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The McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet is an all-weather carrier-capable multirole fighter jet, designed to attack both ground and aerial targets. The F/A-18 was derived from the YF-17 in the 1970s for use by the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The Hornet is also used by the air forces of several other nations. It has been the aerial demonstration aircraft for the U.S. Navy's Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, since 1986.
The fighter's primary missions are fighter escort, fleet air defense, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), interdiction, close air support and reconnaissance. Its versatility and reliability have proven it to be a valuable carrier asset, though it has been criticized for its lack of range and payload compared to its earlier contemporaries, such as the F-14 Tomcat in the fighter and strike fighter role, and the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II in the attack role.
F/A-18 Hornet provided the baseline design for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a larger, evolutionary redesign of the F/A-18. Compared to the Hornet, the Super Hornet is larger, and heavier and has improved range and payload capability. The F/A-18E/F was originally proposed as an alternative to a completely new aircraft to replace existing dedicated attack aircraft such as the A-6. The larger variant was also directed to replace the aging F-14 Tomcat, thus serving a complementary role with Hornets in the U.S. Navy, and serving a wider range of roles including refueling tanker, and electronic jamming platform.
The F/A-18 is a twin engine, mid-wing, multi-mission tactical aircraft. It is highly maneuverable, owing to its good thrust to weight ratio, digital fly-by-wire control system, and leading edge extensions (LEX). The LEX allow the Hornet to remain controllable at high angles of attack. The wing is a trapezoidal shape with 20-degree sweepback on the leading edge and a straight trailing edge. The wing has full-span leading edge flaps and the trailing edge has single-slotted flaps and ailerons over the entire span.
Canted vertical stabilizers are another distinguishing design element, one among several other such elements that enable the Hornet's excellent high angle-of-attack ability include oversized horizontal stabilators, oversized trailing edge flaps that operate as flaperons, large full-length leading edge slats, and flight control computer programming that multiplies the movement of each control surface at low speeds and moves the vertical rudders inboard instead of simply left and right. The Hornet's normally high angle-of-attack performance envelope was put to rigorous testing and enhanced in the NASA F-18 High Alpha Research Vehicle (HARV). NASA used the F-18 HARV to demonstrate flight handling characteristics at high angle-of-attack (alpha) of 65–70 degrees using thrust vectoring vanes. F/A-18 stabilators were also used as canards on NASA's F-15S/MTD.
F/A-18 Hornet in transonic flight exhibiting Prandtl-Glauert condensation
The Hornet was among the first aircraft to heavily use multi-function displays, which at the switch of a button allow a pilot to perform either fighter or attack roles or both. This "force multiplier" ability gives the operational commander more flexibility to employ tactical aircraft in a fast-changing battle scenario. It was the first Navy aircraft to incorporate a digital multiplex avionics bus, enabling easy upgrades.
The Hornet is also notable for having been designed to reduce maintenance, and as a result has required far less downtime than its heavier counterparts, the F-14 Tomcat and the A-6 Intruder. Its mean time between failure is three times greater than any other Navy strike aircraft, and requires half the maintenance time. Its General Electric F404 engines were also innovative in that they were designed with operability, reliability and maintainability first. The engine, while unexceptional in rated performance, demonstrates exceptional robustness under various conditions and is resistant to stall and flameout. The F404 engine connects to the airframe at only 10 points and can be replaced without special equipment; a four person team can remove the engine within 20 minutes.
Exhaust nozzles of an RAAF F/A-18 at the Whenuapai Air Show in New Zealand in March 2009
The engine air inlets of the Hornet, like that of the F-16, are of a simpler "fixed" design, while those of the F-4, F-14, and F-15 have variable geometry or variable ramp air inlets. This is a speed limiting factor in the Hornet design. Instead, the Hornet uses bleed air vents on the inboard surface of the engine air intake ducts to slow and reduce the amount of air reaching the engine. While not as effective as variable geometry, the bleed air technique functions well enough to achieve near Mach 2 speeds, which is within the designed mission requirements.