Following a successful run of more than 400 A and B models, the US Navy began taking fleet deliveries of improved F/A-18C (single seat) and F/A-18D (dual seat) models in September 1987. These Hornets carry the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the infrared imaging Maverick air-to-ground missile. Two years later, the C/D models came with improved night attack capabilities. The new components included a navigation forward looking infrared (NAVFLIR) pod, a raster head-up display, night vision goggles, special cockpit lighting compatible with the night vision devices, a digital color moving map and an independent multipurpose color display.
The Hornet has an intercept radius of over 400 miles without external fuel tanks. In the air-to-ground role, the F/A-18C can attack targets over 550 miles away and deliver conventional bombs, precision munitions, air-to-surface missiles, cluster weapons and rockets, up to a 17,000 pound total payload, with deadly accuracy. As a fighter, the Hornet can carry a mixed load of the most capable air-to-air missiles. On all missions, the Hornet will employ the highly effective 20mm Gatling gun. With the high performance of a lightweight fighter combined with the "state-of-the-art" night attack, all weather weapon system, the Hornet is capable of finding and destroying land, sea, or air targets on the first pass, day or night.
Powered by two GE F404 engines, the F/A-18C can get home in the event of a malfunction or battle damage. Moreover, its self-start capability and modular maintenance make it ideal for remote airstrip operation, as well as the furious pace of carrier operations.
The F/A-18C radar is the world's most advanced for a fighter aircraft. Two radars in one, the Hughes APG-73 has the ability to detect airborne targets at more than 100 miles, distinguish low-flying or slow-moving targets "on the deck," pinpoint ships at sea, map the contours of the ground, and track ground targets. F/A-18Cs have synthetic aperture ground mapping radar with a doppler beam sharpening mode to generate ground maps. This ground mapping capability that permits crews to locate and attack targets in adverse weather and poor visibility or to precisely update the aircraft's location relative to targets during the approach, a capability that improves bombing accuracy. New production F/A-18Cs received the APG-73 radar upgrade radars starting in 1994, providing more precise and clear radar displays.
The F/A-18C Night Attack Hornet has a pod-mounted Hughes AN/AAR-50 thermal imaging navigation set, a Loral AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk FLIR targeting pod, and GEC Cat's Eyes pilot's night vision goggles. Some 48 F/A-18D two-seat Hornets are configured as the F/A-18D (RC) reconnaissance version, with the M61A1 cannon replaced by a pallet-mounted electro-optical suite comprising a blister-mounted IR linescan and two roll-stabilized sensor units, with all of these units recording onto video tape.
On the first day of Operation Desert Storm, two F/A-18s, each carrying four 2,000 lb. bombs, shot down two Iraqi MiGs and then proceeded to deliver their bombs on target. Throughout the Gulf War, squadrons of U.S. Navy, Marine and Canadian F/A-18s operated around the clock, setting records daily in reliability, survivability and ton-miles of ordnance delivered.
The Navy announced 18 May 1998 that its East Coast F/A-18 squadrons will relocate to Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach VA and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in Beaufort, SC. The jets will move from Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Jacksonville FL which was ordered closed by the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Nine operational squadrons and the Fleet Replacement Squadron -- a total of 156 planes -- will move to Oceana. Two squadrons totaling 24 planes will move to Beaufort. The first squadron will move in the fall of 1998 and all 11 fleet squadrons and the Fleet Replacement Squadron completed their moves by October 1999.
Throughout its service, annual upgrades to F/A-18 weapon systems, sensors, etc. continued. The latest lot of the F/A-18C/D has grown to be far more capable (night attack, precision strike, low observable technologies, etc.) than the original F/A-18A/B; however, by 1991, it was becoming clear that avionics cooling, electrical, and space constraints would begin to limit future growth. Additionally, another operational deficiency was beginning to develop. As the F/A-18C/D empty weight increased the aircraft were returning to the carrier with less than optimal reserve fuel and/or unexpended weapons. The additional range and "bring back" is not as essential to shore based operations. F/A-18A/B/C/D aircraft will fly for years with the U.S. Marine Corps and eight international customers: Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand. Although the F/A-18C/D's future growth is now limited, it will also continue to fill a critical role in the U.S. Navy's carrier battle group for many years to come and will be an excellent complement to the larger, longer range, more capable F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The Center Barrel Replacement Plus [CBR+] effort replaces load sensitive structure with new structure, enabling the F/A-18 Hornets extended time in their strike fighter role until the new Super Hornet E/F models phase into fleet units.
The "center barrel" is the crucial center part of the aircraft fuselage that supports the wings and landing gear. This part is being replaced for crash or hard landing damage sustained by aircraft in the rigorous environment of naval aviation operations. Soon, the replacement will be performed to extend the life of today's Hornets. In 1987, the technology to make this kind of repair didn't exist. A Hornet had made a hard landing on a carrier deck, causing damage to the center barrel area beyond anyone's capability to repair it. Until 1989, it looked like an aircraft with only 160 flight hours would end up being spare parts.
Confronted with the loss of an important asset, the Navy approached the private sector seeking a way to repair the low use Hornet rather than scrap it. The private sector estimated that the cost would be $16 million, with the time to design and build the fixture pegged at three years. So the Naval Aviation Depot (NADEP) North Island team set out to implement its own idea. They designed and built the fixture they had proposed to the private sector, and did it in 18 months for $4 million. The actual repair cost was $2 million, so the Naval Air Systems Command NADEP North Island team had a fixture and a repaired aircraft for $6 million, with the capability now to do more center barrel repairs, and the fleet had regained an important asset for its readiness.
The F/A-18 C/D aircraft are reaching their specified design limits faster due to increased operational usage. The Hornet was originally forecast to have a service life of 20 years. This life estimate was based on an average of 100 carrier landings per year and aircraft experiencing normal loads (fatigue). After the Gulf War, the A-6E Intruder retired and the F/A-18C assumed its mission on carrier decks. National commitments required increased operational capability, so the F/A-18A was gradually replaced on the carriers by the more capable F/A-18C. The F/A-18C has become the carrier workhorse during the past decade, causing an accelerated wear out rate.
The center barrel replacement (CBR+) prototype effort began in December 2000 and completed in 2001. With 355 Hornets scheduled to receive CBR+ upgrades by 2012, a peak demand of 45 aircraft per year is expected in 2009, based on current aircraft usage. Average cost per aircraft for the CBR+ effort is projected at $2 million. A second fixture constructed in 2001 will help in meeting the upgrade demand, with NADEP North Island artisans working in the Maintenance, Corrosion and Paint Program performing the new work.
Boeing modified 30 legacy F/A-18C Hornets under the "C+ reconstitution" program awarded to Boeing in 2014. The updated strike fighters, modified to a “C+” standard, support two new squadrons. They are fitted with new avionics and a modernized AN/APG-65 radar. Modifications also extend the service life of the fighter from the current 6,000 hours to 8,000 hours.
By June 2016 Boeing had delivered two F/A-18C+ fighters to the Marines from its maintenance facility at Cecil Airport, FL. At that time, five more fighters were undergoing the update and four were expected to arrive by September 2016.
The legacy Hornets were trucked to Cecil Field from the the aircraft “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, AZ. The F/A-18Cs from Davis-Monthan AFB were generally lower-time fighters that had not approached their full service lives. Boeing overhauls legacy Hornets as well as F/A-18E/F Super Hornets at Cecil Airport (the former Cecil Field, which was renamed by the Jacksonville Aviation Authority in 2011). The facility also modifies retired Lockheed Martin F-16s to the unmanned QF-16 aerial target for the US Air Force.
The last Navy F/A-18C Hornet, aircraft number 300, made its official final active-duty flight at Naval Air Station Oceana, 02 October 2019. Assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 at Cecil Field, Florida, aircraft number 300 completed its first Navy acceptance check flight Oct. 14, 1988. Lt. Andrew Jalali, who piloted the Hornet for its final active-duty flight at Naval Air Station Oceana, was also born in 1988. The aircraft had remained with the Gladiators for its entire 31-years of service. The aircraft took off from NAS Oceana accompanied by three F/A-18F Super Hornets for a one-and-a-half hour flight and return to Oceana where it will be officially stricken from the inventory, stripped of all its usable parts and be scrapped. During the last year, VFA-106 had transferred over 50 F/A-18 Hornets to various Navy Reserve and U.S. Marine aviation commands, as well as, being placed in preservation for future use if needed.
Both the F/A-18A and F/A-18C Hornet variants have been replaced by the updated F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.
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