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At 35 Years Old, F/A-18s Poised to Fly Another 20

The safe choice

On December 9, just over 35 years since the F/A-18’s first flight on Nov. 18, 1978, the Hornet/industry team came together at NAS Patuxent River, Md. to celebrate the ongoing history of U.S. Navy’s venerable multi-mission strike-fighter.

In his opening remarks Capt. Francis D. Morley, the current Program Manager for the F/A-18 and EA-18G Program Office (PMA-265) observed that the Hornet and Growler continue to be the Navy’s “no drama option.”

With more than 8,692,167 flight hours under its belt since introduction to fleet service in 1983 (averaging nearly 250,000 flight hours per year) the Hornet community has answered the bell every time the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have called upon it operationally or as an alternative to other unsuccessful tactical aircraft programs.

With more than 8,692,167 flight hours under its belt since introduction to fleet service in 1983 (averaging nearly 250,000 flight hours per year) the Hornet community has answered the bell every time the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have called upon it operationally or as an alternative to other unsuccessful tactical aircraft programs.

Today, the Hornet, Super Hornet, and EA-18G Growler are the undeniable backbone of tactical naval aviation, forming the majority-type of every air wing and as the prime fast-jet strike platform (Hornet A through D models) for Marine Air Groups. The Hornet has outlasted other fighters (F-14), stepped up when other aircraft programs faltered (A-12, Tomcat 21, AFX) and provided a low-cost solution for a new electronic-attack aircraft. It’s also hovering in the background as a no drama alternative to a delayed or deferred F-35.

F/A-18 Hornet 35 Years

Approximately 150 guests gathered in the Rear Adm. William A. Moffett building atrium Dec. 9, 2013, at NAS Patuxent River, Md., to celebrate 35 years of flight for the F/A-18. Originally designed to replace the F-4 Phantom and the A-7 Corsair II, the F/A-18 Hornet made its first flight in St. Louis, Nov. 18, 1978. Today, the F/A-18 platform includes the F/A-18A-D Hornet, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler and operate in 44 Navy and 11 Marine Corps Strike Fighter and Electronic Attack squadrons worldwide. U.S. Navy photo

That history and the current environment surrounding fighter acquisition provided context for the event sponsored by PMA-265, featuring speakers including Morley and two past Hornet program managers, Rear Adm. Donald (B.D.) Gaddis (current Program Executive Officer, Tactical Air Programs) and retired Vice Adm. Jeffrey A. Wieringa.

Outlining the status of the Hornet family as 2013 ended, Morley explained that F/A-18 A through D models now represent about half of the Navy’s Hornets and the entire Hornet force structure for Marine Corps aviation. The Hornet/Super Hornet also serve as the primary fighter for seven international partner air forces.

“Our first F/A-18 A-D went over 9,000 flight hours earlier this year and we issued our first clearance at 9,900 hours this year. It’s truly an amazing effort to keep this aircraft flying well above its 6,000 hour design limit and one which is absolutely necessary for naval aviation today.”

With so many aircraft in-service, particularly older A-D models, Capt. Morley stressed that measures to keep the fleet relevant and operational are paramount.

“We’re in the thick of SLEP (service life extension) execution with induction of our 8,000-hour jets peaking over the next several years,” he noted. “We’ve returned every jet inducted with 8,000 hours back to the fleet so far – over 100 to date. Our first F/A-18 A-D went over 9,000 flight hours earlier this year and we issued our first clearance at 9,900 hours this year. It’s truly an amazing effort to keep this aircraft flying well above its 6,000 hour design limit and one which is absolutely necessary for naval aviation today.”

YF-18A Hornet

A U.S. Navy McDonnell Douglas YF-18A Hornet prototype landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS America (CV 66) during carrier suitability tests, Nov. 1, 1979. The Hornet made its maiden flight on Nov. 18, 1978. U.S. Navy photo

Flying tactical jet aircraft up to 9,000 flight hours or more is almost unheard of, but the VX-23 test pilots with whom we spoke after the ceremony seemed comfortable with the plan. Meanwhile, Super Hornet and Growler production continues – currently scheduled to wind down in 2016. However, Boeing Super Hornet Program Manager Mike Gibbons confirmed that the company can build more jets if the Navy requests them.

“There is no plan to shut down the production line,” Gibbons revealed, noting that Boeing’s current four aircraft per month pace will be cut to three per month in 2014. Experience gained with the long-running C-17 production program will allow the company to affordably decrease to a two aircraft per month schedule, he adds.

“There is no plan to shut down the production line.”

That bodes well for a program with further domestic and international potential. According to Morley, 490 F/A-18E/Fs have been delivered, with the current program of record at 563 aircraft, including 24 Super Hornets for Australia. Growler deliveries stand at 90 out of a current program of record of 135.

The Growler program has grown beyond its original size twice in the last few years, Morley reports. Initially, an additional 26 aircraft were purchased as a decision was made to replace Prowlers flying with the Navy’s three expeditionary squadrons. More recently, the 2014 defense budget included an additional 21 Navy Growlers in order to compensate for the retirement of all Marine Corps Prowlers later in the decade.

F/A-18 Hornet

“Legacy” Hornets operate in 11 U.S. Marine Corps squadrons. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. William Waterstreet

“The mission continues to be in high demand and the Growler fulfills this need across the entire Department of Defense,” Morley stresses. “There’s probably no better testament to this than that in early 2012 we had just three Growler squadrons that had transitioned from Prowlers. But all three were overseas and in combat – two were expeditionary and one on a CVN.”

Despite the longevity and success of the Hornet, Rear Adm. Gaddis, a longtime F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer, noted that it faced a lot of skepticism, particularly in the early 1990s when Tomcat aircrews had a hard time imagining it as the linchpin of carrier aviation.

“We were making fun of the airplane.”

“I was a lieutenant in VX-4 back in those days, and what were we going to do,” he asked. “It was going to be either ‘Tomcat 21’ or the Hornet. As a Tomcat guy I said, ‘This is crazy. We’re going to buy this airplane? Really?’ We were making fun of the airplane.”

Ironically Gaddis’ career path turned him toward the Super Hornet and a long stint with PMA-265, eventually becoming its program manager. Once he’d had a chance to fly in the airplane he thought, “Why didn’t we buy it sooner?”

Canadian CF-18 Hornet

Canadian CF18 Hornet aircraft from 409 Squadron in Cold Lake, Alberta, and Russian Su-27 aircraft from Anadyr, Russia practice procedures to transfer a simulated hijacked airplane from Russian to American airspace during the NORAD exercise Vigilant Eagle 13, Aug. 28, 2013. In addition to operating with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps the Hornet family is operated by 7 international militaries. Royal Canadian Air Force photo by Cpl. Vicky Lefrancois

Gaddis, PMA-265 program manager between 2003 and 2007, and the architect of Flight Plans (spiral development programs) for all Navy aircraft remembers how determined the Navy was to make the Super Hornet a success in the wake of the A-12 program debacle.

“A-12 was a catastrophe, and when we moved to the Super Hornet, this organization [NAVAIR] wasn’t going to let that program fail, and neither was the OPNAV leadership,” he said. “We needed something because at the time we had an old A-7; we had an F-14 that frankly was not upgradeable, you could put a weapon or two on it but no more; then we had the A-12 disaster. The Navy looked to the Super Hornet, and it’s been a success story ever since.”

“The Navy looked to the Super Hornet and it’s been a success story ever since.”

Development of the Super Hornet continues. Boeing debuted its Advanced Super Hornet last August, demonstrating a new version at NAS Patuxent River with conformal fuel tanks (CFT), an enclosed weapons pod and signature enhancements. Morley says the CFT configuration provides the same amount of fuel that a single centerline tank provides with less drag. Boeing claims it increases the jet’s radius by up to 130 miles.

Morley and Gaddis insist that the Advanced Super Hornet has “no impact on JSF.” Gaddis admits that the Navy is interested in a CFT-equipped Super Hornet/Growler, explaining that evolutionary development of the airplane is a natural outcome of the Navy’s commitment to the Super Hornet.

Advanced Super Hornet

The debut of the Boeing Advanced Super Hornet, which was demonstrated in August 2013, means that the Hornet airframe is likely to remain around for decades to come. Boeing photo

“You all [the media] talk a lot about the leadership’s commitment to the JSF. That’s all true, but the leadership is just as committed to the Super Hornet and the Growler. They know we need to fly the airplane 9,000 hours. They know we need investment in the Flight Plan to meet coming threats and they know they need to invest in the Growler Flight Plan.”

“The leadership is just as committed to the Super Hornet and the Growler. They know we need to fly the airplane 9,000 hours.”

“I will guarantee you that we’re going to be talking about the Super Hornet at 50 years, 55 years, and 60 years,” Adm. Gaddis adds. “We will be flying this airplane more than likely to 2030 or 2035. You should reflect on that. Thirty-five years is a long time. Aviation hasn’t been around for that long, really, but the Hornet/Growler family has been an important part of that history.”

EA-18G Growler

A U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler takes off at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Oct. 16, 2013. Ninety Growlers have been delivered out of a planned buy of 135. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse

Morley sums up the current status of the Navy’s three-decade-plus strike fighter, explaining that the Hornet remains a safe choice.

“We will be flying this airplane more than likely to 2030 or 2035. You should reflect on that. Thirty-five years is a long time. Aviation hasn’t been around for that long really but the Hornet/Growler family has been an important part of that history.”

“Right now our program of record is for FY14 and that’s it. But we consider the program every year within the Navy and with the Department of Defense. My job is to preserve options and that’s what I do.”

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...