McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet

Last revised April 17, 2000


The first Full-Scale Development (FSD) F-18A (BuNo 160775) was rolled out at St Louis on September 13, 1978. First flight took place at Lambert Field, St Louis on November 18, 1978, with test pilot Jack E. Krings at the controls. Krings found the F-18 to be remarkably stable and easy to handle.

Beginning in January 1979, most flight development work was carried out at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland. Nine F-18A and two TF-18A two-seat FSD aircraft went into an intense flight test program. Navy pilots commented favorably on the stability of the F-18, particularly during landing approaches.

A total of nine FSD F/A-18As were built. Carrier qualifications began with the third FSD aircraft (Bu No 160777) aboard the USS America (CV-66) on October 30, 1979. These tests went extremely well. Before the carrier qualifications got under way, the Navy had determined that it would no longer be necessary to have distinct attack and fighter versions of the Hornet. The aircraft was deemed sturdy and versatile enough to carry out both jobs, and plans for separate F-18s in fighter (VF) squadrons and A-18s in attack (VA) squadrons were abandoned. The Navy introduced a new type of unit, the strike fighter squadron (VFA) to carry out both fighter and attack missions.

Some problems were turned up during early flight testing. The nosewheel lift-off speeds were excessively high and the takeoff roll was too long. These problems were solved by filling in the dogtooth on the inboard leading edge of the horizontal stabilator, which gave the stabilator greater authority at an earlier juncture during the takeoff run. The dogtooth had been added to the leading edge stabilator in anticipation of the same flutter problems that had affected the tailplanes of the F-15, but these problems did not materialize so it could be eliminated. In addition, a greater upward moment during the takeoff run could be provided by automatically toeing in the rudders on takeoff. Problems with the flight control software that reprogrammed the leading edge flaps had to be corrected with internal programming changes. Insufficient acceleration speeds above Mach 1 were corrected through engine improvements. It turned out that the main undercarriage was insufficiently strong, which led to the use of a twin-chamber oleo leg. The cooling of the cockpit and the avionics bay was found to take up too much fuel, which adversely affected the range. The external tanks were unsatisfactory, which brought a switch from elliptical to circular cross-section tanks and a slight increase in their capacity from 315 to 330 US gallons.

The range was below requirements. In fact, the insufficient range of the Hornet has been its most-often criticized defect, and has never really been fully corrected despite numerous attempted fixes. Several engine and airframe modifications were carried out in an attempt to improve range performance. Perhaps the most significant of these was an alteration of the boundary layer air discharge slots. The service test machines originally flew with long boundary layer air discharge slots cut between the fuselage and the upper surface of the LERXes. These slots had the beneficial effect of generating a strong, high-enery vortex extending down each side of the fuselage, increasing directional stability at high angles of attack. Unfortunately, they also generated a log of aerodynamic drag, which adversely affected range and acceleration. Consequently, 80 percent of the length of the slots were filled in beginning with Hornet number 8, leaving only one small slot on each side whose function is to eject the boundary layer air bled from the engine intake.

The roll rate was also found to be below requirements, and the whole wing had to be redesigned to improve the roll rate. The wing of the initial FSD machines had a leading-edge dogtooth which was eliminated as part of an attempt to improve the roll rate. In addition, the outer wing panels were stiffened, the ailerons were increased in span and differential flap movement was programmed into the flight control software.

In spite of all these efforts, the range of the Hornet was still somewhat less than that which was desired. However, the range of the F/A-18A was still greater in the fighter escort role than that of the McDonnell F-4J Phantom which it replaced. In the strike role, the range of the F/A-18 was 10-12 percent shorter than that of the LTV A-7E. However, in other respects the F/A-18 met or exceeded specifications, with air combat capability and weapons delivery accuracy being particularly outstanding.

Costs began to rise during the period 1979-81, and Congress began to exhibit some concern. The Navy/Marine Corps order was now up from the original figure of 780 to 1366 aircraft (this was later reduced to 1157). The F/A-18, having originated from a supposedly low-cost lightweight fighter project, now cost almost as much as a Grumman F-14 Tomcat.

The first production Hornet took off on its maiden flight in April of 1980.

Later models of the F/A-18A have had a small wing fence added to the top of each LERX at the position of the wing leading edge in order to broaden the vortices generated, reducing loads on the tail unit and improving controllability at high angles of attack.

The Hornet came in for quite a bit of criticism in the press, particularly for its range problems and its cost overruns. There was a chorus of misgivings about its high cost, and questions were asked about whether the performance it delivered was worth the amount of money being spent. Washington reporter Jack Anderson claimed in his column that the aircraft used too much fuel to be a good attack plane. Much of the criticism from the press and from Congress was based on an early Patuxent report which expressed some concern over the F-18's performance in the attack role. As often happens, some of this press criticism was based on preliminary test results and complained about problems which had already been fixed.

The rather awkward "F/A" prefix--meaning combined "fighter" and "attack" missions--became official in an Department of Defense bulletin dated April 1, 1984. However, the aircraft continues to be referred to as the F-18 on McDonnell Douglas documents.

A total of 371 production F/A-18As were built in blocks 4 through 22 before production switched to the F/A-18C in 1987.

Bureau of Aeronautics serial numbers of F/A-18A Hornet:

160775/160777		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-1-MC Hornet
160778/160780		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-2-MC Hornet
				160780 to NASA as 840 in 1985 
160782/160783		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-3-MC Hornet
160785			McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-3-MC Hornet
161213/161216		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-4-MC Hornet
				161213 to NASA as 844.  Crashed 10/7/88
				161214 to NASA as 842 in August 1987
				161216 to NASA as 841 in October 1985
161248			McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-4-MC Hornet
161250/161251		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-4-MC Hornet
				161250 to NASA as 845 in October 1987.
161353			McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-5-MC Hornet
161358/161359		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-5-MC Hornet
161361/161367		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-6-MC Hornet
161519			McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-6-MC Hornet
161520/161528		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-7-MC Hornet
				161520 to NASA as 847 in September 1989.
161702/161703		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-8-MC Hornet
161705/161706		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-8-MC Hornet
161708/161710		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-8-MC Hornet
161712/161713		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-8-MC Hornet 
161715			McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-8-MC Hornet
161716/161718		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-9-MC Hornet 
161720/161722		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-9-MC Hornet 
161724/161726		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-9-MC Hornet 
161728/161732		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-9-MC Hornet 
161734/161736		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-9-MC Hornet 
161737/161739		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-10-MC Hornet 
161741/161745		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-10-MC Hornet 
161747/161761		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-10-MC Hornet 
161925/161931		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-11-MC Hornet 
161933/161937		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-11-MC Hornet 
161939/161942		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-11-MC Hornet 
161944			McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-11-MC Hornet 
161945/161946		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-12-MC Hornet 
161948/161965		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-12-MC Hornet 
				161949 to NASA as 848 in December 1989.  
161966/161987		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-13-MC Hornet 
162394/162401		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-14-MC Hornet
162403/162407		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-14-MC Hornet
162409/162412		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-14-MC Hornet
162414			McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-14-MC Hornet
162415/162418		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-15-MC Hornet
162420/162426		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-15-MC Hornet
162428/162444		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-15-MC Hornet
162445/162477		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-16-MC Hornet
162826/162835           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-17-MC Hornet
162837/162841           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-17-MC Hornet
162843/162849           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-17-MC Hornet
162851/162852           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-17-MC Hornet
162853/162856           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-18-MC Hornet
162858/162863           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-18-MC Hornet
162865/162869           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-18-MC Hornet
162871/162875           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-18-MC Hornet
162877/162881           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-18-MC Hornet
162882/162884           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-18-MC Hornet
162886/162909           McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-19-MC Hornet
163105/163109		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-20-MC Hornet
163111/163114		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-20-MC Hornet
163116/163118		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-20-MC Hornet
163119/163122		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-21-MC Hornet
163124/163145		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-21-MC Hornet
163146/163175		McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-22-MC Hornet

Specification of McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet:

Engines: Two General Electric F404-GE-400 turbofans, each rated at 10,600 lb.s.t. dry and 15,800 lb.s.t. with afterburning. Performance: Maximum speed Mach 1.8 (1190 mph) at 35,000 feet. Landing speed 150 mph. Combat ceiling 50,000 feet. Combat radius 460 miles (air-to-air mission). Maximum range 2875 miles. Weights: 28,000 pounds empty, 38,000 pounds gross, 56,000 pounds maximum takeoff. Dimensions: maximum wingspan 40 feet 8 inches, length 56 feet 0 inches, height 15 feet 3 inches, wing area 400 square feet. Fuel: 1670 US gallons internal. A total of three external 330 US gallon drop tanks can be carried, raising total fuel to 2660 US gallons. Armament: One 20-mm M61A1 cannon in nose. Up to six AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles or up to four AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles. In addition, up to 17,000 pounds of fuel, missiles, and ordnance could be carried on four underwing hardpoints, two fuselage corner stations, one centerline point, and two wingtip points.

Sources:


  1. Hornet, Robert F. Dorr, World Air Power Journal, Spring 1990, p. 38.

  2. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920: Volume II, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

  3. Vespidae Varius--Recent Variations in the Hornet Family, Paul Jackson, Air International, December 1993, p. 301

  4. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  5. F/A-18 Hornet, Lindsay Peacock, Osprey Combat Aircraft Series, Osprey, 1986.