Entry into service
Three gray F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter aircraft line up across the frame for catapult launches from an aircraft carrier's deck. Support staff is seen on the deck throughout, while exhaust can be seen from the engines of the right-hand aircraft.
McDonnell Douglas rolled out the first F/A-18A on 13 September 1978, in blue-on-white colors marked with "Navy" on the left and "Marines" on the right. Its first flight was on 18 November. In a break with tradition, the Navy pioneered the "principal site concept" with the F/A-18, where almost all testing was done at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, instead of near the site of manufacture, and using Navy and Marine Corps test pilots instead of civilians early in development. In March 1979, Lt. Cdr. John Padgett became the first Navy pilot to fly the F/A-18.
Following trials and operational testing by VX-4 and VX-5, Hornets began to fill the Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS) VFA-125, VFA-106, and VMFAT-101, where pilots are introduced to the F/A-18. The Hornet entered operational service with Marine Corps squadron VMFA-314 at MCAS El Toro on 7 January 1984, and with Navy squadron VFA-25 in March 1984, replacing F-4s and A-7Es, respectively.
The initial fleet reports were complimentary, indicating that the Hornet was extraordinarily reliable, a major change from its predecessor, the F-4J. Other squadrons that switched to F/A-18 are VFA-146 "Blue diamonds", and VFA-147 "Argonauts". In January 1985, the VFA-131 "Wildcats" and the VFA-132 "Privateers" moved from Naval Air Station Lemoore, California to Naval Air Station Cecil Field, Florida, and became the Atlantic Fleet's first F/A-18 squadrons.
The US Navy's Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron switched to the F/A-18 Hornet in 1986, when it replaced the A-4 Skyhawk. The Blue Angels perform in F/A-18A, B, C, and D models at air shows and other special events across the US and worldwide. Blue Angels pilots must have 1,400 hours and an aircraft carrier certification. The two-seat B and D models are typically used to give rides to VIPs, but can also fill in for other aircraft in the squadron in a normal show, if the need arises.
NASA operates several F/A-18 aircraft for research purposes and also as chase aircraft; these F/A-18s are based at the Armstrong Flight Research Center (formerly the Dryden Flight Research Center) in California. On 21 September 2012, two NASA F/A-18s escorted a NASA Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) carrying the Space Shuttle Endeavour over portions of California to Los Angeles International Airport before being delivered to the California Science Center museum in Los Angeles.
The F/A-18 first saw combat action in April 1986, when VFA-131, VFA-132, VMFA-314, and VMFA-323 Hornets from USS Coral Sea flew SEAD missions against Libyan air defenses during Operation Prairie Fire and an attack on Benghazi as part of Operation El Dorado Canyon.
During the Gulf War of 1991, the Navy deployed 106 F/A-18A/C Hornets and Marine Corps deployed 84 F/A-18A/C/D Hornets. F/A-18 pilots were credited with two kills during the Gulf War, both MiG-21s. On 17 January, the first day of the war, U.S. Navy pilots Lieutenant Commander Mark I. Fox and his wingman, Lieutenant Nick Mongilio were sent from USS Saratoga in the Red Sea to bomb an airfield in southwestern Iraq. While en route, they were warned by an E-2C of approaching MiG-21 aircraft. The Hornets shot down the two MiGs with AIM-7 and AIM-9 missiles in a brief dogfight. The F/A-18s, each carrying four 2,000 lb (910 kg) bombs, then resumed their bombing run before returning to Saratoga.
The Hornet's survivability was demonstrated when a Hornet took hits in both engines and flew 125 mi (201 km) back to base. It was repaired and flying within a few days. F/A-18s flew 4,551 sorties with 10 Hornets damaged including two losses. The two losses were U.S. Navy F/A-18s and their pilots were lost. On 17 January 1991, Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher of VFA-81 was shot down and killed in the crash of his aircraft. An unclassified summary of a 2001 CIA report suggests that Speicher's aircraft was shot down by a missile fired from an Iraqi Air Force aircraft, most likely a MiG-25. The other F/A-18, piloted by Lieutenant Robert Dwyer was lost over the North Persian Gulf after a successful mission to Iraq; he was officially listed as killed in action, body not recovered.
F/A-18 Hornet fighter departing aircraft carrier. A gray-overall aircraft, with blue and yellow fins, has just left the edge of carrier's runway, as evident through the extended landing gear.
As the A-6 Intruder was retired in the 1990s, its role was filled by the F/A-18. The F/A-18 demonstrated its versatility and reliability during Operation Desert Storm, shooting down enemy fighters and subsequently bombing enemy targets with the same aircraft on the same mission. It broke records for tactical aircraft in availability, reliability, and maintainability.
Both U.S. Navy F/A-18A/C models and Marine F/A-18A/C/D models were used continuously in Operation Southern Watch and over Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. U.S. Navy Hornets flew during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 from carriers operating in the North Arabian Sea. Both the F/A-18A/C and newer F/A-18E/F variants were used during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, operating from aircraft carriers as well from an air base in Kuwait. Later in the conflict USMC A+, C, and primarily D models operated from bases within Iraq.
An F/A-18C was accidentally downed in a friendly fire incident by a Patriot missile when a pilot tried to evade two missiles fired at him and crashed. Two others collided over Iraq in May 2005. In January 2007, two Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets collided in midair and crashed in the Persian Gulf.
The F/A-18 has been purchased and is in operation with several foreign air services. Export Hornets are typically similar to U.S. models of a similar manufacture date. Since none of the customers operate aircraft carriers, all export models have been sold without the automatic carrier landing system, and Royal Australian Air Force further removed the catapult attachment on the nose gear. Except for Canada, all export customers purchased their Hornets through the U.S. Navy, via the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Program, where the Navy acts as the purchasing manager but incurs no financial gain or loss. Canada is the largest Hornet operator outside of the U.S.
The Royal Australian Air Force purchased 57 F/A-18A fighters and 18 F/A-18B two-seat trainers to replace its Dassault Mirage IIIOs. Numerous options were considered for the replacement, notably the F-15A Eagle, the F-16 Falcon, and the then new F/A-18 Hornet. The F-15 was discounted because the version offered had no ground-attack capability. The F-16 was considered unsuitable largely due to having only one engine. Australia selected the F/A-18 in October 1981. Original differences between the Australian and US Navy's standard F/A-18 were the removed nose wheel tie bar for catapult launch (later re-fitted with a dummy version to remove nose wheel shimmy), addition of a high frequency radio, an Australian fatigue data analysis system, an improved video and voice recorder, and the use of ILS/VOR (Instrument Landing System/Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range) instead of the carrier landing system.
The first two aircraft were produced in the US, with the remainder assembled in Australia at Government Aircraft Factories. F/A-18 deliveries to the RAAF began on 29 October 1984, and continued until May 1990. In 2001, Australia deployed four aircraft to Diego Garcia, in an air defense role, during coalition operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2003, 75 Squadron deployed 14 F/A-18s to Qatar as part of Operation Falconer and these aircraft saw action during the invasion of Iraq. Australia had 71 Hornets in service in 2006, after four were lost to crashes.
The fleet was upgraded beginning in the late 1990s to extend their service lives to 2015. They were expected to be retired then and replaced by the F-35 Lightning II. Several of the Australian Hornets have had refits applied to extend their service lives until the planned retirement date of 2020. In addition to the F/A-18A and F/A-18B Hornets, Australia has purchased 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets, with deliveries beginning in 2009.
In March 2015 six F/A-18As from No. 75 Squadron were deployed to the Middle East as part of Operation Okra, replacing a detachment of Super Hornets.
Canada was the first export customer for the Hornet, replacing the CF-104 Starfighter (air reconnaissance and strike), the McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo (air interception) and the CF-116 Freedom Fighter (ground attack). The Canadian Forces Air Command ordered 98 A models (Canadian designation CF-188A/CF-18A) and 40 B models (designation CF-188B/CF-18B).
In 1991, Canada committed 26 CF-18s to the Gulf War, based in Qatar. These aircraft primarily provided Combat Air Patrol duties, although, late in the air war, began to perform air strikes on Iraqi ground targets. On 30 January 1991, two CF-18s on CAP detected and attacked an Iraqi TNC-45 patrol boat. The vessel was repeatedly strafed and damaged by 20mm cannon fire, but an attempt to sink the ship with an air-to-air missile failed. The ship was subsequently sunk by American aircraft, but the Canadian CF-18s received partial credit for its destruction. In June 1999, 18 CF-18s were deployed to Aviano AB, Italy, where they participated in both the air-to-ground and air-to-air roles in the former Yugoslavia.
62 CF-18A and 18 CF-18B aircraft took part in the Incremental Modernization Project which was completed in two phases. The program was launched in 2001 and the last updated aircraft was delivered in March 2010. The aims were to improve air-to-air and air-to-ground combat abilities, upgrade sensors and the defensive suite, and replace the datalinks and communications systems on board the CF-18 from the F/A-18A and F/A-18B standard to the current F/A-18C and F/A-18D standard.
In July 2010 the Canadian government announced plans to replace the remaining CF-18 fleet with 65 F-35 Lightning IIs, with deliveries scheduled to start in 2016.
The Finnish Air Force (Suomen ilmavoimat) ordered 64 F-18C/Ds (57 C models, seven D models). All F-18D were built at St Louis, and then all F-18C were assembled in Finland. Delivery of the aircraft started in November 1995 until August 2000. The Hornet replaced the MiG-21bis and Saab 35 Draken in Finnish service. The Finnish Hornets were initially to be used only for air defense, hence the F-18 designation. The F-18C includes the ASPJ (Airborne-Self-Protection-Jammer) jamming pod ALQ-165. The US Navy later included the ALQ-165 on their F/A-18E/F Super Hornet procurement.
One fighter was destroyed in a mid-air collision in 2001. A damaged F-18C, nicknamed "Frankenhornet", was rebuilt into a F-18D using the forward section of a Canadian CF-18B that was purchased. The modified fighter crashed during a test flight in January 2010, due to a faulty tailplane servo cylinder.
Finland is upgrading its fleet of F-18s with new avionics, including helmet mounted sights (HMS), new cockpit displays, sensors and standard NATO data link. Several of the remaining Hornets are going to be fitted to carry air-to-ground ordnance such as the AGM-158 JASSM, in effect returning to the original F/A-18 multi-role configuration. The upgrade includes also the procurement and integration of new AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. This Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) is estimated to cost between €1–1.6 billion and work is scheduled to be finished by 2016. After the upgrades the aircraft are to remain in active service until 2020–2025. In October 2014 the Finnish broadcaster Yle announced that consideration was being given to the replacement of the Hornet.
Over half of the fleet was upgraded by 1 June 2015. During that week the Finnish Air Force was to drop its first live bombs (JDAM) in 70 years, since World War II.
The Kuwait Air Force (Al Quwwat Aj Jawwaiya Al Kuwaitiya) ordered 32 F/A-18C and eight F/A-18D Hornets in 1988. Delivery started in October 1991 until August 1993. The F/A-18C/Ds replaced A-4KU Skyhawk. Kuwait Air Force Hornets have flown missions over Iraq during Operation Southern Watch in the 1990s. They have also participated in military exercises with the air forces of other Gulf nations. Kuwait had 39 F/A-18C/D Hornets in service in 2008.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force (Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia) has eight F/A-18Ds. Delivery of the aircraft started in March 1997 until August 1997. The air force split their order between the F/A-18 and the Mikoyan MiG-29N.
Three Hornets were employed together with five UK-made BAE Hawk 208 in an airstrike on the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo terrorist hideout on 5 March 2013, occupying part of Borneo, just before the joint forces of Malaysian Army and Royal Malaysia Police operatives launched an assault in the Operation Daulat. Malaysian Hornets were deployed for close air support to the no-fly zone in eastern Sabah.
The Spanish Air Force (Ejército del Aire) ordered 60 EF-18A model and 12 EF-18B model Hornets (the "E" standing for "España", Spain), named respectively as C.15 and CE.15 by Spanish AF. Delivery of the Spanish version started on 22 November 1985 until July 1990. These fighters were upgraded to F-18A+/B+ standard, close to F/A-18C/D (plus version includes later mission and armament computers, databuses, data-storage set, new wiring, pylon modifications and software, new abilities as AN/AAS-38B NITE Hawk targeting FLIR pods).
In 1995 Spain obtained 24 ex-USN F/A-18A Hornets, with six more on option. These were delivered from December 1995 until December 1998. Before delivery, they were modified to EF-18A+ standard. This was the first sale of USN surplus Hornets.
Spanish Hornets operate as an all-weather interceptor 60% of the time and as an all-weather day/night attack aircraft for the remainder. In case of war, each of the front-line squadrons would take a primary role: 121 is tasked with tactical air support and maritime operations; 151 and 122 are assigned to all-weather interception and air combat roles; and 152 is assigned the SEAD mission. Air refueling is provided by KC-130Hs and Boeing 707TTs. Pilot conversion to EF-18 is centralized in 153 Squadron (Ala 15). Squadron 462's role is air defense of the Canary Islands, being responsible for fighter and attack missions from Gando AB.
Spanish Air Force EF-18 Hornets have flown Ground Attack, SEAD, combat air patrol (CAP) combat missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, under NATO command, in Aviano detachment (Italy). They shared the base with Canadian and USMC F/A-18s. Six Spanish Hornets had been lost in accidents by 2003.
Over Yugoslavia, eight EF-18s, based at Aviano AB, participated in bombing raids in Operation Allied Force in 1999. Over Bosnia, they also performed missions for air-to-air combat air patrol, close air support air-to-ground, photo reconnaissance, forward air controller-airborne, and tactical air controller-airborne. Over Libya, four Spanish Hornets participated in enforcing a no-fly zone.
The Swiss Air Force purchased 26 C models and eight D models. Delivery of the aircraft started in January 1996 until December 1999. Three D models had been lost in crashes as of 2015. On 14 October 2015, a F/A-18C crashed in France during training with two Swiss Air Force F-5s in the Swiss/French training area EURAC25; the pilot ejected safely.
In late 2007, Switzerland requested to be included in F/A-18C/D Upgrade 25 Program, to extend the useful life of its F/A-18C/Ds. The program includes significant upgrades to the avionics and mission computer, 20 ATFLIR surveillance and targeting pods, and 44 sets of AN/ALR-67v3 ECM equipment. In October 2008, the Swiss Hornet fleet reached the 50,000 flight hour milestone.
The F/A-18C and F/A-18D were considered by the French Navy (Marine Nationale) during the 1980s for deployment on their aircraft carriers Clemenceau and Foch and again in the 1990s for the later nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, in the event that the Dassault Rafale M was not brought into service when originally planned.
Austria, Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Philippines, Poland, and Singapore evaluated the Hornet but did not purchase it. Thailand ordered four C and four D model Hornets but the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s resulted in the order being canceled. The Hornets were completed as F/A-18Ds for the U.S. Marine Corps.
The F/A-18A and F-18L land-based version competed for a fighter contract from Greece in the 1980s. The Greek government chose F-16 and Mirage 2000 instead.