Aerospace International Editor TIM ROBINSON felt ‘the need.. the need for speed’ on the final trade day of Farnborough Air Show this summer, with a demonstration flight in a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet from the US Navy. How did the ‘Rhino’ measure up?
Rolling down the runway in a powerful jet fighter at one of the world’s biggest airshows, I had to pinch myself. Hard. I’d been invited to sample as one PR veteran said, the awesome F/A-18F Super Hornet ‘up close and personal’ and thanks the US Navy, and manufacturers Boeing – I would get a rare first-hand view of what a lucky few get to call their working office.
My pilot for this one hour flight was Commander Jonathan ‘Gabby’ Wise, US Navy and the brief was to gain an insight into the capabilities of this fighter. The location, Farnborough Air Show, for a demo experience usually reserved for VIPs and potential customers.
A little earlier, suitability suited and booted and issued with flight suit, G-trousers, my pilot Gabby went over the brief for the flight. An afterburner take-off, followed by an enroute climb to 18,000ft to find some clear airspace near Boscombe Down for aerobatics. Then after a quick G-warm-up, a demonstration of the Super Hornet’s super manoeuvreability, following by a chance to see the radar in action and a landing back at Farnborough. Gabby also throughly briefed me on safety and ejection procedures, with the main hazard to be aware of a birdstrike through the canopy.
With that, we walked out to the waiting aircraft.
Check out an exclusive in-flight video of the flight below.
So what is the ‘super manoeuvreability’ that Boeing claim for the F/A-18E/F? Sinply put the combination of flyy-by-wire, large control surfaces and big LERX allow it an amazing low-speed controllability, at high angles-of-attack (up between 45-50deg AoA) - vital for a close in dogfight.
With that, my pilot began to put the F/A-18 through its paces, with low-speed 1G flight and a high-angle of attack. Glancing at the AoA readout while my pilot Gabby was kicking the rudders bars I saw around 45 deg plus. Gabby was also able to demonstrate inverted high angle-of-attack flight, which results in you hanging from your straps upside down and wondering whether this should really be possible.
This ability to still maintain controllability and roll authority at high angles-of-attack and slow-speed is a key difference between the SH and other fighters one might see at airshows doing a high alpha pass. In addition, the excess power avialable also enables it to perform manoeuvres like the ‘turbo nose down’ to push itself out of high-alpha flight.
Edge of the envelope?” chuckles the Super Hornet to itself: “What’s that?” To the Rhino, aeronautical ‘doghouse’ charts and E-M diagrams are something to be glanced at, more guidance than strict rules.
Indeed, speaking with an RAF Eurofighter Typhoon pilot at a military airshow, I once asked which was the aircraft that he would be most wary of in dogfight – his answer, interestingly, was the ‘classic’ Hornet. Why – because of its high alpha and nose-pointing ability. Couple this with the latest dogfight missiles such as AIM-9X or ASRAAM and the helmet-mounted (HMD)s sights to allow off-boresight missile shots, and it is clear that in the within visual range fight, any adversary would have to treat the SH with a maximum of respect. Go hunting this Rhino and you could end up gored.
(It is notable that a rare HUD ‘kill’ pic that surfaced on the Internet of an F-22 Raptor came from a Super Hornet – in this case a EF-18G Growler.)
During the flight we also flew a few more maneuverers including a standard loop, rolls and a F/A-18E/F speciality called the pirouette, which allows a low-speed SH to quickly swap ends, skid round the corner and turn the tables on its opponent. Taking the stick myself, the controls were precise and I was able to put the jet almost exactly where I wanted it – although my loop was a little ragged. Taking the stick of a powerful jet fighter over the English countryside, it is hard not to have a massive grin inside your oxygen mask.
Magic carpet ride
Having got up to around or even a little beyond 6G with these manoveres and with yours truly starting to feel a bit queasy, we moved onto looking at the sensors and avionics that provide the Rhino pilot and backseater with an outstanding level of situational awareness.
Visibility wise, the rear cockpit is also leaps and bounds ahead of my other front-line fast-jet experience, the MiG-29UB, where high cockpit side rails give a feeling of being enclosed, and one gets the feeling of being sunk into a pit.
In the back seat the WSO/GIB/RIO cockpit is dominated by three main displays – the centre one being a large full colour moving map. Overlaid on this can be tactical information, such as datalinked friendly forces, and nearby air traffic, giving a superb situational awareness that is easy to understand. Either side of this screen are two monochrome displays, able to show HUD repeater or radar symbology. The rear cockpit of this ‘F’ model was also equipped with throttle and stick.
Though the Hornet I was flying in (an example from VFA-122 ‘Flying Eagles) was not equipped with one (and the radar itselfwas running in declassified mode for back seat guests), the US Navy is now enjoying the benefits Super Hornet paired with Raytheon’s AN/APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA). This gives a two-seat crew the ability to simultaneously scan and track both surface and airborne targets, with the two air and ground modes interleaved. The range of the radar is also increased, with open sources giving a two to three times increase in range compared to the previous APG-73. With a full load of AMRAAMS, the Super Hornet crew would also be able to acquire their targets beyond visual range and use the maximum capability of the missiles to pick off targets.
Another benefit of AESA is that with the switch to solid-state arrays with no moving parts is a huge increase in reliability and mean time before failure.
With the weather closing in, we started descending and Gabby demonstrated the ground mapping and surface modes of the radar - picking out local towns and zooming in. He also used the radar to designate Boscombe Down runway for a ‘Hornet One’ apparoach to allow us to perform a touch and go. This is a useful feature for letting down in bad weather to unknown airfields in a diversion or emergency.
With our time drawing to a close, we transited back to Farnborough for a landing.
International sales prospects
So in the age of US stealth fighters and ‘Euro canards’ is there still hope for additional orders for the F/A-18E/F going forward? Boeing certainly thinks so. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was the first export customer for the SH, buying a batch of 24. It has also, intriguingly, taken the decision to plan ahead and pre-wire 12 of these aircraft to the Electronic Warfare F/A-18G Growler variant. This decision reflects the RAAF’s thinking on the importance of the EW realm in any future Pacific conflicts. Meanwhile only last week it was reported that Australia could buy an additional 24 Super Hornets if more delays occur to the F-35 programme.
But Australia is not the only F-35 partner nation now tweaking its fighter options due to the spiralling costs and delays of JSF. A political storm in Ottawa over F-35 means Canada has gone even further and has pledged to review its F-35 purchase and look at other fighter options – opening the door to Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter and Saab. With the RCAF already an established Hornet operator, a follow-on buy of SHs might be a likely choice if Canada does decide to exit the F-35 programme.
Finally there are also Denmark and Brazil, where Boeing also see good prospects for the Super Hornet. A recent press report from Brazil stated that the F/A-18E/F had scored the highest on air force evaluations, beating the Gripen and Rafale which are also in contention there for a 36-aircraft FX-2 fighter contest. Denmark too, has reopened a stalled fighter competition for around 30 fighters, with the Super Hornet going up against the F-35 (Denmark is a Tier-3 partner) and the Gripen.
Meanwhile Boeing has an eye on the future with a development path for the Super Hornet to increase its capabilities even more for the 21st century. This growth plan rectifies the problem of the ‘classic’ Hornets, that its size and weight precluded much further development. In the 25% bigger Super Hornet, however there is plenty of room for growth.
In its International Road Map plan the Super Hornet would receive a new cockpit display, which perhaps gows even further than the F-35 in bringing an iPad style giant HD interface into a modern fighter cockpit. The fighter would also receive conformal fuel tanks to boost its range, and an internal IRST to allow passive acquisition and tracking of enemy aircraft.
In addition, Boeing also intends to increase the low-observable qualities of the aircraft with a ‘stealth’ underbelly pod able to carry weapons internally and thus reduce the signature of the aircraft. The idea here is not to magically retrofit stealth into the fighter, but to reduce some of the more obvious radar reflectors and traps, such as the weapons and pylons.
Finally in a recent briefing to aviation journalists, Boeing F/A-18 execs raised the concept of a two-seat Super Hornet being able to take on a UAV/UCAV ’battle commander’ role in the future. With the US Navy now trialing the X-47B UCAV onboard an aircraft carrier, could one day a Super Hornet be flying with robotic wingmen?
The Super Hornet may not be stealthy as an F-22, or be as fast or as high flying as a Eurofighter, but its combination of versatility and capability as an all-round weapons platform make it an affordable, lethal fighter platform for the 21st century. In air superiority, its AESA radar and multiple weapons stations are likely to run the enemy out of aircraft, before it runs out of missiles, and if it does go to the within visual range (WVR) close-in dogfight, its manoverability and low-speed agility mean a Rhino driver has an excellent chance of coming out on top.
In ground-attack, the second seat and cockpit displays in the back for the ‘F’, combined with the AESA radar allows unparalleled situational awareness and the ability for pilot and RIO work together to simultaneously prosecute surface targets and clear airspace. Indeed in a recent Boeing briefing to aviation media, a executive noted that a unnamed potential customer was now considering switching to make their Super Hornet fleet purchase entirely dual-seat.
Finally as well as affordability now a key concern , there is also a clear roadmap of potential upgrades laid out for international customers to pick and choose from, with enhancements to the cockpit, a low-observable weapons pod, and an integrated IRST all in the pipeline. It is also unique among in-production fighters in boasting an EW variant.It may lack stealth, but is perhaps is one of the best fighters in providing bang for scarce defence bucks.
It is also to be remembered that while 480 F-35Cs will consitute the ‘day-one’ stealth for US NAvy carrier wings in the future, the 500+ Super Hornets (and 110+ Growlers) will provide the other half of the backbone for US carrier air power for quite some forseeable time. This will tide the US Navy over before any future F/A-XX ‘sixth gen’ fighter.
Whether poaching JSF dissenters, or hunting down new ones, Boeing believes its ‘Rhino’ now represents a balanced, evolutionary fighter design able to continue well into this century.
(With thanks to the US Navy and Boeing for this experience!)