Super Hornet: The Sailor's Aircraft Is on Track

By Patrick Finneran and Chuck Allen

A Legacy of Excellence

The Super Hornet is exactly that—a Hornet of superior capability, built on the original F/A-18's foundation of excellence that established it as the backbone of U.S. carrier aviation. Even 20 years after the first Hornet entered service, the aircraft continues to set the standard for reliability, maintainability, flexibility, and survivability.

As the Navy's first digital aircraft, the Hornet also was the first that could integrate easily the steady advances in computer-driven technology. This enables it to "fly by wire" and return its crew to safety even when a nose, wing, or tail is missing. Digitization also has enabled the Hornet to accommodate a steady progression of pre-planned product improvements and precision munitions. This has substantially increased the F/A-18's warfighting capability, but it also has increased the demand on power and cooling systems, and it has added weight that reduces the amount of unused ordnance that the Hornet can return to the carrier.

The F/A-18E/F addresses these issues and continues the legacy of excellence.

Flight Test Status

A key benefit of the Super Hornet is that the aircraft is here: it's real, it's flying, and it's in production. Its schedule is aggressive.

First flight was a month early. Seven developmental aircraft flying at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, have accumulated more than 2,500 flight hours in more than 1,600 flights. Three ground test articles are undergoing drop, static, fatigue, and barrier testing, with live-fire testing still to come.

During initial sea trials on board the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) in January 1997, a Super Hornet flew more than 60 sorties over eight cold, snowy flying days in 50-knot winds—with no maintenance gripes and no flight control software changes. That's unprecedented.

Twelve Low Rate Initial Production Lot 1 aircraft are in production; the first ones will deliver on schedule in January 1999.

In historical context, the F/A-18E/F development program has been relatively trouble free. To date, it is the only major Department of Defense aircraft acquisition program to have stayed within its original budget and schedule.

What is different today is the degree of scrutiny coupled with the program's commitment to open and honest communication. In large part because the program makes no bones about identifying potential problems early, it leaves a paper trail that, when selectively leaked much later, can be twisted to appear as if somebody somewhere along the line was actively trying to hide something.

Take the wing drop issue. Last month, this publication published a sky-is-falling opinion piece that quoted from a progression of Navy memos and deficiency reports about wing drop over the past year and a half. [See "Could Forgotten A-12 Lessons Haunt the Super Hornet?" Proceedings , April 1998, page 24.] This, the reader is led to believe, constitutes evidence that the Navy knew about but failed to notify acquisition authorities, Congress, and the media that it had a problem on its hands.

What the writer fails to note is that these types of memos and reports are part of any well-managed program's risk management process. There are hundreds of similar documents, all progressively raising awareness of potential problems as necessary to appropriate levels of government leadership. If every risk item were raised to national attention before it had been assessed for degree of seriousness, Congress and the media would face a plethora of confusing data that changed daily—much of which would end up as no real problem.

The purpose of flight test is to identify and fix problems that cannot be uncovered by wind tunnels or predicted by technical analysis. When issues arise, flight test methodology requires the team to define each problem, select and test alternatives, and choose the best solution. When risk assessment indicates there is the slightest possibility of not maintaining budget or schedule, the program notifies the appropriate acquisition official.

Wing drop briefly hit that level last fall because of a slight risk that the program would have to consider wing redesign as one of several potential solutions to wing drop. That is when John Douglass, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, notified Secretary of Defense William Cohen—and the headlines read "Super Hornet Wing May Have To Be Redesigned." Technically correct, but pretty misleading overall.

About the time wing drop became grist for the professional critics' mill, the team already had identified a family of solutions that would solve the problem without a wing redesign, without missing any key performance parameters, without causing a budget overrun, and without slipping the scheduled May 1999 start of operational evaluation.

Wing drop is a classic example of the type of subtle aerodynamic phenomenon that flight test programs are designed to identify and correct. Today's analytical tools, including wind-tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamics, are far superior to the techniques used in the past. In fact, the program has been able to eliminate 40% (433 of 1,073) of its originally planned test points because the aircraft's performance has so closely matched that of predictions. But you still have to fly the airplane.

As of this writing (early April), the program had flight-tested a variable porosity wing fold fairing configuration that eliminated the wing-drop problem. The test team's assessment of the solution is that it will enable the aircraft to continue to meet all key performance parameters (see Table 1) and will not affect adversely overall Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) cost or schedule.

A Responsible Choice

More lethal, more survivable, and more flexible than previous versions of the aircraft, the Super Hornet also is a better value. Rather than starting from a clean sheet of paper, the Navy chose to modify a proven design. The result is a tactical aircraft that costs roughly one-half to one-third the development cost of a new-start program and only about 10% more per unit (averaged over the planned procurement). This contrasts with a $1020 billion new-start program, which would overtax Navy/Marine Corps budgets well into the future. The tradeoffs would be huge—and not worth making.

In 1997, a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report asserted that the unit recurring flyaway cost of the F/A-18E/F would be 89% greater than that of the F/A-18C/D. Using cost numbers normalized for production rate and quantity, however, the Navy has calculated the Super Hornet average unit recurring flyaway cost to be $31.8 million in fiscal year 1997 dollars. This is 10% more than the cost of present Hornets—well within the congressionally mandated cap of 25%.

In addition, by incorporating a variety of new design, manufacturing, and assembly techniques, the Super Hornet team has kept costs down even at low production rates. In today's climate of shrinking defense budgets and intense competition for few dollars, this is critical to the future success of the program. The Super Hornet is the first aircraft designed to reflect a relatively new necessity—that of delivering the greatest range of capability within a defined level of cost (or, in acquisition terminology, managing cost as an independent variable).

Recipients of briefings tend to be surprised that the program is performing to its original plan. "You haven't rescheduled?" they ask. The answer is "No." With Engineering and Manufacturing Development more than 89% complete, Boeing has a cost-performance index of 103.9 (slightly under budget) and a schedule performance index of 99.3 (within 1% of schedule in a 19-million-hour program).

Why the Super Hornet?

The Super Hornet is the end result of late 1980s' studies that predicted that the Hornet eventually would reach the limit of its ability to accommodate new systems. Concerns centered around enabling the aircraft to carry more payload, bring more back to the ship, fly farther, protect its crew even better, and accommodate growth.

Critics have accused the F/A-18E/F of being a "marginal upgrade" to the existing F/A-18 Hornet. Marginal? Is 40% increased combat range marginal? Is 80% longer loiter time marginal? Is 300% increased ordnance bring-back marginal? Is at least triple the survivability marginal? The pilots in the fleet will be the final judge.

In a side-by-side comparison with the F/A-18C/D, the Super Hornet excels in the five key areas for which it was designed:

  • Range/endurance
  • Payload
  • Bring-back
  • Survivability
  • Growth


The Super Hornet offers significant improvements in range and endurance over the Hornet. The larger fuselage and wing of the Super Hornet expand internal fuel capacity by 33% (or 3,600 pounds). General Electric's two upgraded F414-GE400 engines deliver 44,000 pounds of combined thrust. The Super Hornet has five fuel stations and will be able to carry up to five 480-gallon tanks. Individually or in combination, these features provide substantial increases in mission radius and endurance for more time on station. Although the specifics vary depending on the payload and profile of the mission scenario, the F/A-18E/F's range and endurance increase significantly over that of the F/A18C/D across the spectrum.

On combat air patrol at 200 nautical miles (nm), for example, an E will remain on station 80% longer than a C. On interdiction missions, an F/A-18E/F will fly 35% to 50% farther than earlier models of the Hornet, depending on ordnance loadout. This means the aircraft can strike deeper into enemy territory, the carrier can operate farther from shore, or both.

More specifically, given a typical Mediterranean scenario in which the aircraft fly a high-high-high profile and are loaded with two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, four Mk-83 1,000pound bombs, three fuel tanks, a navigational forward-looking infrared (FLIR), and a targeting FLIR, an F/A-18C has a range from the carrier of about 475 nm. An F/A-18E's range would be 665nm—almost 200nm more.

Taking this scenario a step further and using another Super Hornet to buddy refuel the E on profile 300 nm from the carrier with 6,400 pounds of fuel, the E gains almost another 200 nm—to 841 nm. And if the E carries a Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response (SLAMER), it packs about a 1,000-nm deep strike interdiction capability.

In addition, after a Super Hornet tanker refuels an E (or any other aircraft), the tanker can proceed on another mission such as combat air patrol—further multiplying the air wing's warfighting effectiveness.


Like earlier versions of the Hornet, the Super Hornet can be employed both air-to-air and air-to-ground on the same sortie. But the Super Hornet's greater payload and flexibility increase both the number and types of missions the fighter can perform. For instance, the E/F adds the airborne on-profile "mission" tanker to the Hornet repertoire. In this configuration, the Super Hornet can carry four 480-gallon external fuel tanks plus an air refueling store, which provides an on-profile tanking capability for air wing strike and support aircraft.

Like the F/A-18C/D, the Super Hornet will deliver high-value precision weapons day or night and in adverse weather. The Super Hornet, however, can carry 17,500 pounds of payload—about 25% more than today's production Hornet. The addition of two weapon stations brings the total to 11.

What does this mean to the warfighter? Compare an air wing of FlA- BCs to one with all E/Fs: In a general composite scenario of southwest and northeast Asia, two carrier battle groups are tasked to destroy 2,300 interdiction targets; the C takes 140 days to complete the mission, while the Super Hornet takes less than 30 days.

The Super Hornet can carry every strike weapon in today's Navy arsenal and, more important, is designed to carry all of the advanced munitions currently in development. When the Super Hornet is deployed in 2002, it will carry a full complement of "smart" weapons, including SLAM ER, the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), and the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW).


A major issue for any carrier-based aircraft is its ability to return to the carrier with unexpended (and expensive) ordnance. This capability is not as much of a concern for land-based aircraft, but it is critical on board carriers, where extra fuel reserves must be maintained to meet the demands imposed by carrier aviation—foul-deck wave offs and missed wires on pitching decks.

Given the weight today's Hornets have gained from added systems, this frequently means they can take off carrying more external stores than they should land with. In practice, crews simply do not load every store that might come in handy; in threat areas they load what might be needed on the theory that what goes unused can, if absolutely necessary, be jettisoned before the aircraft returns to the carrier. In today's world, the old practice of dumping weapons in the drink is too costly in both financial and environmental terms.

The Super Hornet's bring-back capacity frees crews to load and fly the aircraft with greater flexibility and lethality. It also will enable pilots to train with realistic loadouts.

Because of the weight it has gained over the years, a C model F/A-18 can trap with only 5,600 pounds of fuel, weapons, and external sensors. Assuming the standard fuel requirement of 4,000 pounds "on the ball," this leaves only 1,600 pounds for other stores. The Super Hornet can trap with a total payload of 9,000 pounds—which leaves 5,000 pounds for weapons or other stores.

All in all, a Super Hornet pilot will "call the ball" with a comfortable amount of fuel while retaining the high-value ordnance that has gone unused. And the E/F's approach speed, even at the higher recovery weight, will be six knots less than that of today's Hornet.


Last year, Admiral Jay Johnson, the Chief of Naval Operations, told Congress "The multi-mission F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is a leap forward in both TacAir design and survivability. The Super Hornet may look like its predecessor. However, it is far larger, significantly more capable and—most important—it is a first-strike, every-day-strike, survivable weapon system for the foreseeable future."

The Super Hornet takes a balanced approach to survivability. Compared to the F/A-18C/D (presently the most survivable aircraft in the Navy's inventory), the Super Hornet is harder to detect; if detected, harder to acquire; if acquired, harder to hit; and if hit, harder to disable.

Although its radar cross section is an order of magnitude smaller than the Hornet's, the Super Hornet does not rely on stealth alone for its survivability. Signature reduction will enable the E/F to get closer to the enemy before it is detected.

Improved situational awareness will cue the pilot to the greatest threats. Improved electronic-warfare countermeasures make it more difficult for the enemy to acquire, track and fire on the ElF. The aircraft's ability to employ precision standoff weapons will improve the probability of kill on the target, while reducing the Super Hornet's exposure to antiaircraft fire. And despite its 25% increase in size, the E/F is actually 14% less vulnerable than the CID (with the addition of dry bay extinguishers and other safety features that make it more damage tolerant).

The combination of these features makes the Super Hornet three to five times more survivable than C and D models of the Hornet (depending on mission scenario and source of analysis).1

In terms of situational awareness, the Super Hornet replaces the Hornet's keypad with a new touch screen, up-front control display that not only replicates the keypad but also can be reconfigured as an additional data display. Improvements in multi-source integration and the Multifunctional Information Distribution System also manage data more effectively to cue the crew to varying degrees of threat. The integrated defensive electronic countermeasures (IDECM) suite, now in development, is a key component of Super Hornet survivability.

In general, signature reduction plays a critical role in the aircraft's increased survivability. Infrared characteristics of the E/F are different from those of the CID, but the tactical value of those differences is classified. as are certain other data related to survivability.

Among the unclassified facts—designers incorporated a variety of techniques throughout the aircraft to reduce radar cross section and make the Super Hornet the Navy's first low-observable aircraft:

  • The Super Hornet's "caret" inlets, designed independently of, but parallel in time with, those of the F-22, are the most visible evidence of this effort.
  • Inside the inlets, a radar-defeating device conceals the face of each General Electric F414 engine.
  • There are fewer access doors and other parts; they are precision manufactured to minimize gaps; and they are "planform aligned," or shaped to align with key surfaces such as the leading edges and canted tails.
  • Radar-absorbing material (RAM) covers key areas of the aircraft. (A reliability and maintainability plus: The RAM coatings are corrosion-resistant and stand up very well to the considerable amounts of water and salt encountered in the maritime environment.)

During flight testing, actual radar cross-section data have correlated very closely with predictions.

Integrating the electronic warfare countermeasures, however, has been a greater challenge. During flight test, the ALE-50 towed decoy cable has burned off with afterburner selected. Without afterburner, the heat from the engine exhaust has caused electrical power to the decoy to shut off. To correct this, the Navy/Industry Integrated Test Team at Patuxent River devised a way to keep the sensitive cable below the jet exhaust plume, eliminating the problem in military power and expanding the envelope in burner.

The team is continuing to test this solution to determine the useable portion of the flight envelope. It has achieved some initial success but will continue working the issue until it is resolved completely. Plans to upgrade from the ALE-50 to the ALE-55 fiber-optic towed decoy—part of IDECM—are moving forward, but the team expects to identify and correct similar issues.


Hornets presently in operation are far superior to their first-generation cousins. This is because over time they accommodated technology advances and "grew." But there is only so far even the best-designed aircraft can grow and, in terms of upgraded capabilities, the Hornet is approaching the end of its growth cycle. Specifically, the F/A-18C has only 0.2 cubic feet of usable space remaining.

With 17 cubic feet of space for growth, plus additional electrical power, air cooling, and liquid cooling capacities, the Super Hornet renews the F/A-18's capability to grow. There is even reason to believe that the Super Hornet will be able to accommodate new technologies as they are developed over the next 20 years.

Technology Roadmap

Some advances are right around the corner; others are potential choices for the long term.

First is an advanced targeting forward looking infrared (ATFLIR) sensor for both Hornets and Super Hornets. The ATFLIR will include a laser, laser spot tracker, and navigation FLIR to improve substantially the aircrafts' detection and targeting capability. Hughes Aircraft Company, now Raytheon Systems Company Sensors & Electronic Systems, is developing the ATFLIR. Initial operational capability is planned for mid-2002.

An advanced mission computer and displays (AMC&D) will enable any future systems upgrades. This open-architecture avionics approach will increase mission-computer processing power and will operate with a new higher-order language of software code and programming that will provide more efficient and affordable updates to software.

Although currently unfunded, additional technologies in the roadmap for the F/A-18E/F promise to continue the legacy of warfighting improvements that have kept the Hornet combat relevant:

  • An active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar will deliver unrivaled improvements in radar detection range, passive detection, and air-to-air and air-to-ground targeting.
  • Cockpit upgrades will help pave the way for the two-seat F/A-18F to serve as the inventory replacement for the F-14. The Navy's plan is for one F/A-18F squadron within each carrier air wing to provide additional capabilities in high task loading and/or dense threat environments. A new 8xI0-inch display will enhance the situational awareness and targeting capability of the weapon system operator in the aft cockpit.

Finally, when it comes time to replace the EA-6B, a Super Hornet variant will be a candidate. For the past several years, Boeing and its industry team partner Northrop Grumman have been investing corporate funds toward developing a command-and-control warfare variant to fill the EA-6B role.

The Best Value

The first recipient of the U.S. Department of Defense Acquisition Excellence Award, the Super Hornet has remained on schedule and within budget since program inception. The Hornet Industry Team (led by Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Electric Aircraft Engines) consists of focused professionals. Under the Integrated Product Team (IPT) approach that includes the Navy customer at every level, the team will continue to meet the demands of flight and ground test.

Using the IPT approach up front paved the way for cost-saving down the line. The team reduced the number of parts in an F/A-18E by 42%, compared with an F/A-18C, whose forward-fuselage bulkhead, for example, is made up of 90 separate parts; in the E, that number was reduced to one—a high-speed machined part that eliminates 20 days of production time and costs $3,000 less to manufacture.

The IPT approach extends to flight test, in which Navy and industry test pilots are flying at the same time and sharing data as an Integrated Test Team (ITT) instead of conducting separate contractor and customer flight-test programs. Working as a team enabled the program to schedule flight testing for a year and a half less than would have been possible under an old-style approach. The ITT approach saves money and is more efficient in many ways. When Engineering and Manufacturing Development flight test is completed, the Super Hornet will have been cleared for 26 different weapon configurations. In comparison, the F/A- I BA/B was cleared for two configurations after EMD flight test and required extensive follow-on test and evaluation.

The teams also opted for a departure from traditional approaches to design and assembly. Production model Super Hornets are being built under the low-rate expandable tooling concept introduced by Boeing during EMD. This mainframe tooling approach allows the team to build the aircraft's forward fuselage and nose as a single structure. In conventional construction, the forward fuselage and nose are built in three separate subassemblies that must be joined together.

The Right Aircraft at the Right Time

If only one word could be used to describe the F/A-18E/F, that word would be "successful."

There will always be skeptics and critics, but there is no arguing with facts. Review the facts. There will always be "sea lawyers" who want you to believe they are the experts. Ask the real experts.

The Super Hornet is 72% through its flight test program. As it proceeds, the team will continue its methodical approach to identifying and solving potential problems before the aircraft enters operational service. That is the team's commitment to Naval Aviation—and to the Navy.

Pat Finneran is the Boeing vice-president and general manager for the overall F/A-18 program. He is a former naval flight officer who also has served as the company’s program manager for the AV-8B and for the production aircraft division, which included the AV-8B, T-45, F-15, and the St. Louis-built portion of the C-17 transport. Chuck Allen is the company’s vice-president for F/A-18E/F Super Hornet development and production. He is a former F/A-18 pilot and a graduate of the Navy Test Pilot School.


Patrick Allen, a photographer/journalist, is the author of several books on aviation. He lives in Dorset, England.

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