For much of the 1980s the Navy Hornet community was still finding its way, struggling to decide whether it would be a fighter or an attack platform and learning to operate as both.
A number of aircraft in naval aviation history have possessed the versatility to provide true multi-mission capabilities, among them the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair of World War II and the venerable F-4 Phantom II. In 1974, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Navy sought development of a lightweight, low coast multi-mission aircraft capable of performing air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Before development of a new aircraft could commence, Congress directed the Navy to investigate two aircraft designs then competing to be a the new lightweight fighter for the US Air Force, which ultimately selected the YF-16 design that in production was called the F-16 Falcon. The Navy eventually selected the YF-17, which was more adaptable to the rigorous structural requirements for carrier operations, with McDonnell Douglas and Northrop teaming up to develop it as a strike-fighter that was eventually designated the F/A-18 Hornet.
Equally at home in air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, the aircraft was highly maneuverable and instrumented to optimize single pilot control of numerous weapons systems.
When introduced, the Hornet brought significant changes for naval aviators accustomed to climbing into cockpits with an array of gauges and dials. Instead, designers reduced conventional instrumentation in favor of a heads up display (HUD) displaying critical information so that the pilot would not be distracted by repeatedly having to look down at various controls. Additionally, critical switches used in combat actions were all located either on the throttle or the control stick.
Maintainability very much guided the design of the F/A-18 Hornet, with squadron maintenance personnel able to change out engines in just 20 minutes and sophisticated radar equipment positioned on a track that allowed it to rolled out quickly for inspection and repairs.
The first operational fleet squadron to receive an F/A-18A Hornet (Bureau Number 161955) was Fighter Squadron (VFA) 25 in 1984. The airplane spent the ensuing six years with the “Fists of the Fleet,” joining VFA-113 in making the first operational deployment of the F/A-18 Hornet during a cruise in the carrier Constellation (CV 64).
As explained by Brad Elward in his book TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation, given this newness, many in the community and in the air wings were yet uncertain of the Hornet’s role. “We were a good bomb dropper,” said Hornet pilot Dan “Dix” Dixon, who made his first deployment with VFA-25 in 1988 and later commanded TOPGUN. Dixon said, “And that’s the way the air wing treated us—we were just a ‘cooler-looking A-7:’ They didn’t really give us much credit for being a fighter, because the Tomcats were there and they were the true fighters. That was the mentality, at least at that time, and it took us a while to convince folks we were fighters.”
Most of the early Navy Hornet pilots were former A-7 drivers from the light-attack community, with little to no air-to-air experience. As a result, for much of the 1980s the Navy Hornet community was still finding its way, struggling to decide whether it would be a fighter or an attack platform and learning to operate as both.
The Hornet community’s general adherence to its A-7 predecessor’s mission set was evidenced by the observations of some TOPGUN instructors. “The Hornet should clean a Tomcat’s clock every time in a 1v1 dogfight,” said John Clagett. The Hornet was far superior aerodynamically, but even in the early 1990s, Hornet pilots were routinely losing 1v1s versus the F-14. “That’s how deemphasized some Hornet squadrons were to the ‘fighter’ skill set.” Clagett’s observation was shared by several other instructors from his era.
The Marine Hornet community was different. All Marine Corps single-seat Hornet squadrons had transitioned from the dual-mission F-4 Phantom. Marine air also understood that its primary mission was the support of Marines on the ground, whether through air-to-air or air-to-ground, and it had long viewed itself in that dual role.
Given this history, the Marine Hornet squadrons were in a better position versus the Navy Hornet community to appreciate their role as a strike fighter platform.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy