The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet

A RAAF F/A-18A Hornet aircraft air to air refuels from a RAAF KC-30A tanker aircraft during a mission in the Middle East Region on Operation OKRA. During the mission the recently arrived F/A-18 Hornets flew alongside of F/A-18F Super Hornets that would soon return to Australia.

A RAAF F/A-18A Hornet aircraft air to air refuels from a RAAF KC-30A tanker aircraft during a mission in the Middle East Region on Operation OKRA. During the mission the recently arrived F/A-18 Hornets flew alongside of F/A-18F Super Hornets that would soon return to Australia.

The RAAF started taking delivery of the Hornet in 1983 to replace the Mirage. The Mirage was a second generation jet fighter and the Hornet is a fourth generation jet fighter. Basically fighter generations are a measure of the technology incorporated in the design of the aircraft. So the step up to the Hornet from the Mirage was a quantum leap in capability for our fighter pilots and the development of tactics to fully utilise the aircraft’s capability was a challenge. As an example the radar on the Mirage could pick up another fighter sized aircraft at around ten miles whereas the Hornet range for detection was forty miles, so tactics had to be formulated accordingly to deal with this massive increase in capability.

Some facts then about this amazing machine, in the clean configuration (no external stores other than missiles) the aircraft weighed 34,000 pounds, the two F404 engines produced 32,000 pounds of thrust so after burning 2,000 pounds of fuel the power to weight ratio became 1:1 and improved as fuel was burned down. This means that from sea level you could pull the jet into the pure vertical and hold your speed up to around 18,000 feet before it started to slow down. The jet had virtually no limits you could pull the stick back as hard as you like and it would only let you have the 7.5 G limit, the engines as well could be pulled all the way back to idle and then smashed straight back to full afterburner and the engine’s computers would deal with the demand.

Most jets of the same era, F-15 and F16 had an angle of attack limit of 25 degrees whereas the Hornet virtually had no angle of attack limit. How is this possible, well it is all to do with the computers on board, there are two mission computers, an air data computer, a stores management computer, two flight controls computers and the engines have their own computer as well. So when you apply a control input the two flight control computers, the two mission computers and the air data computer conduct a committee meeting to decide how best to give you what you have asked for. First the air data computer supplies the mission computers with information of where the aircraft is in the atmosphere i.e. altitude, air temperature and current airspeed, the mission computers compare notes to decide what limits apply for the present conditions and advise the flight control computers of how much fight control movement they are allowed to apply in order to comply with the pilot’s request. The flight control computers then decide which surfaces they will move to satisfy the request. Simple right and of course this occurs thousands of times per second. Oh yes the flight controls do not necessarily act in the same manner as conventional controls, for example, at take off the rudders are towed inwards and act as supplementary elevators, the main flaps can move up as well as down albeit by a small amount. To add to the intrigue, the stick is not connected to the flight controls unless a massive failure occurs and the controls revert to MECH ON which is a very bad state of affairs if it comes to that.

Prior to taxiing out the pilot will run a flight controls built in test (BIT) where the flight control computers test the entire system exercising all the surfaces to the maximum extent and all the while the control stick doesn’t move, quite disconcerting the first few times you sit through it. The aircraft also continues to do it’s own testing of all systems continuously. If it finds some problem the aircraft will decide if you need to know about it or wait until it is shutdown and then it will let the ground crew know about it through downloads of maintenance codes. Then there is the engines, if they have a problem that they can solve themselves they’ll just do it, even if the engine flames out it will relight itself although it will tell you that it has the problem through “Bitching Betty”. “Bitching Betty” is the integral part of the warning system and is accompanied by warning lights on a warning panel in the cockpit. “Bitching Betty” is a female voice that tells you of a serious problem and she has different tone levels according to the seriousness of the emergency. Some examples are “Flight Controls, Flight Controls”, not so serious so she is reasonably calm but “Engine Fire Left, Engine Fire Left” is reported at a heightened level of excitement and certainly focuses your attention.


With all that technology working for you the jet was a pleasure to fly and allowed you to concentrate on your tactical plan. Coming to terms with the capability at your disposal was a steep learning curve, the missiles were now able to attack from all aspects so you didn’t need to get on the tail of your opponent you just needed to get a good radar lock and the computers would let you know when you were in range to fire. The problem, of course, was that our potential opponents in the ‘Eastern Block’ were also developing similar technologies so development of tactics became, and is still, a continuing evolution. This naturally relies on our knowledge of what the opposition is doing, so our intelligence community is an integral part of how our air power doctrine is formulated.

On the few occasions that we get to have a bit of a play with the jet it is truly amazing. This mostly happens when you are programmed to do a passenger flight for someone who has won the lottery and is chosen to fly in the two seat trainer. A typical profile is a full afterburner take off and climb to 35,000 feet, which happens very quickly, then accelerate to supersonic speed usually to around Mach 1.4 or there about. I would then descend to about 15,000 feet and slow the aircraft right down and increase the angle of attack to somewhere around 50 degrees so the passenger could experience the clouds (called ectoplasm) forming off the wings and leading edge extensions. A few aerobatics followed with an excursion to 7.5 G if the passenger was up for it. After that exercise a descent to low level and slow the jet to 200 knots, I would then push the throttles to full afterburner and accelerate to 600 knots subjecting the passenger to 3 G longitudinal force and that is very impressive let me assure you.

I have two stories to add to this blog, the first was during a basic fighter manoeuvre mission (BFM) where I was to play the part of the defensive fighter while a junior pilot practised his offensive manoeuvring. I spent this one setup looking over my shoulder in a right hand turn at 7.5 G with my head between the canopy and the headbox of the ejection seat. When the offensive pilot had satisfied the aims of the exercise the set was terminated and it was then that I relaxed the G and found my head was stuck between the canopy and the seat and I couldn’t move it. So I’m looking backwards trying to fly the aircraft and wondering how I was going to extricate myself from this predicament. I tried to pull myself out of the helmet but I was unable to do it and then it occurred to me that I got myself in this position while pulling 7.5 G so it was probably safe to assume that the flexing of the jet was how it happened. I decided to try and pull 7.5 G and see if this would let me free myself all the while not being entirely sure of what the jet was doing. So I yanked back on the stick, not knowing if I had enough speed to get the required G, and thankfully at around 7 G I was able to free myself. All this time my wingman was wondering what the hell I was doing with the series of erratic manoeuvres that my jet was performing.

The second story is one of my favourites and has entered into pretty much fighter folklore in the RAAF. 77 Squadron was returning from a major exercise in the Phillipines known as Cope Thunder and we had had an overnight in Darwin. The next day I was the flight lead of a four aircraft formation and the last fourship of three that were heading home to Williamtown. We had not long departed the air to air refuelling tanker and had established ourselves at 35,000 feet in the cruise. I had engaged the autopilot and sat back to relax and enjoy the flight noticing that we were emitting contrails from all four aircraft, now established in wall formation, which is all four aircraft in line abreast 1 to 2 miles apart. As I looked to my left I noticed the number three aircraft piloted by one FLTLT Steve Wild, a great mate, go into a dive and then into a climb whereupon his wingman did a similar manoeuvre and I assumed that they were just playing around in the contrails. I learnt later that Steve had been out in Darwin the night before and had gone to an Indian restaurant for a curry and the aftermath of this outing was now coming back to him with a vengeance. So what had happened is that he was suddenly overcome with a dire need to go to the toilet. To do this Steve had to make the ejection seat safe, take off all of his life support equipment (survival jacket and G suit), remove his flying suit, stuff all of this equipment into the rudder tunnels, empty his flight publications bag of all his maps etc because this was to be the receptacle for his impending deposits and squat on the seat to complete his ablutions. During the use of the flight publications bag Steve bumped the autopilot off and the aircraft entered a dive. So Steve had to recover the aircraft from the dive even though he couldn’t see the head up display properly and re-select the autopilot. His wingman thinking something was amiss decide to fly over and take a look and see if all was OK. Upon seeing a naked man squatting on the seat of the aircraft he decided that he wanted nothing to do with this situation and resumed his position in the formation. Steve managed to get everything back under control again but unfortunately suffered another episode some time later and had to repeat the whole process again, he even bumped the autopilot out again and completed the same manoeuvre to regain control. This time however, the wingman was disinclined to witness whatever was going on in the number three aircraft and remained at his station.

I flew the Hornet for five years and managed to get more than 800 hours on it and it was a fantastic experience. I can only imagine what the next RAAF fighter the F-35 Lightning II would be like because it will be another quantum leap in capability for the RAAF and Australia.


Posted on December 26, 2016 in Phil's Blog Posts

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About the Author

Phil Frawley is a human who was truly born to fly. As a young boy he spent countless hours building model airplanes and dreaming of the day when he would get to control an aircraft. Phil’s hard work, determination and perseverance finally paid off when, after five years as an aircraft technician, he was accepted into the Royal Australian Air Force 92 Pilots Course in July 1974. After a career spanning more than 49 years, mostly as a fighter pilot, he is now retired but still flys the L-39 Albatros taking people on adventure flights. He still holds a Guinness World Record for having been the oldest active fighter pilot of all time, a proud achievement.
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