Service of Hornet with US Navy and US Marine Corps

Last revised September 27, 2015


The F/A-18 Hornet had originally been ordered as a dual-role fighter and attack aircraft intended to replace the Vought A-7 Corsair II and the McDonnell F-4 Phantom in Navy service, and to augment the more costly Grumman F-14 Tomcat. In Marine Corps service, the Hornet now forms the backbone of the Corps' air power.

Following trials at NATC Patuxent River in Maryland and follow-on test and operational evaluations by test squadrons VX-4 and VX-5 at PMTC Point Mugu and NWC China Lake, California, the Hornet was declared ready for service. Some of the test results coming out of VX-4 and VX-5 did seem to indicate that the range of the F/A-18 was too small. Range has been one of the weak points of the Hornet ever since, and the range is still considered too small in spite of numerous attempts to fix it.

The first production F/A-18 was delivered to the Navy in May 1980. It had NAVY painted on one side and MARINES on the other, indicating that both services were to receive the aircraft. When either VF or VA Navy squadrons received the Hornet, they were redesignated VFA squadrons, indicating that they could perform both fighter and attack missions.

The Hornet was initially to be issued to training and fleet replacement squadrons (FRS), starting with VFA-125 "Rough Riders" which was commissioned as a Fleet Replacement Squadron at NAS Lemoore, California on November 13, 1980. The first Hornets were issued to this squadron three months later. VFA-125 initially provided conversion training for pilots transitioning from Marine VMFA squadrons and from Navy VA and VF squadrons. Later, VFA-125 concentrated on training new pilots with no Fleet experience. In this role, they were later joined by an Atlantic Fleet FRS, VFA-106 "Gladiators" based at NAS Cecil Field in Florida and by a Marine Training Squadron, VMFAT-101 "Sharpshooters" at MCAS El Toro in California. These three replacement training units train pilots from both the Marine Corps and the Navy.

The initial experience with VFA-125 was more favorable than that with VX-4 and VX-5, and showed that the initial concerns about the range of the Hornet were somewhat exaggerated. The range of a "clean" Hornet could usually exceed that of a "clean" F-4 Phantom, and an Hornet with drop tanks could carry the same bombload as a A-7 Corsair without tanks. The Hornet was extremely easy to fly, and pilots could often achieve high bombing accuracy with relatively little practice. Although the F/A-18 had less range than the A-7 Corsair in some mission configurations, it could do more over target on less fuel. During air-to-air combat exercises, the Hornet could outstay the A-4, F-4, and F-14. In air-to-air engagements against the F-14, the F-18 pilot was usually able to outmaneuver the Tomcat and was able to get into a firing position in the rear hemisphere on most occasions. The requirement for the combat radius in the fighter escort role was 400 nautical miles--the Hornet actually achieved 380.

The Marine Corps was actually ahead of the Navy in getting the Hornet into actual operational service. The first operational units to convert to the Hornet were VMFA-314 "Black Knights" and VMFA-323, both based at El Toro, California. They received their first Hornets in January and March 1983 respectively. They were deployed aboard the USS Coral Sea for its 1983 Mediterranean cruise, during which they were deployed in operations against Libya.

The Navy received its first operational Hornets later in 1983. Navy squadrons VA-113 and VA-25 at NAS Lemoore converted from A-7Es to Hornets in the fall of 1983, being redesignated VFA-113 and VFA-25 respectively.

The Marines were very happy with their new mounts, finding them easier to fly, easier to fight, and easier to maintain than the F-4 Phantoms that they had replaced. During the early days of Marine Corps service, a VFMA-314 Hornet pilot got into an air-to-air furball with a MiG-23 operated by the USAF 4470th Test Group at Tonopah, Nevada, and supposedly "waxed the MiG all over the sky".

With increased service experience, an unexpected problem appeared. It turned out that the Hornet was flown more than initially anticipated in the high angle of attack regime, where aerodynamic loads on the tail from turbulent air generated by the LERX were particularly severe, resulting in fatigue-related cracks in the tail area. The F/A-18 fleet was grounded for a brief time in late 1984 while a fix was developed. In order to correct the problem, McDonnell developed a modification kit which consisted of the addition of four-inch long steel doublers to two of the tail mountings and replacing a non-structural fairing with a stronger fairing. Later, an airflow fence was added to the top of the LERXs to divert airflow away from the fins and enabling pilots to continue to fly their aircraft at high angles of attack without risking damage to the tail.

The first operational cruise by Navy Hornet squadrons took place in February-August 1985, with VFA-25 and VFA-113 deploying aboard the USS Constellation (CV-64), which went to the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. This cruise established the Hornet as an extremely reliable aircraft requiring much less maintenance than the F-14A and the A-6E. Mission capable rates were 89 percent.

The next Hornet cruise was with Navy squadrons VFA-131 and VFA-132 and Marine Corps squadrons VMFA-314 and VMFA-323 as part of CVW-13 aboard the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) for what was expected to be a routine deployment to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. However, in 1986, the United States government convinced itself that Libya's Colonel Khaddafi was an important source of support for anti-US terrorist activity in Europe. In addition, Colonel Khaddafi claimed the Gulf of Sidra as Libyan territorial waters, declaring a "Line of Death" across the entrance to the gulf beyond which ships of other nations would not be allowed to enter. In response, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Sixth Fleet to begin Freedom of Navigation maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra to demonstrate American resolve to operate freely in what it believed to be international waters. F/A-18s from the Coral Sea flew combat air patrols, protecting the carrier group from Libyan aircraft. The Hornets were frequently called upon to intercept and challenge numerous MiG-23s, MiG-25s, Su-22s, and Mirages sent out by Libya to harass the fleet. The Hornets often flew only a few feet from their adversaries, ready to shoot if need be.

In Operation Prairie Fire on March 24/15, 1986, the Hornets went into action for the first time, flying several ship-to-shore air strikes against Libyan shore installations that were harassing the fleet. During this action, the Hornets attacked the SA-5 missile site at Sirte which had been "painting" US aircraft on its radars. This was the combat debut for the Hornet, and incidentally marked the first combat use of the AGM-88A HARM anti-radiation missile. The Hornets attacked the SAM sites in bad weather and at wavetop heights. All Hornets returned to their carriers without mishap.

On April 15, 1986, Operation El Dorado Canyon was staged, which was a combined USAF/Navy attack on targets in and around Tripoli and Benghazi. The Hornets teamed up with A-7E Corsairs from other carriers to strike at Libyan SAM sites using HARM missiles. Numerous SA-2 missiles were fired at the Hornets, but they all missed. Again, the Hornets acquitted themselves without mishap.

The first Naval Air Reservice squadron was equipped with the Hornet in September of 1985. This was VFA-303 "Golden Hawks", based at NAS Lemoore, California.

The first F/A-18C version was delivered to the Navy on September 23, 1986, being turned over to the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake.

The 500th Hornet reached the service on May 15, 1987. This was delivered to VMFA-145 at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina. The first squadrons to transition from the A to the C model made the switch in 1989. These were VFA-25 "Fist of the Fleet" and VFA-113 "Stingers".

The first night-attack F/A-18C (BuNo 163985) was delivered to NATC Patuxent River, Maryland on November 1, 1989.

During the Gulf War of 1991, 190 Navy and Marine Corps Hornets were used in the action--106 on aircraft carriers and 84 with land-based Marine Corps units. One was lost in combat, and two were lost in non-combat accidents. Three more F/A-18s were hit by infrared-homing surface-to-air missiles, but were able to made it back to their launch points where they were repaired and used again, demonstrating the essential robustness of the airframe. The Hornets flew six types of missions--fleet air defense, SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses), interdiction, self-escort, offensive and defensive counter-air, and close support. On a typical SEAD mission, the Hornet carried two drop tanks, two AGM-88A HARM antiradiation missiles, two AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. On interdiction missions, they would typically carry three Mk 20 Rockeye cluster bomb units, two drop tanks, two AIM-7s and two AIM-9s. In attacks on Silkworm anti-ship missile sites, the Hornets used AGM-142 Walleyes, SLAM (Standoff Land Attack Missile, a ground attack version of the AGM-84 Harpoon antiship missile), and Mk 80 iron bombs. Two F/A-18Cs scored air-to-air kills. Four Navy Hornets from VFA-81 "Sunliners" were on their way to a target on January 17, 1991 (the first day of the war) when two of them were engaged by Iraqi F-7As (Chinese-built MiG-21). LtCdr Ed Fox in F/A-18C BuNo 163508 and Lt Nick Mongillo in F/A-18C BuNo 163502 got a MiG apiece with AIM-9 Sidewinder shots without having to dump their bombs and then pressed on to their targets. Unfortunately, F/A-18C BuNo 163484 and its VFA-81 pilot Lt Cdr Michael Speicher were lost to ground fire (some sources say this plane was shot down by missiles fired by an Iraqi MiG-25 that was in the area).

A milestone was crossed on April 22, 1992, when the Marine Corps received the 1000th Hornet. This was F/A-18D BuNo 164237, which was delivered to VMFA(AW)-242 at MCAS El Toro. The Marine Corps has been the primary user of the F/A-18D, preferring the second crewman as a dedicated WSO. The Marine Corps has by now completely replaced its fleet of A-6 Intruders and RF-4B Phantoms by F/A-18Ds.

Both US Navy and Marine Corps Hornets were active in Operation Southern Watch which monitored Iraqi airspace and over Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Navy Hornets flew during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 from carriers operating in the North Arabian Sea. They were also active during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. An F/A-18C was accidentally downed in a friendly fire incident by a Patriot misile. Two others collided over Iraq in May 2005.

The Blue Angels flight demonstration team converted from Douglas A-4Fs to F/A-18As in the winter of 1986. The Hornet is still operated by the team today. The team has nine Hornets, with one of them being a two-seat F/A-18B and two being held in reserve. The single seat aircraft are early F/A-18As which are no longer considered capable of carrier operation. They have new flight control system software optimized for aerobatics. The gun is removed, and new seat harnesses are fitted to help the pilot handle the weightlessness caused by some maneuvers, and civilian ILS and navigation equipment is fitted. A smoke generation system is fitted for use during aerial displays.

Production of the F/A-18C ended in 1999. The A version now equips only one active duty squadron and four reserve squadrons, the two Hornet Fleet Readiness squadrons, plus the Blue Angels flight demonstration team. Most of the other A/B Hornets have been consigned to storage at AMARC. The two-seat F/A-18D is used by front-line Marine Corps combat units, but serves only in training and test roles in the Navy.

United States Marine Corps squadrons using the Hornet:


Squadrons operating the Hornet with the United States Navy:


This information is a couple of years old, and I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has any additions or corrections.

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.

  6. The Fury of Desert Storm--The Air Campaign, Bert Kinzey, McGraw-Hill, 1991.

  7. United States Navy, Tom Kaminski, Combat Aircraft, Vol 2, No. 8, March- April 2000.

  8. E-mail from Joe Hawkins on VAQ-34.

  9. McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonnell_Douglas_F/A-18_Hornet

  10. E-mail from Vahe Demirjian on F-18 squadrons.