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.
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
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.