Rhino charge! Flying & Fighting in the Super Hornet
‘Cruisebox*’ took the Super Hornet, workhorse of the US Navy, to war. We spoke to him to find out more about life with the ‘Rhino’.
(*name withheld on request)
Which types did you fly before the Super Hornet?
“The summer after I graduated high school I got my private licence flying Cessna 152s. After joining the Navy, because of my eyesight, I became a Naval Flight Officer or NFO, which is the back- or right-seater in most types. Flight school was T-34C, T-39G/N, and then I finished training in the TA-4J. After that, my first fleet squadron flew the Lockheed S-3B Viking and I flew mostly in the front right seat, with about a third of the time in the back right seat. After my first (and only) tour in S-3s, I transitioned to the Super Hornet – universally called the Rhino.”
“For a while, our squadron had a jet with no tanks on it that we were using for airshow practice. We’d take that thing out and BFM in it when we weren’t practicing. That thing would eat even the F-15s and F-16s for lunch.”
How did it differ from the type you were flying before?
“The difference between an analog submarine hunting aircraft and a digital strike fighter is the same as that between a 1976 Cutlass Supreme and a 2002 BMW. The only thing they had in common was that they both had a tailhook that made a nice solid thunk when you dropped them.”
“Another difference between the S-3 and F-18 was that in the S-3, I had a set of flight controls in the front right seat and would occasionally fly when the pilot was tired or bored. A question I’ve often been asked is, can you fly the Rhino from the backseat. The answer is usually no. A quick tour of my back seat office. Just like the front seat, I have the three video displays surrounded by buttons. Instead of a stick and throttles, I’ve got a set of hand controllers, one on each side of the cockpit. Each controller is shaped like a large joystick, and like the pilot’s stick and throttles, they are covered in knobs and switches that allow me to perform different functions with the jet or the sensors. You cannot, however, fly the aircraft with these controllers. Below and in front of my ejection seat on the floorboard is a small cutout with a nub that looks like a short piece of pipe sticking up. The Rhino is designed so that the back seat controllers can be removed and a stick and throttle installed to turn the jet into a conversion trainer for new pilots, giving both the student in the front seat and the instructor in the back seat a set of flight controls. I recall someone saying the conversion process takes about 8 hours, but I’m sure some Chief out there will call nonsense and let me know his or her crew out there did it in less time. At the F-18 schoolhouse in Lemoore, California numerous Rhinos are configured with stick and throttles in the back for initial training. Having flown the F-18 from the backseat as an instructor in this configuration, I can confirm that all that dazzling digital flight control technology in many ways makes the Rhino easier to fly than your doctor’s Beech Bonanza. In regular deploying fleet squadrons, we never put a stick and throttle in the backseat as both crewmembers are so busy doing their own job that we never fancied taking time to do the other person’s job.
“It no kidding smelt like a new car. The first Rhino I ever flew in had 25 hours on it. That included the flight from the factory.”
How would you rate the cockpit for the following:
“Excellent. All the switches were within easy comfortable reach. Neat detail: There were like four different switches to put out expendables (chaff/flares) in the backseat. That way even if you were using a grab handle to twist yourself around to look behind you, an expendable switch was no more than a thumb movement away.”
“The pilot’s view was exceptional. Of course, my view straight ahead was blocked by the pilot’s headrest. My view to the sides and behind was excellent.”
“For an ejection seat, the seat was comfortable, and the cockpit noise was easily shut out with just a normal helmet.”
“When plopping down into the cockpit of a Lot 25 Rhino, the first thing one notices are the three video screens arranged left to right, with the middle screen being slightly bigger. These video screens are the same regardless of if you are sitting in the front or back cockpit. Around each screen are twenty buttons, five on each side. The label describing what each button does is displayed adjacent to it in a three or four letter shorthand on the video screen. Pressing any of these buttons will cause the screen to change and bring up another twenty functions for the edge buttons. Well, it doesn’t take too much multiplication to figure out that the Rhino has hundreds of buttons hidden in its sub-menus. New aircrew spend much of their initial training building the muscle memory of learning where and under which menu each button hides. Later models of the Rhino have an even bigger middle screen in the back, with even more buttons around the side.
One thing I liked was that all the systems talked to each other, including the ATFLIR. If I designated something on my radar, I would see that track in a top down god’s eye view on the SA or Situational Awareness page. AND, if I pulled up my FLIR, it would be looking at that radar contact allowing me to identify him before coming into eyeball range. Same thing if I designated an air-to-ground target, all the sensors would look there, you didn’t have to cue each one individually.”
In WVR: Which aircraft would have the advantage and why?
“A fight I had in 2009 is a good example of WVR against an F-16. We were on detachment to Key West (The Real Fighter Pilot Heaven). We were fighting against Air Guard pilots in their F-16Cs. I was a senior WSO paired with a new pilot who had been with the squadron less than a year, but who had flown combat with us in Afghanistan, all air-to-ground. The F-16 we were fighting was flown by an Air Guard Lt Col and armed with AIM-9M. He was experienced, but we had the JHMCS helmet and AIM-9X. I briefed up New Guy on a simple game plan that I thought would be easy for him to execute and was predicated on some assumptions I made about Air Force tactics. Often our Navy tactics were based on observing what the bandit does and then executing a game plan based on that. But because he was a new pilot, I instead scripted our first two moves so that new guy would have a very clear mental picture of what to do and be able to execute.
Our game plan was at the first head-to-head pass we would immediately go down in a split-S, regardless of what the F-16 did. Air Force doctrine is to not highlight yourself against a cold blue sky against a guy with an advanced heat seeker. So I assumed that he would come down with us. Then when we met him again, we would go down again, regardless. We would essentially be in a one circle fight going downhill with gravity helping us stay fast. The idea was that we would meet at the hard deck on the third pass and both aircraft would have a ton of speed, and then we’d pull the surprise. If my assumptions were wrong, it could get ugly fast.
We met out over the water in the mid-20s and the fight’s on was at wingline passages in a head-to-head left-to-left pass. New Guy immediately went down, and sure enough, the F-16 came down with us. The one circle geometry kept us inside his 9M forward quarter min range. A second head-to-head pass and we immediately went down again. The F-16 came down again. We now have a third merge just above the hard deck and both of us have a ton of energy. Now here comes the surprise … nothing slows down like a Rhino with those big goofy crooked pylons on the wings. AND, no airplane without vectored thrust can point its nose around at slow airspeed like a Rhino (or Hornet for that matter).
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At the merge, the F-16 started a high G turn, but with all the speed he had, he was cutting a pretty wide circle above the hard deck. When he looked over his left shoulder, he saw our jet pointing at him seeming to almost hang in the air. New guy had the F-16 in the HUD with a screaming AIM-9X tone.
You see, circa 2009, nothing in the regular inventory could slow down and point it’s nose like a Rhino (except maybe a helicopter). Now, we couldn’t come across the circle and chase the F-16 down. We were at very low airspeed and not really going anywhere at this point. But due to the phenomenal fight control computers banging around all 24 flight control surfaces multiple times per second, we’re able to keep flying and pointing our nose at him. The Colonel knocked it off and new guy had a sweet HUD tape of him nose on to an F-16 in plan view. Of course, if there had been more than one F-16, floundering around at low airspeed would have made us a tasty target for his wingman. But on this day, no wingman, no problem. The moral of the story is be careful getting into visual range with a Rhino … he can’t run away and will stay and fight because he has to.”
And in a long range BVR set-up
“Since we’d both be armed with AMRAAM, the advantage would lay with outside factors like quality of AIC control, environmentals, quality of wingman, etc. There are so many flavors of F-16 out there that it would also depend on what sort of radar was hanging on his nose.”
Which set-ups and altitudes would the F/A-18F favour?
“I’d like to be lower in the 20s or teens looking up at the F-16. The Rhino doesn’t do great up high (unless it’s clean, with no pylons) and of course, looking up at him makes things the easiest for my sensors (including eyeballs) and hardest for his.”
How would the SH pilot fight?
“At range, shoot and let the AMRAAM do its thing. If bandits were blowing up and their formations falling apart, go to the merge and press our advantage. If that wasn’t the case, we could fall back, re-group, and try again. Once you got to BFM, the Rhino will take most adversaries 1 circle.”
Who would you put your money on?
“A huge variety of factors would go into answering that question on any given day. Including lots of things that people don’t generally think about including, quality of maintenance, are all his systems working, are we in a sweep or defending a point, what other assets are supporting us, how often have the pilots flown in the last 30 days, etc., etc. That said, most days I was pretty happy to be sitting in a Rhino.”
How does the F-18F compare with the ‘Flanker’?
“I really wish I knew. In training our adversaries could simulated the expected shot ranges of the different flavors of Alamo missiles carried by the Flanker, but once you got to the merge, it’s still an F-16 or an F-5 or whatever.
That said, in most previous jets you had data link capability, but sometimes it worked and sometimes it wouldn’t, and sometimes you couldn’t see what everyone else saw, etc., etc. In the Rhino, the datalink not only always worked, it worked well with not only other aircraft but also with ships in the fleet. So my surmise is that I would have better big picture situational awareness than the typical ‘Flanker’ operator and be able to exploit that, but that’s just a surmise on my part.”
What was your most challenging opponent in BFM/DACT and why?
“We fought against F-22s once. The Raptor guys said they liked fighting against us because the fight would go almost 30* whole seconds before they had us, and that was much longer than against other types they fought. So they thought it was better training for them. Gee. Great.
We didn’t call the shots, because we wanted to mix it up with them, but at the time we had JHMCS and AIM-9X while they had neither. We could have just called “Fox 2” at the fights on, but there’s not really much training value in that for either side.”
What is the best thing about the F/A-18F?
“The fact that all the systems work well together and that it is a very reliable aircraft maintenance wise.”
*Postscript: “Now that I think about it, it was probably closer to 15 seconds before the F-22 had us. And by then had us saddled in our six o’clock. I really feel guilty because I’m sure there’s some F-22 guy out there who thinks, “30 seconds. Pffft, it doesn’t take that long.”
….and the worst?
“The drag from those dumb, goofy crooked pylons.”
Rate the F-18F in the following areas:
Instantaneous turn rates
“Outstanding. Better than anybody else out there we fought save the F-22.”
Sustained turn rates
“Good, but the Air Force jobs like the F-15 and F-16 were better unless we were completely slick (no tanks or pylons). For a while, our squadron had a jet with no tanks on it that we were using for airshow practice. We’d take that thing out and BFM in it when we weren’t practicing. That thing would eat even the F-15s and F-16s for lunch. We actually did the thing in the new Top Gun trailer where we came in at low altitude and then went straight up in between a flight of two jets (they and we weren’t as close to each other as in the trailer, but it did surprise the heck out of them to put it mildly). The only problem is that without extra tanks of gas, you couldn’t take it to war unless you were using it as a point defense fighter.
“Excellent. I haven’t talked about it much yet, but the jet was great for air-to-ground. Even dropping dumb bombs it was very accurate.”
“Middle of the road for tactical jets.”
“Who knows? It could go supersonic – sure. But once you did, the fuel quantity would count down faster than the airspeed would count up, so I don’t know that we ever got it to its maximum theoretical or placarded airspeed. You usually needed to turn or do something else before you did.”
“It flew well around the boat. The approach speed was pretty low for a fighter jet. The Rhino’s approach speed is similar to that of an airliner which makes it a bit slower than Air Force jets.”
“Depended on loadout, but typical to above average for that generation of jet.”
“It could always be better, but we usually had enough to get where we wanted to go. However, unlike an F-16 or F-15 outfit, if we needed more gas we could just configure one of our own jets as a tanker instead of begging another unit for a KC-135 and hoping it showed up.”
“Excellent. And now the Rhino is even better with the AESA radar which basically sees everything in front of the jet, all the time, instantaneously.”
What’s the biggest myth about the F-18F?
“We would always like more gas, but sometimes people talk about it like it could barely make it to the beach from the carrier. I can remember several missions where we ran land based types out of gas.
What should I have asked you?
Why does the Navy have some single seat and some two seat Rhino squadrons? The official, and largely true, reason is that the Forward Air Controller (Airborne), or FAC(A), mission is so complicated and dynamic that it really does take a crew of two to do it well. During this mission the pilot will typically be talking to soldiers on the ground while the WSO is talking to other aircraft and positioning them to come in for Close Air Support runs. They will then briefly talk to each other to coordinate and then go back to talking to different people on different radios. Meanwhile, their wingman will fly in a high cover position to keep a big picture view of threats beyond the immediate area. I do think this particular mission goes better with a two seat crew. In a Navy carrier air wing, only the F-18F squadron has qualified FAC(A) crews. The single seat squadrons don’t. At least, that was the way it was circa 2008.
The un-official, and largely true, reason is that just like Intruder and Tomcat squadrons of the 70s and 80s, half of the Navy fliers in the Pentagon during the development of the Rhino were NFOs, and they weren’t going to sign off on a program that removed NFOs from all Navy fighter and attack jets.
One neat trick a two seater can do that the single seater can’t is VID at long range with the ATFLIR. At maximum zoom in air-to-air mode, the image of a jet on the ATFLIR bounces around all over the screen as the system tries to stay pointed at a radar contact. If I take over manually and switch to EO (TV) mode, I can smooth the slewing with the thumb controller and identify the bogey as an F-5 or whatever well beyond visual range. Several times in training, I had a single seat Hornet or Rhino pilot ask to see my tapes because they didn’t believe I could visually ID a jet at that range.
- Describe your most memorable flight or mission in an F-18F? (long answer please)
It’s tough to pick out the “most memorable” mission. I guess I could tell you about the first time I dropped a bomb from a Rhino. We were flying over Iraq and it went something like this…
Okay, now I’m concerned. I should be scared, but I’m wrapped in a warm cloak of denial that anything really bad could happen to me. However, I am experienced enough to have known a few folks over the years who were convinced that nothing bad could happen to them either. This knowledge, combined with the brown-gray thunderstorm I’m now flying around in, is enough to at least upgrade me to concerned. We’re in the middle of a desert war, and there’s frost forming on the noses of my bombs and missiles. That can’t be good. At least the weather is so bad that nobody on the ground can shoot at us.
My pilot is working overtime in the front seat to stay in formation with the lead jet. We’re hanging out east of Baghdad at 12,000 feet in a small bowl of clear air, surrounded on all sides by dark thunderstorms. It’s the kind of dark overcast that makes you feel like you’re indoors, even in the middle of the afternoon. The clear area we’ve found is so small that we have to keep up a pretty good angle of bank just to stay in it. And we’d better stay in this clear area, since we can see visible lightning just to the north, leaping in and out of the clouds. Oh, by the way, this my pilot’s first combat mission.
As we come through the western part of the circle, the clear canopy above me is briefly pelted by pebble sized hail. Getting hit by hail in your car at 60 miles per hour can be an attention getter. At 290 miles per hour, it can be down right unnerving. Fortunately, we quickly pass out of it with no apparent damage, but the circle we’re scribing through the sky is small enough that I know it will be back in the hail in a few minutes.
Even though I’m in the second plane, I’m the senior member of the flight. That means I’m supposed to be conveying the wisdom and guidance of my years to the other members of the flight to prevent us from getting into situations that might just be a little over our heads. With lightning to the north, hail to the west, and Iran to the east, this might just be one of those situations. I’m torn between wanting to stay and complete the mission, and the fear of having to explain how I got my wingman struck by lightning because I didn’t know when to call uncle. Of course, it would be my wingman since, as covered previously, it couldn’t possibly be me.
Additionally, we’re not going to do anything out here today. The weather is miserable, and I haven’t seen the ground in a while. Even the insurgents must be at home sipping tea taking today off from the war. So if we’re not going to do anything, maybe we should call and ask to do nothing somewhere else.
I’m saved from having to make a decision when our controller tells us to proceed to a rendezvous with a tanker. The good news is we’ll have more gas, which in a jet means you’ll have more options. The bad news is we’ve got to go back through the thunderstorms to get there.
Our two jets huddle up close to one another so we don’t lose sight as we pass through the clouds. The medium grey jets can disappear from view easily when flying through clouds. Even though we are only a few feet apart, the other jet flashes in and out of existence as we hit the densest part of the clouds. There’s not much I can do in the backseat except sit there and hold on to the hand controllers on either side of the cockpit.
Just about the time I’m going to squeeze the black paint off the handgrips, we pop out. Hey, that’s much better. I glance at the radar on my right and start looking for a small green rectangle that might signify the presence of our tanker. Soon enough a promising contact appears on the scope right in the piece of airspace where it’s supposed to be.
As we first catch sight of the tanker, it’s nothing more than a small dark speck on the canopy. The speck starts to grow into an unfamiliar shape. It’s not a US Air Force tanker. Instead, our benefactor is a Royal Air Force L-1011. Well God Save the Queen! At the last tanker, my pilot had to take about three stabs at the basket before he got in. The RAF basket on this tanker is very much like the one on our tanker configured Rhinos, so we have a much easier time getting plugged in. Once we start taking gas I begin to relax, and even have time to notice the Rolls Royce engines on the British tanker – nice touch. With the weather as bad as it is, we’re definitely not going to do anything. In fact, they’re probably going to send us home early.
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Just about the time I’ve come to this conclusion, the WSO in the lead jet lets us know we’ve gotten immediate tasking to go bomb something for somebody named Gandhi 15. We’re passed a latitude and longitude of the target by Warhawk, the controlling agency. I enter the coordinates via touch keypad into the pre-planned JDAM checklist which is currently on my left hand display. Even as I’m putting the data in, I figure that the other jet will be dropping as lead, and as wingman and I will just get to watch on the FLIR.
The sun has set and it’s getting pretty dark by the time we switch from Warhawk to Gandhi 15. With a low key check in along the lines of, “Hey, how you guys doing,” Gandhi 15 is clearly a special forces guy. He wants us to bomb a weapons cache and is going to mark the target so that we’ll be able to see it on the FLIR. If he’s giving us the latitude and longitude, why does he need to mark the target? Whatever. I go through the JDAM pre-planned checklist two more times.
Lead asks, “Understand one JDAM”.
“Negative. We’d like two.”
“Okay, I’ll have my wingman come in thirty seconds in trail.”
Holy Cow we’re going to drop a bomb.
I now quadruple check the JDAM set up. Again, even though one of our Lieutenants is leading, I’m the most senior ranking person in the formation, so if anything goes wrong, it’s on me. Because of this, I now start to overthink things. I query lead about the distance of the friendlies because I mix up the meters and feet on the Collateral Damage Estimate page. I get tersely corrected, and he’s right.
I pull up the FLIR, and see the “target,” which looks like any other part of the bank of an aqueduct. In fact, it looks just like one of the countless aqueducts around our home base of Lemoore. I certainly don’t see any bunker type structure, but I do see the burning white glow of Gandhi’s mark. I try to slew the FLIR to look around the target, but it won’t move. There’s no north cue and no latitude and longitude information on the display. I could restart the FLIR to clear out this error, but it will take four minutes and that will be too long. It’s looking at the target – good enough.
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We see our lead’s jet in the data link on the center display. His is displayed as a green circle with a small stick coming out of it showing his direction of travel. This makes it much easier for us to get the correct thirty second spacing.
Lead announces their drop with the standard “Thunder” call. Thunder is the term for a JDAM drop.
We’re getting closer. Normally we drop JDAMs from much higher and the little box on the SA page that we have to fly our jet into is much bigger. Down here at twelve thousand feet, the little window we have to fly into is positively minuscule. For a second I can’t even see it and have to zoom in closer. There it is. THUNK. The jet rolls slightly as the bomb falls away and I state “1 away” in the cockpit to let my pilot know that the weapons page has shown the correct symbology of a bomb leaving the aircraft.
Suddenly there is a large white bloom in the middle of the FLIR display. Lead’ bomb has hit the target in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, I’m staring into the FLIR. Waiting … and waiting … and waiting … geez, did it go into a frickin – BOOM! Right on target. An even bigger flash in the middle of the screen. Hey what do you know, those JDAMs work.
At this point, the pilot and I are way cooler than we have any right to be on the tape. In a low monotone I state, ‘Good impact,’ and he follows up with a simple, ‘Rog.’ We’re dropping bombs, which on the overall scale of life is pretty exciting, but we’re also Navy guys, so we’re supposed to act like we do this every day.
Gandhi is pleased with the effects, gives us an ‘atta boy,’ and sends us on our way without any amplifying information. Now we’re off to another tanker. This one is an Air Force KC-135 and thus has the metal basket that is difficult to get into. Based on the first 135 we hit today, I’m worried that my pilot isn’t going to be able to get in, and were going to have to divert to Al Asad. After two stabs at it though, he gets in. However, as the jet fills up with fuel and gets heavier, he falls out of the basket when the tanker goes into a turn. He quickly recovers and is able to get back in the basket and finish up.
We are topped off with gas, but running low on time. Our appointed time to return to the ship is coming up, and we’re still in southern Iraq. The other WSO and I quickly confer over the radio and I give the okay to go at military power all the way back to the ship. Military power is full throttle without being in afterburner. When we check in, we’re given direct vectors to the ship – no need to head to the Marshal stack. On the approach, my pilot gets low and catches a 1 wire. This will get him a poor landing grade from the LSOs and he’s audibly pissed up in the front seat as we taxi out of the landing area. I just laugh and tell him not to worry about it.
As we taxi up to our parking spot on the flight deck, several of our sailors point to the empty weapon station on our wing where the JDAM had been. I’ll find out later that one of our chiefs will plug into the turning tanker to tell the crew, ‘Hey 110 doesn’t have a bomb!’ We shut down and raise the canopy. As I climb out of my seat and move towards the boarding ladder, I make it a point to shake my pilot’s hand and give him a ‘good job,’ before he can even get out. Once I hit the flight deck I’m surrounded by a pretty sizeable gathering of smiling sailors full of questions. I think I wind up shaking the hand of half the sailors on the flightdeck. One yells in my ear, ‘the Skipper will be pissed,’ meaning that he didn’t get to be the first in the squadron to drop a bomb from a Super Hornet in combat. We didn’t win the war or even do anything particularly heroic, but you can’t tell from these excited 18-year-olds who just helped send out a bomb in anger for the first time in their Navy careers. A similar scene is played out over by lead’s jet.”
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Describe a typical mission in Afghanistan
“See above. Just like Iraq, it’s mostly brown and far from the ocean which a chance of occasional scattered JDAM.”
What was emotionally hardest about Afghanistan?
“It wasn’t the flying or combat. It was after you land, all the regular office work type reports and meetings that it takes to run a squadron that they don’t show in the movies get to be kind of a drag. Also being away from your family. After eight months you’re ready to go home.”
“Your butt, especially if you have a skinny, bony one like mine, would get pretty sore after eight hours.”
What was life like between missions?
“Well there’s the regular office work of running a squadron as described above. To the Navy, flying is your collateral warfighting specialty. Your primary job is taking care of sailors and ensuring that the squadron is meeting all of its requirements, some of which involve warfighting and some of it doesn’t.
Beyond that, there were movies in the ready room and an occasional port call. And if you hear any rumors that there was an aircrew-only casino with a craps table set up in one of the staterooms, then I can categorically state that you have heard that rumor and I have no amplifying information at this time.”
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Tell me something I don’t know about the F-18F…
“Later models of the F have a much larger screen in the middle of the backseat. This allows the WSO to see contacts via data link at much farther ranges, while still being at the same scale. This may not seem like much, but when you zoom out, all the little contacts just become a blob of symbology. Instead of zooming out, the larger screen allows the contacts to be displayed such that you can tell it’s a flight of two or whatever, while still being able to see very far downrange. It’s just another one of those things that gives an F-18F crew greater situational awareness over his opposition in say a ‘Flanker’.”
Describe the F-18F in three words “Reliable. Nimble. Fun.”
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As a person who did US Naval Aviation for over 20 years, I absolutely despise the new kids calling the Super Bug as I call it the Rhino. Be original in your nicknames, do not copy another nickname previously used. The F-4 Phantom II was and is the only Rhino to me. The younger generation are just as bad as movie producers, they cannot think of anything cool to make on their own, so they just remake a movie even if it was an awesome movie. Now these newer aviation types are copying old nicknames just becausethey cannot think of something on their own. Be original, not a copycat.
Well, the F-4 was unofficially called B.U.F.F. or buff by the ground crew.
So was the B-52.
Well people aren’t obligated to accept your idealism as if you’re also not obligated to accept other people’s way of thinking. And if you are really doing US Naval Aviation for 20 years you should’ve known the history behind the Rhino nickname for the Super Hornet, there’s nothing unoriginal about it. Moreover, if we follow your way of thinking, giving the same official nickname for more than one airframe (e.g: giving F-4 the “Phantom II” after the original FH Phantom) is waaaay more unoriginal than just two airframes sharing an unofficial namesake.