10 Reasons I loved flying the Super Hornet

To be frank – if it’s good enough for Tom Cruise it’s probably good enough for me. We probably have to accept that a significant amount of allegiances to aircraft types are not rational or explicable. Most grew out of simply liking the aesthetics of a type, which is fair enough. But then again we should be able to explain why we love our aeroplanes, particularly one that I have publically stated is the best multi-role platform in the world. Wouldn’t it be nice, in a boring sort of way, if you were only allowed to like an aircraft based on how good it was compared to its peers? So I’ll have a go with the F/A-18E Super Hornet. It obviously has a slightly less cool ‘almost twin’ brother in that there is a twin-seat, or family, model knocking around. But I flew those on very few occasions. It has an even less cool but amazingly effective cousin in the EA-18G Growler and I didn’t fly them at all – but watching one have an inflight engagement with the USS George HW Bush and lose the subsequent tug of war with a Nimitz Class carrier was easily one of the top ten coolest things I ever saw. We used to call the jet the Rhino. I’m not sure of the exact reason why but was told that it was because the ‘Ball Call’ needed only two syllables. It was my great privilege to join that bunch of warriors who have uttered ‘Rhino Ball’ at one point or another. Here are the top ten reasons that I loved flying the Super Hornet.

By Paul Tremelling, author of Harrier: How to be a fighter pilot

Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here

10. Multi-Role.

Actually multi-role. Not just the usual definition which involves an air-to-air missile or two, some air-to-surface weaponry, and a targeting pod. Multi-role in the case of the F/A-18E actually means it; in a way that quite a few designers and operators would choose to ignore as it’s a little inconvenient when a competitor gets it right. In fact, I’m not sure it’s all the way down at 10 but I wanted you to read it first. Multi-role in the case of the F/A-18E includes the AGM-88 HARM and its stablemate the AARGM. That brings a true self-escort strike capability to the party. If you don’t have ARMs and you are not a LO platform you might want to think about staying at home. This is a non-negotiable rule of warfare that people tend to forget. You have to survive to fight. You must be lethal, but to be lethal you need to be survivable. Quite a few aircraft do this using the assumption that someone else will do it for them. Seems somewhat risky. If you have a look, you’ll also see that multi-role for F/A-18E includes the Harpoon and the Quick Strike. That’s right. Anti-shipping missiles and sea mines. Now we’re talking true multi-role, the ability to affect the naval battle as much as the air and the land equivalents. Need some gas? Well, that’s doable if you have a F/A-18E/F with a tanking store close by. Not much by way of give compared to the wide bodies, I get that, but now we’re talking multi-role in a way that no other aircraft types can manage. We’ll talk about the plethora of strike weapons available further down. I can’t give up too much subject matter as we’re only on point 10, but multi-role and multi-basing option are two complementary things. Any of you boys seen a carrier around here?

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9. Night trap. I’m not saying this for effect. I enjoyed the deck at night. I found the deck during the day to be a bewildering morass of procedures. The night trap was like the day trap, but without all the things that could put you off, for example, convoluted procedures, anxiety about where other jets were and visual illusions from deck heave. Plenty of people have disagreed with me on this one but for me it really did boil down to needing to see three things; meatball, line up and angle of attack. At night those were the only three you could see! Simples. At night, or in poor weather the USN uses an approach pattern called the Case 3. The RN does too. Case 1 is when you can find the boat all on your lonesome and Case 3 is an approach using the ship or onboard systems to get you down to a position where you can pick up the ship and land. Case 2 was an unholy amalgam of the two. I never used it. The Case 3 allowed you to marshal at your given range at a given height on a specific radial and then come inbound to the boat at a given time. This made everything very simple. So long as you got the timing right and sorted your fuel to be at ‘Max Trap’ as you came over the round down then it was an exercise in instrument flying and the Super Hornet could give you both altitude hold and auto-throttle to get set up. There were three separate systems to follow – a TACAN and two precision approach aids and that all led to being on the ball, in good shape with only the 18 seconds of impending disappointment and the trap itself to be worried about. Yes, it was a pulse raiser, but what do you expect when you’ve got 44,000lbs or so of jet, fuel and weapons strapped to your backside?

8. Catapult Shot. I’m putting this in even if there is a strong argument for the removal of the cat shot from the list altogether. The catapult shot is like a fairground ride. Followed by a fairground ride. I genuinely believe that there is nothing in aviation as thrilling as the yellow-coated shooter beating their hands on their chest to signify that you are now theirs. This is the very end of the ballet that is deck ops. From dropping the weight chit off, to finding the aeroplane, to getting it ready in all respects. Aircraft systems, nav systems, comms systems, weapon systems – all checked and ready to go, and then with chocks and lashings removed you follow the marshallers’ every signal to get to and over the Jet Blast Deflectors and before you know it the holdback is fitted, you’ve acknowledged the weight board, the T-bar is in the shuttle and you’re under tension. Given the wind-up signal you go to full power and check you have ‘full and free’ controls. What a rush. So what’s not to like? What happens next! The cat shot is ferocious, Ferocious enough to throw feet pedals, to throw mask across face, loft some of your saliva into an eye or two. And at the end of the cat run when Mr Bernoulli is invited to take over it’s like running into a wall. An amazing achievement for mankind, but one I can’t say I actually enjoyed. More a case of ‘proud to have done’.

7. Air-to-Surface weaponry. Air-to-Surface made easy. The weapon systems available to the Rhino could be thought of as a bewildering array of potential destruction. Only they weren’t bewildering because the aircraft integration was so good. Getting the aircraft into an air-to-mud role was a single button push and thereafter the stores selection was common for the weapons – whatever they were – which came from a ‘too long to write out’ list. However, from a PGM point of view the basic weapons were probably the JDAM from a GPS point of view and the GBU-49 from a LGB point of view. These weapons could be used in any of their 500lb, 1000lb or larger guises. However to them were added various stand-off weapons such as JSOW, Maverick and SLAM. The key to their use and the utility of the jet and the need to keep the training burden reasonable – was that as an operator there really wasn’t that much to care about because the modes all looked and smelt the same; whilst the ranges from which you could employ changed, the symbology didn’t. That meant that a pilot’s job of being in the right bit of sky on the tactical display was the same for all of them. The aircraft also had a very good dumb weapon model. Against one target dropping from medium level I witnessed a four aircraft strike generate a target coordinate at range and then flow in for an attack using unguided free-fall weapons. Result: four weapons getting a ‘metal on metal’ hit on the target which was an F-4 minding its own business and trying to enjoy its retirement in the desert. As ever, there was one last trick, the cannon. Aimed using a simple dot, it really was a case of ‘put the thing on the thing and press the thing’. I did hear once that one pilot had managed to fire all 400+ rounds in a single pass. Good effort!

6. Monster racks.

Let’s be honest, if anything on your aircraft is called ‘The Monster’ then it’s going to be worth talking about. With the monster racks came the ability to fight in a fit I’d seen at an airshow – 10 AIM-120 and 2 AIM-9X. And a gun. Yes, some of the weapons weren’t perfectly aligned with the aircraft and yes lugging metalwork through the air is tiresome from a physics point of view, but when 2 of you can take down the entire opening Red Air presentation at Red Flag that’s got to be a good thing. The real convenience of it was that in exercise it removed the necessity to count. Gone we’re the ‘Dirty Harry’ days of ‘Have I fired 4 shots or 3?’. They had been replaced with the carefree knowledge that you couldn’t possibly have fired all 10! It also allowed you to be a little more flexible with the mission plan because if anyone ever suggested adopting a ‘missile conservation mindset’ then you would look at them like they were insane. You could fire the first for a laugh and the next just to get something downrange if you really felt like it.

5. Handling and Angle of Attack. All jets have limits to the angle of attack you can use and this usually reflects itself in how hard you can pull and how slow you can fight. The Super Hornet didn’t have one. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that pilots are naturally lazy, quite the opposite. But something eventually has to give and one of them is the ability to store every limit and parameter in your head. What could therefore be better than finding out that there was no alpha limit? Technically I suppose you could forget the fact that there was nothing to remember. Yes, there were angles of attack at which it was sensible to fight, but there was no limit. There were some very clear times when you would think an alpha excursion was a good idea and the jet would simply give you what you needed. To be able to put both hands on the stick and pull it back to the stops, thereby asking the jet to give you all it had – and know that it was going to deliver was awesome. Some of the other manoeuvres were equally rewarding to fly. The Super Hornet had a means, at high angle of attack to pirouette. It took some bullying on the controls and was only to be used for defensive means really – but if the idea of having someone in your shorts was getting tiresome the ability to throw your own tail in the opposite direction was really handy. Yes, the jet was still bound by the laws of physics, but it did seem to be pretty good at negotiating some flexibility with them.

4. Radar. There are sensors and there are sensors. This is where I may start to court an element of controversy. A jet’s goodness in the modern age, dating back to about 2010 is measured in three bins. Sensor, weapon and datalink. They are all underpinned by performance but most jets are actually ‘much of a muchness’ performance-wise. The entry point for fighters for each of the bins changes with time but essentially nowadays it boils down to needing an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), a long-range weapon and a full-up Link-16 fit. If any of those are missing, go and talk to Dad and don’t come out to play until it’s sorted. Back in Sea Harrier days you might expect to have well-formed tracks on F-15 size-targets at 30 or so miles, F-16s a little less and developmental Eurofighters a whole heap more. That gave you enough time to get in order for a shot. With an AESA this could be three or four times that amount with no need at all to ‘neck down’ the search to get more ‘trons on target. The result is phenomenal. Consider a fighter with a mech scan radar to be like a single man, in a warehouse, at night, with a pencil torch, trying to work out where the bats are. The APG-79 gave the same man the ability to switch on every fluorescent strip in the house.

Night and day. It was also a nightmare to fight against. On the occasions that I used APG-73 against APG-79 it was like using your pencil torch to shine up range whilst the screen told you that someone was shining the sun back. The radar had so much time on its hands because it wasn’t wheeling a plate from left to right that it even looked in places you hadn’t asked it to – just in case you missed something. It was so quick and so powerful that there was simply no point dividing up the sky and each looking in different bits. In legacy fighters, a formation might decide between them as to who looked high, who looked low etc. With the APG-79 one could simply ask it to look at everything. This had one massive technical advantage on top of the obvious ones. Anything you threw out on link was a very tight low latency track. That made everyone’s life easier, apart from the enemy’s who would probably rather it didn’t. In fact, the APG-79 may not have been a radar. I suspect it was actually the Eye of Sauron.

3. Mirrors. Mirrors are very simple in that they show you what is going on in front of them, backwards. There are two mirrors you should think twice before using. The first is a mirror on a boat – because the chances are that your inner ear is suffering enough already and being in synch with a reflection is unlikely. The other mirrors that you may want to avoid are mirrors that show you what a simply amazing Flight Control System is doing on your behalf with the surfaces that lurk behind you. So number 3 isn’t really the ability to use a shiny surface to look behind you. It’s what you see in those shiny surfaces that tells you in no uncertain terms that the jet is fine and it’s going to deliver a response to your inputs, and you really don’t need to concern yourself with how it’s doing it. In the slow-speed fight in particular the jet was superb. The canted tail added greatly to aft end lift and the multiple surfaces moving in, and out, of synch to give you control was as heartwarming as it was startling. This jet gave you what you needed, even if how it was doing it was a bit of a mystery. Another way of demonstrating the same point was to look at another aircraft when they deployed the airbrake. Obviously termed speed brake in US parlance. The argument about whether you are braking air or speed is semantic and tedious. The interesting piece is that there was no brake to deploy whether you fancied getting rid of speed or using air. The jet simply deployed aerodynamic surfaces in whatever way it thought best to slow you down.

2. Redundancy and general hardness.

Redundancy in the aviation sense is only bad for one reason, that you have to learn about 3 systems wherein UK ground school one would do. With two engines and various backup systems the Rhino was ideally set up to allow you to keep fighting and get you home. You could even use the Auxiliary Power Unit to add another trench to the defence if you wanted to. With hyds (hydraulics) and electricals having triplex redundancy this was a very clever system of systems. The other thing about the jet was how tough it was. Upon landing, you could use the fuel and engine page to record fault codes from the jet called BLINS. I can’t remember what that stood for or what the individual codes were but there were two for the time that the aircraft sensed a heavy landing. When I watched the Growler engage in flight I was very close. I was getting fuel near the island and was arrayed across the ship, with my nose a few feet from the wing tip safety line. I heard the Landing Signals Officer scream ‘Power, Power, Power!’ and looking to my right I saw a Growler in plan form tail-walking down the deck…grabbing a wire as it did so. The jet was in full blower and settled above the flight deck pointing up at a daft angle. God was obviously watching and after enough time to take in the spectacle adjudicated in the boat’s favour and the jet came crashing down between me and the bow. A crash almost vertically onto the deck. It sat shaking like a wet labrador as the Flight Control System attempted to make sense of what its crew had just put it through. Not a single BLIN. The jet just walked it off and as the crew made their way sheepishly into the superstructure the jet sat and waited for its next ride. These things are tough.

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1. The whole package. I’m sure most folk remember certain programmes being talked about in terms of sensor fusion. Mainly in the sense that it didn’t work. Sensor fusion is about the ability to be sure that the radar track is the same enemy aircraft as the link track – and therefore present the pilot with a single track with additional information rather than two contacts. It is possible on a badly fused system to think that you are up against 3 contacts when in fact you are looking at radar track and Interrogator hits from your own system, plus a track from a buddy and they are all actually the same enemy aircraft. The obvious downside is that you might get a little anxious and hoof off three shots when one would do. The Super Hornet inhabited the very end of the fusion scale. A track from the radar would be backed up by link, with the IFF latched to it. The jet was even clever enough to lock the targeting pod to the air target. Sadly I was never clever enough to check how it was getting on. I ran out of capacity and the jet never did!

Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here

You may also enjoy interviews with pilots of the following aircraft: F-104, F-106, F-4, SR-71 and B-57,

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Check out this rather good Super Hornet model here

So in summary. A superbly integrated jet. Harder than granite. Equipped with the all-seeing eye and a plethora of air-to-surface weapons; and one of the more absurd air-to-air fits available. Capable of taking a whole heap of pain, of looking after itself on the way to and from the target whatever the threat. It got you back to the boat with minimum of fuss, having probably never explored its extraordinary flight envelope. In fact the only bad thing about the Super Hornet wasn’t the jet, nor the boat, it was what waited for you after that. Burger and fries or beer and wine? The USN’s opinion on the matter was bitterly disappointing.

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