The F/A-18 Hornet is a versatile and formidable fighter/attack aircraft that has served as a backbone of the United States Navy and Marine Corps aviation for several decades. Developed by McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing, the Hornet is renowned for its exceptional performance, agility, and multirole capabilities. With its sleek design and powerful engines, the F/A-18 Hornet has proven itself as a reliable workhorse, adept at both air-to-air combat and precision strike missions. Its widespread adoption by numerous international military forces further underscores its global significance and enduring legacy in the world of modern aviation.
The F-18 story started as Northrop’s entry in the Air Force Lightweight Fighter competition (LWF). Northrop developed the YF-17 Cobra prototype, based on the earlier P-530 concept. The YF-17 lost to the competitor in the LWT, the General Dynamics YF-16. But this was not the end of the story.
Early 1965, Northrop started with the design of a F-5 successor. Internally the first concept was called the N-300 which evolved into the P-530. The airframe was already similar to the later F-18 and fitted with the GE15 engines, which an improved version (called YJ101) was powering the YF-17 as well.
The construction of the airframe was primarily aluminum although also composites were used. The wings didn’t contain fuel as the airframe was still very slim compared to the later developments. Parts of the aircraft already featured fly-by-wire controls.
The first prototype (72-1569) was rolled out of the Hawthorne factory April 1974. First flight was on 9 June. A second prototype (72-1570) was made to enter the LWF competition. A total of 288 test flights (346 hours) were made.
Navy attack fighter
After the lost LWF competition, the design was taken off the shelf again when the Navy started its own competition for a Naval Air Combat Fighter (NACF) to replace the aging F-4 and A-7. Initially the Navy opted for a lightweight multi-role fighter, but congress pushed for a combined fighter attack aircraft.
As Northrop had limited experience with Naval fighters it teamed up with McDonnell Douglas. They agreed that McDonnell would build the naval version of the YF-17, called the F-18A. Northrop would continue with a land-based version of the YF-17, called the F-18L.
The partnership between Northrop and McDonnell was short-lived as both parties met in court. Northrop accused McDonnell of trying to sell the naval version of the F-18 as land-based option as well, where Northrop offered the F-18L. The dispute dragged on for year while McDonnell in the meanwhile continued developing the F-18.
160775 / 1
In basic the F-18 was still similar to the YF-17, although some major modifications were made. The nose was changed to house the AN/APG-65 radar. The airframe structure was strengthened making it less slim as the YF-17. The landing gear was also modified to cope with carrier operations. The fuel range capacity was enlarged and the wing-top could fold up, to save space on the carrier-deck or hangar. The tail fins size was increased and an inflight refueling probe was added. General Electric also introduced the F404-GE400 afterburning turbofans, which were developed out of the YJ-101 engines used on the YF-17.
160778 / 4
The fist F-18 prototype, Hornet One, (160775) made its first flight on November 18, 1978 from McDonnells St. Louis factory. The Navy tested the aircraft from January 1979 onward at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. March 1979 a second prototype joined flight trails. Eventually 11 prototypes were build. Two of which were two-seat aircraft then called the TF-18. In total 2756 test flights were made with a total of 3583 flying hours. After the test program some airframes were transferred to NASA, while others were used for spares or ended up in museums.
||FSD 1 A001
||On display Museum of Armament & Technology NAWS China Lake, CA
|160776 / 2
||FSD 2 A002
||Stripped Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field (NALF), Virginia
|160777 / 3
||FSD 3 A003
||Carrier trail aircraft
|160778 / 4
||FSD 4 A004
||Later used by Canadian AF for trails. Stored at CFB Trenton in full Canadian AF colors.
|160779 / 5
||FSD 5 A005
|160780 / 6
||FSD 6 A006
||Spin test aircraft, later NASA 840 (N840NA), preserved at Virginia Air and Space Museum
||First two-seat prototype
|160782 / 7
||FSD 7 A007
|160783 / 8
||FSD 8 A008
||Crashed September 1980
||FSD 9 A009
||Fuselage at NAWS China Lake
F/A-18 A/B Operational service
The first production F/A-18 (161213) made its maiden flight on 12 April 1980. The F/A designation was introduced as the aircraft took on a multi role, being fighter and attack aircraft. VFA-125, also a new designation as fighter attack squadron, received the first aircraft at NAS Lemoore. The unit started to train aircrew on the new type, early 1982.
The first Marine Corps squadron to begin conversion to the F/A-18 was VMFA-314 based at El Toro, starting August 1982. VMFA-323 and CMFA-531 followed and were operational by the end of 1983. At first the Marines trained their aircrew at VFA-125, setting up their own training squadron VMFAT-101 in 1987 also out of El Toro.
The first operational aircraft onboard a carrier were deployed with VFA-113 and VFA-25 assigned to the Pacific fleet. The first cruise started in February 1985 aboard the USS Constellation. The first Atlantic fleet squadron, VFA-131 started to fly the F/A-18 October 1983.
One of the better known naval squadrons, the Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron (NFDS) “The Blue Angels” received some early production aircraft to replace the A-4F. The first display was flown with the Hornet at MCAS Yma on April 25, 1987.
The Navy was also looking for a single-seat reconnaissance aircraft. So the first Hornet build (160775) was modified and got the designation RF-18. A palletized camera package was created to fit into the space the 20-mm M61A1 would normally take up. This so, the package could be swapped during carrier operations. It first flew in 1984, but wasn’t a success. Only small numbers were produced.
The Navy eventually received 371 F/A-18A and 39 F/A-18Bs with the final aircraft delivered in 1987. At this point newer models (C/D) entered service. Older airframes were passed to Navy and Marines reserve units and some were placed in storage at the Naval Air Depot (NAD) North Island, California.
Some of the reserve aircraft were upgraded to the F/A-18A+ standard. 28 Navy aircraft got this upgrade, which is similar to the F/A-18C. The Marines also upgraded 24 aircraft (out of the 76 planned).
April 10, 1980 the first export order was announced when Canada placed an order of 138 F/A-18s. 98 F/A-18As and 40 Bs. This would make Canada the largest Hornet user outside the United States. Locally the aircraft is designated at CF-188 and replaced the F-101 Voodoo, F-104 and CF-5. The first aircraft delivered (July 1982) was an CF-18B (188901) assigned to 410 squadron out of Cold Lake. The aircraft were upgraded early 2000, receiving a digital cockpit with LCD screens, replacing the monochrome CRT displays featured in the A model.
Australia became the second export customer for the F/A-18. 57 A models and 18 B models were ordered. The first two B models, build in St. Louis, were delivered on May 17, 1985 to replace the Mirage IIIOs. The others were shipped as kit and assembled at Avalon, Australia. Early 2000 the RAAF also started upgrading its Hornets, including new electronics and the XN-8+ mission computer. A second modification was done in 2002 when the radar was changed to the newer AN/APG-73, bringing the aircraft almost to the C model standard.
Spain became the third and last export customer to order the first generation Hornet. The order was for 72 aircraft, 60 A and 12 B models, eventually replacing the Mirage III and F-4Cs. First delivery was in January 1986. These F-18s became known as EF-18 (the "E" standing for "España", Spain), not to be mistaken with the E from electronic, used in the EA-18G Growler designation.
The Spanish Hornets were upgraded between 1992 and 94. The internal wiring and electronical systems were updated, as well as the flight control system received increased memory.
Next to the initial order, Spain also bought 24 surplus airframes from the US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) of which 11 were put into storage at Davis-Monthan. After refurbishment and upgrades like done on other Spanish Hornets, the aircraft were delivered in batches of six per year, from December 1995 till December 1998. This made the total of 96 aircraft.
From 2004 till 2015 the original aircraft (not the 24 surplus aircraft) were updated again, this time to the MLU (Mid-life upgrade) package. This included better avionics, new data-bus, bigger color touch screens in the cockpit, the AN/APG-65 V3 update and the installment of the AL-400 radar warning receiver.
The US Space Agency NASA also operates F-18s. Currently 8 are in service, 3 A models, 4 B models and one D model. The aircraft are on loan from the Navy and used as chase plane or modified for several research projects. The first F/A-18 was used a provisioning aircraft in the Gruman X-29 FSW (Forward Swept Wing) project. As a chase plane the Hornet is ideal, as it can be flown at multiple altitudes and angles of attack than almost any other fighter.
AOA research aircraft
Advanced Aeroelastic Wing (AAW) program
F/A-18A (N840NA) was modified to test the High Alpha effect. Airflows were studied when the aircraft was at a high angle of attack (AOA). In a later stage the engine exhausts were modified to deflect the exhaust stream to test directional control in high alpha situations. This aircraft including the modification is not on display at Virginia Air and Space Center, Hampton VA.
The first big upgrade came with the introduction of the C/D model. It was similar in appearance, but internally a lot was changed. The first F/A-18C (163427) flew on September 3, 1987 and was delivered to the Naval Weapon Center at China Lake two weeks later.
Main updates included new avionics and an improved radar. Also new electronic counter measures were introduced resulting in additional antennas fitted on the nose and nosewheel doors. Other antennas were installed on the spine and both fins. The cockpit was also updated by installing three multi-functional color displays and the mission computer memory was extended. Other improvements were made to the GE F404 engines. The F404-GE-402 had enhanced performance giving it an additional 10% of thrust.
137 C models and 31 D models were build, before McDonnell Douglas switched to the Night Attack version (keeping the same designation). The first airframe (163985) build to this standard flew on May 6, 1988. A night attack D-model (163434) for the USMC flew the same day.
The D model was more capable than the B model, as it was configured as an all-weather strike aircraft. It has no control column and throttles. The USMC primarily used the D model in a night attack and forward air controller (FAC) role, using the backseat for a 2nd crew member (Weapons and Sensor officer) to operate these tasks.
F/A-18D with ATARS installed
Another major improvement was the ability to carry newer type weapons. This included the AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-7.
A total of 330 F/A-18Cs and 130 F/A-18Ds with night attack capability were build. The last 60 D models were reconnaissance capable (RC). This included the ATARS electro-optical sensor package that could be installed instead of the 20-mm M61A1 cannon, similar to the RF-18.
Export orders for the second generation Hornets were slightly better than the A/B models. During the late 1980s Kuwait was looking for a new fighter to replace its Mirage F1 and A-4s. Contesters were the Mirage 2000, Tornado F3 and F/A-18. September 1988 and order was placed for 40 F-18s, 32 F/A-18Cs and 8 D models. The first delivery in January 1992 was late due to the outbreak of the invasion of Iraq and subsequent Operation Desert Storm (first Gulf War). The last aircraft was delivered August 1993.
Kuwait participated in the Yemini civil war. In 2017 the commander revealed that the F/A-18 flew 3000 sorties over Yemen, operating from King Khalid Air Base.
1989 Finland was seeking for a replacement of their MiG-21 and S35 Dragen. Different types were evaluated, including the Mirage 2000, F-16, Saab Gripen and MiG-29. May 6, 1992 the F/A-18 was chosen the winner. An order for 65 aircraft was placed a month later. The first 7 aircraft (all F/A-18Ds) were build in St. Louis and flown to Pirrkala air base in November 1995. The other aircraft were assembled in Finland by Finavitec, first delivered on June 28, 1996, while the last was delivered in August 2000.
Malaysia placed an order for eight F/A-18Ds on June 29, 1993. The first aircraft (M45-01) made its maiden flight February 1, 1997. The last aircraft was delivered August of the same year.
During the 80s, Switzerland was looking for a replacement of the Mirage III, next to the F-5Es which would stay into service. Evaluated were the F-16, Mirage 2000, JAS-39 Gripen and F/A-18C. Unlike other countries, the Swiss even looked at the Israeli IAI Lavi and Northrop’s F-20. By 1988 the F-16 and F/A-18 were shortlisted. The F-18 was declared the winner by October 1988. Politicians still tried to push the Mirage 2000, but in the end the Air Force insisted on the F-18.
Eventually 26 F-18C (local designation) and 8 D models were ordered. The first 2 aircraft were built in St, Louis while the remaining aircraft were manufactured from kits by the Swiss Aircraft and Systems company at Emmen. The first aircraft was taken into service in 1997, with the last (J-5026) handed over December 2, 1999.
In 2007, Switzerland joined the upgrade program which included updated electronics and mission computer. New ECM equipment (AN/ALR-67) and 12 ATFLIR pods were bought.
The Hornet saw plenty of combat action in its carrier. First was Operation Prairie Fire and the more well-known Operation El Dorado Canyon. F/A-18s from the USS Coral Sea (VFA-131, VFA-132, VMFA-314, and VMFA-323) flew Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) missions against Libyan defenses. During Operation El Dorado Canyon, six F/A-18s participated (VFA-131, VFA-132, VMFA-314, VMFA-323) in air strikes against Benghazi, Libya, 15 April 1986. The F/A-18As launched AGM-88 HARM and AGM-45 Shrike missiles, together with A-7Es and F-111s hitting various other targets, including Tripoli and military objects.
Next the Hornet was heavily involved in the Gulf War of 1991 (also known as the first Gulf War). The Navy deployed 106 F/A-18A and C models while the Marines participated with 84 F/A-18A, C and D models.
F/A-18s scored two kills, 2 MiG-21s on the first day of the war. A flight of four Hornets took off from the USS Saratoga heading for airfield H3 on a bomb run. While enroute they were warned about bogies approaching by a E-2. They shot down two MiGs with an AIM-7 and AIM-9 in a brief dog fight. After this, their aircraft each carrying 2000lb of bomb continued the original mission and bombed H3.
Aircraft involved from VFA-81, F/A-18C 163508 / AA-401 and 163502 / AA-410.
F/A-18C VFA-81 over Iraq
Three F/A-18s were lost during the war, F/A-18C 163484 / AA-403 (VFA-81) downed by an SA-6 fired from an Iraqi MiG-25, the pilot was killed. This was the first combat loss overall during the war on January 17, 1991. 5 February an F/A-18A (163096) was lost when it crashed in the Persian Gulf. Reason unknown, pilots body was never found.
Two F/A-18s were lost due to non-combat reasons.
F/A-18A: VFA-15, VFA-87, VFA-131, VFA-136, VFA-151, VFA-192 and VFA-195.
F/A-18C: VFA-25, VFA-81, VFA-82, VFA-83, VFA-86 and VFA-113.
F/A-18A: VFA-15, VFA-87, VFA-151, VFA-192 and VFA-195.
F/A-18C: VFA-81, VFA-82, VFA-83 and VFA-86.
Marine Corps units
F/A-18D: VMFA(AW)121 operated 1 D model Buno. 164040.
F/A-18C: VMFA-212, VMFA-232, VMFA-235
F/A-18A: VMFA-314, VFMA-333, VFMA-451
Canada participated with the CF-188A from 409, 439 and 411 squadron.
During the 1990s, Navy F/A-18A/C models and Marine F/A-18A/C/D models were used continuously in Operation Southern Watch (Iraq) and over Bosnia and Kosovo. 2001, Hornets participated in Operation Enduring Freedom from carriers in the North Arabian Sea.
Operation Iraqi Freedom, also known as the 2nd Gulf War took place from 2003 till 2011. Both the F/A-18A/C and newer F/A-18E/F variants were used, operating from carriers as well as an airbase in Kuwait. Later USMC F/A-18A+ / C and D models operated out of airfields in Iraq as well.
April 2, 2003 an F/A-18 of VFA-195 was lost when it was shot by friendly fire (Patriot missile), killing the pilot. May 2, 2005 two F/A-18s of VMFA-323 were shot over south-central Iraq, killing both pilots. January 7, 2008 another two were shot while operating from the USS Harry S Truman, all three pilots were rescued.
Australia participated with F/A-18s from 75 squadron, marking the first time Australia was involved in combat operations since World War 2.
From 2014 onwards the US started a military campaign both in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State (ISIL), called Operation Inherent Resolve. VFA-15, VFA-37, VFA-83, VFA-87, VFA-94, VFA-113, VFA-131 and USMC VMFA-251 participated with F/A-18Cs. Also the Super Hornet participated in this operation. (see part 2).
As you might expect with an attack fighter, the Hornet is capable to carry almost every type of munition available to the Navy and Marines. The aircraft was designed around 9 hardpoint which could carry a mix of weapons in different setups.
Besides the carry-on weapons, the Hornet has a M61-A2 20mm gun built into the nose. This 6 barrel rotary gun is capable of firing 6000 rounds a minute. The gun is placed on-top of an ammunition canister holding 578 rounds.
The F/A-18A was capable of carrying:
- AGM-62 Walleye II air to service missile
- AGM-65a Maverick air-to-surface anti-armor missile
- AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile
- AGM-88 HARM air-to-surface anti radar missile
F/A-18C carrying 10 AIM-120s and 2 AIM-9Xs.
F/A-18D firing AGM-88 HARM
F/A-18C loading AGM-84E Slam
After the upgrade of the AN/APG-65 to AN/APG-73 the radar on the F/A-18A+ the AIM-120 AMRAAM long range air-to-air missile was added to the arsenal.
The F/A-18C and D could also carry the AIM-120 and AGM-84 Slam air-to-surface missile and IR version of the AGM-65.
Other munition carried by the differed Hornet variants included:
- Mk82SE Snakeye 500lb retarded bomb
- Mk83 1000lb bomb
- Mk84 2000lb LDGP (Low-Drag General Purpose bomb)
- GBU-12 Paveway II 500lb laser-guided bomb
- LAU-10A Zuni four-round rocket launcher
- CBU-89/89B cluster munition
- AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile
- AIM-9X Sidewinder
- AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missile
The AN/AAS-38 NITE Hawk pod, used for tracking targets was already introduced for the F/A-18A. On the F/A-18C/D the improved A version included FLIR capability as well.
YF-17 Prototype derived from the P-530, build by Northrop proposed to the USAF as a new Flight Weight Fighter. The competition was lost in favor of the F-16.
F-18 / L McDonnell Douglas proposed a modified YF-17 to the USN for its Naval Air Combat Fighter (NACF) competition. Northrop in the mean while wend ahead with a land-based version called the F-18L which was similar to the YF-17 design.
TF-18 Two seat training version of the F-18, later re-designated as F/A-18B
F/A-18A First production version of the Hornet, now designated as F/A-18 as it got a multi-role fighter / attack mission.
F/A-18B Two seat version of the A model, combat capable, but mainly used for training.
RF-18 Proposed reconnaissance version with a camara package installed instead of the normal 20mm gun placement.
CF-188 Canadian export version of the original A/B version. Also referred to as CF-18
EF-18 Spanish export version
F/A-18C Major upgraded single-seat version
F/A-18D Dual-seat version of the C model, only used by the USMC.
F-18C / D Export version of the C/D model used by Finland and Switzerland. Swiss Hornets had no attack capabilities, which were later retrofitted.
KAF-18 Export version of the C/D model used by Kuwait.
Newer variants will be covered in part 2 of this factsheet.
Specification for the classic Hornets, A through D model.
||Length: 17.1m (56ft, 1in), Wingspan: 12.3m (40ft, 4in), Height: 4.7m (15ft 5in).
||Length: 17.1m (56ft, 1in), Wingspan: 12.3m (40ft, 4in), Height: 4.7m (15ft 5in).
||2 × General Electric F404-GE-400 afterburning turbofan engines, 16,000 lb (71.2 kN)
||2 × General Electric F404-GE-402 afterburning turbofan engines, 11,000 lbf (49 kN) thrust each dry, 17,750 lbf (79.0 kN) with afterburner
|Fuel and load
||External load 7,030 kg (15,500 lb)
||16,769 kg (36,970 lb), gross weight.
||1915 km/h (1190 mph) Mach 1.8
||15,000 m (50,000 ft
||15,000 m (50,000 ft
||3706 km (2000 nm)
||3335 km (2075 nm), unrefueled
|Crew and equipment
||A model: 1, B model: 2. 1 M61A2 gun, 9 hardpoints.
||C model: 1, D model: 2. 1 M61A2 gun, 9 hardpoints.
New generation Super Hornets (F/A-18E/F and EA-18G) will be covered in our next part, still to be published.