Military Aviation

F-15 Eagle Vs F-16 Fighting Falcon Vs F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet: the Aircrews’ Perspective

F-15 Vs F-16 Vs F/A-18: how would these exceptional fighter jets fare one versus the other in a dogfight?

The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle is an American twin-engine, all-weather tactical fighter aircraft designed by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) to gain and maintain air supremacy in aerial combat. Following reviews of proposals, the United States Air Force selected McDonnell Douglas’ design in 1967 to meet the service’s need for a dedicated air superiority fighter. The Eagle first flew in July 1972, and entered service in 1976.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a compact, multi-role fighter aircraft that achieved combat-ready status in 1980.  It evolved from a 1972 USAF Lightweight Fighter (LWF) prototype program (where it competed against the Northrop YF-17 Cobra) which sought a small, lightweight, low cost, air superiority day fighter. The program was initiated because many in the fighter community believed that aircraft like the F-15 Eagle were too large and expensive for many combat roles.

Though losing out to the General Dynamics YF-16 (later to become the F-16 Fighting Falcon), the YF-17 would see bluer skies in the form of the later F/A-18 Hornet aboard the carriers of the US Navy.

This design, conceived as a small and lightweight fighter, was scaled up to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is similar in size to the original F-15.

How would these exceptional fighter jets fare one versus the other in a dogfight?

Former F-15 pilot with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) James Jones explains on Quora:

“Having engaged in (simulated) combat against both- luckily for me not simultaneously I can tell you my thoughts and observations. First the F/A 18. For a dedicated dual role aircraft, it’s easy to underestimate the Hornet as a fighter…but that’s a serious mistake. A well flown Hornet or Super Hornet is a surprisingly competent adversary. A well flown Eagle should have no trouble, but therein lies the rub. We’re not always at the top of our game when we should be. It doesn’t take much imagination for me to envision a Hornet driver having a good day waxing the tails of an Eagle driver having a so-so day.

“The F-16. What a little pain in the ass that thing is. If it ever grows up to be an adult plane it will be formidable.

“Actually, I have the same observation about the F-16, although the F-16 driver doesn’t have to be having as great of a day, and the Eagle driver doesn’t have to be having as bad of a day.”

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Dan Greene, former F/A-18 pilot with the US Navy, doesn’t think the same way.

“I flew Hornets for 10 years (mid 90s to mid 2000s). The only competition in a dog-fight was the F-16. The F-15 was relatively big and slow and easy to beat (like the F-14).

“F-16s: Generally speaking a well flown Hornet could beat a well flown Viper if you got a quick kill or could tie the Viper up in a slow flight. However, the Hornet driver generally had to be at the top of his or her game because the big-mouth Viper had awesome thrust to weight and could get out of trouble fast.

“F-15s: The Eagle on the other hand…. was relatively easy. Nothing could beat the F-15 BVR. But in a dog fight, the Eagle had relatively weak nose / pitch authority and high alpha slow speed capability compared to the Hornet.

“End result…. we generally lost 50% of our Viper dog fights, but won nearly 100% of our Eagle fights.”

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Most Viper Drivers agree the “big mouth” Block 30 has the best BFM performance. The “big mouth” refers to the larger intake that allows the GE engine to gulp more air, thus giving more thrust. Lieutenant Colonel Philippe “Rico” Malebranche says it is the “best BFM’ing Viper… because it didn’t have all the avionics, so its nose is lighter and I can get it tracking across the horizon easily.”

Malebranche has flown numerous different versions of the Viper, as well as the F/A- 18C Hornet in an exchange tour with the U.S. Navy. When asked by John M. Dibbs and Lt. Col. Robert “Cricket” Renner for their book Viper Force 56th Fighter Wing-To Fly and Fight the F-16 about flying the Viper against various dissimilar aircraft, he said, “The F- 16 is still very capable versus the F-15 or F-22. The F/A- I 8E/F Super Hornet is nowhere close to the Viper’s thrust-to-weight. We can climb 3,000 feet above the Hornet, then bunt over to put him in the HUD [for a gun shot]. The Viper is a rate fighter, whereas Hornet guys like to point and keep on pointing.”

Summing-up, despite the aircrews’ opinions, we have to remember that a lot of success in dogfight has to do with the pilot’s ability to maximize the jet’s capability. Reiterating one of Topgun’s main teaching points, which is credited to the Red Baron himself: “It’s not the crate, but the man sitting in it.”

Photo credit: Cpl. Andy Hurt / U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • This will all soon be irrelevant. Sixth and seventh gen fighters are going to be autonomous. They will be able to be small, lightweight, stealthy, and hypersonic. Seventh generation will, likely, be able to operate in space and in the atmosphere.

  • Not to mention 7th generation fighters will have energy weapons ie Laser weapons

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