Hornet Ball

Each year, each of the communities in Naval Aviation, hold a ball. One such community is  the West Coast F/A-18C/D Hornet and F/A-18E/F SuperHornet squadrons. The annual balls are  fun social occasions allowing the aircrew to dress up in their best uniforms and show off their ladies (or gentlemen, in this new age) in their finest. Speeches are made, and presentations on the state of the community by leadership and contractors given. And it is awards season, both for the best squadrons, and for individual achievement within the community.

In the last dozen or so years, one highlight of the community balls has become the videos various squadrons and even individuals put together for presentation. Here’s one.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ4RalNSjJk]

Advanced Super Hornet

The evolution of the F/A-18 Hornet family has been interesting. Originally conceived as a very lightweight land based fighter by Northrop, the YF-17 lost out to the YF-16 from General Dynamics (now part of Lockheed Martin) in the Air Force Light Weight Fighter competition.

Around the same time, the Navy realized it needed to start looking for a replacement for the A-7 Corsair II family. Additionally, while the F-14 was replacing the venerable F-4 Phantom, the Midway class carriers were unable to routinely operate the big Tomcat. A replacement for those Phantoms was needed. And don’t forget the Marines. The Tomcat was a fine fighter, but unsuited for the Marine need for Close Air Support.

But the Navy was quite leery of Northrop’s product. It took a partnership between Northrop and longtime supplier of Navy jets McDonnell Douglas to redesign the YF-17 into the F/A-18A that would be suitable for the fleet. It was a good deal heavier than the original product, but still quite light compared to the Tomcat.  The F/A-18B was a two-seat operational trainer version. Improvements to the avionics, primarily the ability to use smart weapons, lead to the “C” model Hornet, and the two-seat version, the “D.”

The Hornet was easy to maintain, popular with its crews, and relatively cheap. The only real shortcoming was its short range.

The very high costs of maintaining the F-14, the retirement of the A-6 Intruder, and the collapse of the A-12 stealth bomber program left the Navy scrambling to find an airframe to fill the flight decks of the carriers.

McDonnell Douglas (bought out by Boeing)  responded with a proposal that was in effect a Hornet beefed up by about 25%. This design, which came to be known as the F/A-18E Super Hornet entered the fleet just about the the beginning of the 21st Century.  The two seat version, the F model, wasn’t an operational trainer, but rather had a missionized rear cockpit for a Weapon Systems Officer, making the “F” model more suitable for certain strike missions.

But the Super Hornet isn’t perfect. For one thing, the stores pylons on the wings are toed out 4 degrees for release clearance purposes. This imposes a pretty hefty drag, and the Super Hornet isn’t particularly fast with full pylons. Nor is the Super Hornet a stealthy aircraft.

Boeing, seeing some signs of the F-35C program not proceeding very well, initiated a company funded endeavor to address some of the Super Hornet shortcomings. The Advanced Super Hornet may never be bought, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if at least some of the characteristics soon find their way to the fleet.

[scribd id=163474043 key=false mode=scroll]

I stole the scribd from Jason.

Silent Hornet?

The F/A-18 family has been a pretty successful program for Naval Aviation, from it’s origins as an inexpensive lightweight fighter, to a replacement for legacy F-4 Phantom and A-7 Corsair II aircraft.  It’s evolution into the much larger F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EF-18G Growler were surprisingly smooth programs.

But the program isn’t without its faults.  For instance, the major weakness of the family has always been seen as its relatively low “fuel fraction,” that is, the percentage of the aircrafts weight devoted to fuel.  A low fuel fraction leads to relatively short range.  External tanks and aerial refueling mitigate this to some extent, but not without penalties in performance, payload, cost, and time.

The Super Hornets also have one other minor issue. A fair amount of attention was paid to reducing the radar cross section of the jet, without having to go full stealth. But when weapon separation tests were conducted on the prototype, it turned out that some loads were not leaving cleanly. The modified wing of the Super Hornet was doing things to airflow that no one had foreseen. Rather than have to redesign the entire wing, the fix turned out to be toeing out the external wing pylons by 4 degrees.  Of course, this imposes a healthy bit of drag, both for the pylons themselves, and for any stores on them. It also pretty much shot to hell all the attention to reducing the radar cross section of the jet.

So, with the pylons off, the Super Hornet is pretty sprightly, and has fair low observable characteristics. But it doesn’t have any range, or any weapons.

Boeing is trying to work around that issue.  In recent years, other “teen” series fighters, the F-15 and F-16, have used “conformal fuel tanks” fitted to the outside of the airframe to increase “internal” fuel, rather than having to carry drop tanks on pylons. With care, the design can have minimal impact on airframe drag or radar cross section. That goes a long ways toward tacking the range issue. But what about weapons? Boeing is also designing a semi-stealthy pod for the centerline that resembles a drop tank, but is instead a weapons pod.

Jason pointed out this article at The DEW Line showing a mock-up of the configuration that Boeing and the Navy will flight test this summer.

DSCN0273-v2.jpg

You can see the Conformal Fuel Tanks over the wing root, and the weapons pod on the centerline. Close observation will also show a sensor window under the nose, as opposed to the usual method of mounting a pod on one of the engine bays. Less drag, more stealth.

The concept is to give the Super Hornet fleet some limited ability for “first day of the war” stealth to penetrate enemy air space. My major concern is that the weapons pod right now is only configured (so far as we can tell) to carry four AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, giving it a fair air-to-air capability. What it really needs is a capability to carry weapons to attack enemy surface to air defense systems.  Some way of carrying anti-radiation missiles, or at a minimum, GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs is going to be critical. I suppose designing an alternative pod shouldn’t be too great an engineering challenge.

Boeing is smart enough to see that its rival Lockheed Martin is struggling to make the F-35C a reality, and is trying to offer a low cost, low risk alternative that will keep the carrier air wing viable through the first half of the 21st Century.

RAAF Retires the F-111

Over here in the US we called it the “Aardvark,” but in Australia they called it the “Pig.”  Regardless of the nickname, the type has finally flown its last operational mission.  The Royal Australian Air Force officially retired F-111 at the beginning of December last year.

The F-111 holds a spot in aviation history as the first operational swing-wing combat aircraft.   The aircraft suffered through a rocky start in the 1960s – born in a text-book case model of project mismanagement.  Originally cast as an airframe that could fulfill a range of missions, the F-111 was built around conflicting requirements ranging from carrier-based interceptor to all-weather strike bomber.  In the end, the former role was dropped and the F-111 became a rather capable deep strike aircraft –  perhaps the most famous mission being the 1986 Libyan strikes.

The F-111C variant entered Australian service in 1973.  They are replaced by F/A-18Fs.

F-111 and FA-18F

The F/A-18F are said to be a short-term solution, with a variant of the F-35 Lightning II JSF in mind.  But that’s another story…. let’s not go there…

Instead, enjoy this clip showing a RAAF F-111 taking down a NK drug runner-

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4TCqcWkDM0]

At the airshows, the F-111 was always a crowd-pleaser.  Unlike the USAF, the RAAF did the “dump and burn” maneuver.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myQtoZ_qONA]

So long, Aardvark.