The Hornet has been a highly controversial airplane
from the day it was initially proposed. Hornet detractors point at their
hero, the massive F-14, and say the Hornet isn’t worthy of following
in that great airplane’s steps. No range, no load, no nothin’.
Well, folks, guess what? Right or wrong, the Tomcat’s on it’s
way out and the Hornet will soon be the only combat airplane on deck.
The Hornet had a confused birth for several reasons, not the least of
which is that, as it’s known today, the Hornet is a MacDonald-Douglas
airplane—only it’s not. The airplane was designed and originally
built by Northrup.
Confusing things even more, the Hornet wasn’t designed for the
Navy. Plus at the time of its birth it was a failure: as the XF-17,
it was the loser in the USAF design competition eventually won by the
F-16. That was in early 1975.
The same year the Northrup XF-17 lost the USAF competition, Navy brass
was casting around for a less expensive, cheaper-to-operate airplane
they could use to replace the aging Phantoms, A4’s and A6’s
in the fleet. If you look at that grouping closely you’ll realize
they were biting off a mighty big chunk: they wanted one airplane to
be a fighter and a specialized tactical attack machine. They wanted
to raise aerial multi-tasking to new levels.
At one time, fighting wars meant only one thing: can we beat what the
Russians are flying? That’s no longer the case. Recent wars have
meant something else: can we get in, drop a lot of ordnance and, at
the same time knock down lesser trained pilots flying ex-Russian aircraft?
Then, another factor joined the mix: is there a way we can go to war
on the cheap? Where can we save a few bucks? And that’s a big
part of the rationale behind the original decision to build the Hornet.
The Hornet had to be a capable airplane and, in today’s world,
for the most part, it has more than met the Navy’s objectives.
It operates at far less cost than a Tomcat, for instance, requiring
something like half the number of manhours to keep it flying.
The Hornet was designed from the ground up to be a digital airplane:
it’s a computer freak’s dream. Even the very early “A”
models were strictly fly-by-wire airplanes in which the pilot flies
the computer and the computer flies the airplane.
As the airplane has evolved after its initial operational deployment
in 1983 (wow—it’s already been in the fleet 22 years!) the
digitalization of the flight deck has continued until the latest models
have all-glass cockpits with touch screen controls. Plus their combat
systems are increasingly designed for the dropping of fewer, but smarter,
weapons. The concept is simple: don’t bomb the general area, put
it through the window of the boss’s bedroom.
Pilots love the airplane because it’s so easy to fly and takes
a lot of the pucker factor out of landing on the boat. The larger, more
powerful Super Hornet has added more duties to the design including
acting as aerial tankers and the latest F/A-18G, the “Growler”
will even replace the EA-6B’s in the electronic warfare role.
It’s only a matter of time before the only fixed wing airplanes
on a carrier will be the Hornet and the COD’s. Now if they can
just find a way they can modify the airplane to replace those pesky