When Marines went to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, their “secret weapon,” in the words of one back-seater, was the F/A-18D Night Attack Hornet. It was a two-seater assigned to a new kind of mission with a new kind of crew.
“The Navy used the ‘D model’ for training and put flight controls in front and back,” said retired Lt. Col. John Scanlan. “In the Marines, we did it differently. I was the WSO, or weapons and sensors officer, on the Night Attack Hornet. I provided extra eyes, ears and hands in combat.” During Operation Desert Storm, Scanlan was a member of Fighter Attack Squadron VMFA (AW)-121, the “Green Knights.”
In the back seat of the F/A-18D, Scanlan said, he used “whizbang” technology to track targets on radar and team up with the pilot to hit them. “The leap in technology from was like going from a dinosaur to Star Wars,” Scanlan said.
The first Hornet fighter made its initial flight on Nov. 18, 1978. The F/A-18D model began flight tests in 1989. Today, “A” through “D” models are often called “Legacy Hornets” to distinguish them from the newer, larger F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
A typical F/A-18D is powered by two 16,000-pound thrust afterburning General Electric F404-GE-402 upgraded, low bypass turbofan engines. Navy documents credit the aircraft with a speed of Mach1.7 and an operational ceiling above 50,000 feet. A combat-ready Hornet weighs about 52,000 pounds.
Scanlan’s squadron VMFA (AW)-121 left the United States for Shaik Isa, Bahrain, on Jan. 7, 1991, just a week before the war started. By month’s end, the “Green Knights” had 12 planes and 204 Marines, including 34 pilots and back-seaters, in the combat zone.
In an article in the August 1991 Proceedings, back-seater Capt. Reuben A. “Bone” Padilla wrote: “Our squadron was largely involved in preparing the battlefield and supporting ground units in the battle to re-take Kuwait.” For the forward air control mission, Padilla wrote, the F/A-18D carried “kill-zone charts, 2.75-inch rockets and white phosphorus warheads, and 20 mm ammunition” for the Hornet’s cannon.
Marines quickly discovered that the two-seat Hornet had potential for other missions, including aerial command and control, and reconnaissance. As the war progressed, the Marines developed new Hornet tactics daily.
Marines credit the F/A-18D with the toughness to get its crew home after sustaining battle damage.
Scanlan was flying a FAC mission on Feb. 20, 1991 in western Kuwait with pilot Maj. Ken “Cheyenne” Bode. Am Iraqi heat-seeking missile hit their F/A-18D in the right rear exhaust. “The missile worked as advertised,” Scanlan said. “It exploded on impact.”
The plane shook, Scanlan said, but communications continued to function. “We climbed to altitude and had another crew look us over.” Bode landed the damaged F/A-18D successfully.
The F/A-18D, then a wholly new concept, helped achieved a swift “win” in Desert Storm. The plane has also been effective in America’s more recent conflicts.