chief Experimental Test Pilot Dave Desmond.
Imagery - US Navy, Boeing.