High over the desert, the MiG 21 was a silver delta-winged shape framed in the softly glowing green symbols of my Head-Up Display. In the cockpit of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet I armed a Sparrow missile. The display changed modes as the radar locked on. A SHOOT command flashed on the HUD and I pressed the trigger on the stick. The missile whooshed away, a smoke-trail arrowing out after the distant MiG. Five seconds later the MiG silently exploded in a ball of flame, and a trail of dark smoke arced towards the ground.
Turning back on course for my target, an industrial complex well into enemy territory, I made a single switch selection which brought up the attack displays. Through the HUD the target came into view, my weapons system already indicating the spot where the bombs would hit. I checked that the bombs were armed and ready to drop before I rolled into a steep dive attack from ten thousand feet. At three thousand feet the HUD commanded weapon release and I pulled out less than one thousand feet above the ground, accelerating away over the desert to Mach 0.9 to exit the target area at low level and high speed to evade the defenses. Behind me with unerring accuracy the bombs erupted in the center of the target.
Climbing up to altitude, I reselected my displays for the air-to-air mode. With MiGs in the area, I turned, the hunter looking for his prey.
High overhead there was a flash of sunlight on wings as another MiG rolled in to the attack. Catching the flash of light in my peripheral vision I pulled the Hornet into a hard turn to the left. Overshooting, the MiG shot across my bows.
Momentarily losing sight of the MiG, I pulled harder, the Hornet protesting and buffeting while I craned to look over my shoulder to reacquire the MiG. Pulling harder still, and my vision started dimming under the effect of the high g-forces as I hovered on the edge of a black-out. Using stick and rudders I rolled the Hornet quickly from side to side to find the deadly MiG. There was still no sight of the enemy fighter and with a growing dread I realized that he must be in the blind spot at my six o’clock. The hunter was now the hunted.
This thought was punctuated by the deafening and unearthly sound of cannon fire as the MiG blasted the Hornet and everything went black.
There was an innocuous click and the lights came back on.” Don’t feel so bad about it,” said Captain Bob Knoy, standing by the side of the simulator cockpit,” that’s about average for a non-fighter pilot the first time. We start off with an easy target for our pilots who have just started to fly the Hornet. As their Air combat maneuvering (ACM) training progresses, we introduce them to more difficult targets. Our computer is programmed with five levels of difficulty. The one that shot you down was a Level Five maneuvering target, the most difficult. Level Five is Top Gun standard.”
I climbed shakily out of the cockpit. We were perched on a platform inside one of the forty-foot diameter domes of the Weapons Tactics Trainer at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, in California. Although the computer had now frozen the action, it was still an extremely realistic scene projected on the inner face of the dome. The computer-derived Mig now flew formation with the Hornet against the blue sky, with the desert landscape, rimmed by a jagged mountain range, some two miles beneath us.
There was a lot to learn about the Hornet. The Hornet was a sophisticated dual-role supersonic fighter attack aircraft. In mastering the complex weapons systems of the F/A-18, the Navy and Marine pilots underwent comprehensive combat training in this simulator without the necessity of actual flight operations and the expenditure of fuel and the very expensive missiles. ACM could also be practiced without risk to aircraft or pilot.
Giving the pilot actual experience of the mission or task in the simulator, before he had to do it in the air, proved a tremendous advantage. Marine pilots who had not flown the Hornet for fourteen days were required to fly the simulator before they flew the aircraft again. Hornet pilot could operate all the necessary systems from switches and buttons on the stick and throttles. This awesome capability required a manual dexterity which had been described as more appropriate to a clarinet player than to a fighter jock. There was no disputing that the training was intensive.
Talking to the Marine Hornet pilots, I asked them how they liked the aircraft. They just grinned. The nearest I got to an answer was from one crew-cut Marine pilot who said firmly,” No one has traded a Hornet in yet.”
But you could see it in their eyes. To a man, they all had Hornet fever.
This attitude was understandable. Pilots jealously defend their favorite aircraft. I was no different in that respect. At weekends for fun I was flying a Pitts Special. This pugnacious, cocky biplane had a snarling 260HP engine which would try to swing the aircraft off the runway at the slightest provocation. The Pitts had character. It sat on the ramp, barrel-chested and resplendent in its red,white and blue paint scheme, daring you to fly it. But once in the air it was a magical machine. The controls were feather-light, so sensitive that a thought was enough to send you twisting and turning through space. The Pitts had a special place in my affections.
I had flown a variety of aircraft, ranging from seaplanes to jets, from vintage biplanes to warbirds. But there was one aircraft I dearly wanted to fly. It was the hottest ship in the US inventory - the F/A-18 Hornet.
One day, the phone rang. It was the Pentagon.”Would you like to fly a Hornet?”
Would a fish like to swim?
This was the first time a non-military British pilot had been given the opportunity to fly the Hornet.
In order to experience the Hornet at first hand, I was invited by the Department of the Navy to visit NAS Lemoore, near Fresno. Strike Fighter Squadron 125, the west coast training squadron for Hornets, was a unique organization, operating under a dual command structure with personnel split between Navy and Marines. The duality was complete. The aircraft had NAVY stenciled on the right side of the fuselage, MARINES on the left.
There was one snag. Before being permitted near this aircraft, I was put through a baptism of fire worthy of the Marquis de Sade. Try swimming a couple of lengths of an Olympic-sized pool wearing forty pounds of waterlogged flight gear. My instructor had forbidden me to inflate my life preserver. As my flight boots filled with water and my life flashed before my eyes, I began to wonder why I had volunteered.
Next on the list was a trip in the high-altitude chamber. A rubber glove, tied at the wrist, hung on a string from the ceiling of the chamber. At sea level the glove was flaccid. Breathing through an oxygen mask I sat on a bench in the chamber with other pilots on their refresher training. As air was pumped out, the atmosphere in the chamber became as thin as the air found at the summit of Mount Everest. The air airside the glove had expanded and the glove was now bulging. Our instructor, evilly twirling his mustache, then instructed us to “Take off your masks.” This was to expose us to the various effects of hypoxia, which rapidly degraded our abilities for constructive thinking, and caused various symptoms in different individuals. My subsequent observation that our instructor also had horns and a tail was no doubt a result of the hallucinations common to victims of hypoxia.
To dispel any doubts that this was a serious business, I was then given a ride on an ejection-seat rig which blasted me and the seat upwards on a rail, out of a dummy fuselage. Rubbing an aching neck, I consoled myself with the thought that those who happened to survive this course of refined torture were actually allowed to fly in the Hornet.
Kitted out in flight suit, life preserver and g-suit, I waddled out to the ramp at NAS Lemoore early on a hot summer morning to make my first acquaintance with the Hornet. My pilot was Captain Rich “Ski” Karwowski, USMC , who it turned out as we briefed before the flight, also flew a Pitts Special in his off-duty life.
The Lemoore ramp was crowded with single-seat and two-seat Hornets and I was struck by the lack of ground equipment round each aircraft. Engine start was accomplished by an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) built into each Hornet, thereby eliminating the clutter of power generating equipment necessary to launch previous generations of tactical jets. A pair of ground crew personnel was sufficient to launch each F/A-18.
The Hornet was a wicked looking aircraft, with the leading edge extensions giving a sinister hooded look to the aircraft when seen from head-on. The lethal M-61 Vulcan cannon was mounted just in front of the cockpit. While Captain Karwowski pre-flighted our F/A-18B, I climbed up the integral ladder on the port side, walked back along the portside leading edge extension and climbed down into the rear cockpit. Our female crew chief assisted me in strapping into the Martin-Baker ejection seat. My four-point torso harness was connected, then the leg restraints to the seat, g-suit hose connection, and lastly the oxygen and intercom connections. Conscious that I was sitting on a rocket-powered ejection seat which would blast me out of the aircraft in case of serious trouble, I made sure that my kneepad was well clear of the actuating handle at the front of the seat.
I reviewed my notes from the briefing. We were about to embark on a two-ship training mission. Our callsign was RAIDER 55, while RAIDER 58 was a single-seat F/A-18 flown by Captain Ron “Buzz” Berlie, Canadian Armed Forces, on an exchange posting with the US Navy. We would take off as a pair, fly in formation to our practice airspace, and then split to complete our individual tasks before rejoining and heading back to base.
Once strapped in, I took stock of the spacious rear cockpit. The rear instrument panel was equipped with three multi-function displays (MFDs) The HUD display seen by the front-seat pilot was repeated on my left MFD, with a navigational display on my center MFD and a pre-start checklist on the right hand display.
Once Captain Karwowski was aboard, the ladder was folded away into the underside of the LEX and the left engine was started. The digital engine instruments wound up and a pre-flight controls menu appeared on my right-hand MFD. Once the second engine was running, the aircraft went through an automatic flight controls test sequence, with much thumping and shaking from the control surfaces. Spreading our hands outside the canopy rails, away from all the switches, we waited while our crew chief gave a final check of the underside of our aircraft. RAIDER 58 checked in on the radio, and once we were given the all-clear from our crew chief, RAIDER 58 pulled out of his parking slot and taxied across in front of us. We taxied out, following RAIDER 58 to the head of the 13,500 foot runway.
Pre-takeoff checks complete, canopy down and locked, we pulled close to RAIDER 58 on his right hand side. Buzz would be leading us for a military power takeoff as a pair. As our engines spooled up, Karwowski held us on the brakes, then at a nod of the helmet from the other cockpit, brakes were released and the two Hornets accelerated down the runway together . At 145 knots we rotated, lifted off and the ungainly gear folded away. We climbed in formation, banking eastwards towards the spine of the Sierra Nevada.
We widened out into battle formation and Rich gave me control of the Hornet. Let me digress a bit here. In battle formation, the idea is to keep far enough apart to cover the other pilot’s six o’clock to make sure no bandits can bounce him. So we were a few hundred feet apart as I settled down and got used to the highly sensitive hydraulically powered flight controls of the Hornet. It was almost as sensitive as the Pitts. But there the similarity ended. Instead of 260HP and an 1600lb aircraft, our Hornet was loaded to the gills with internal fuel and an external tank. It weighed in currently at around 34,000lb The twin throttles I was holding with my left hand controlled a pair of general Electric F 404 turbofans whose maximum thrust translated to something over fifty thousand horsepower in afterburner when the aircraft was traveling at supersonic speed. We were not using all that power by any means, but I rapidly realized that the inertias and throttle response were a little different from those I was used to. They were certainly not the same as the average light aircraft. After a few exploratory curves and switchbacks I managed to keep us in the same piece of sky as RAIDER 58.
We neared the spectacular backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, still snow-covered on this summer day despite the 100F heat back at Lemoore. It was an awesome view on this cloudless day and the visibility from the rear seat of the Hornet was outstanding under the bubble canopy. I handed control back to Rich and looked down into the cockpit to check my oxygen.
I looked up, startled, when a shadow fell across my cockpit.
There’s formation flying, and there’s formation flying. This was formation flying.
This was the way the Blue Angels performed. This was regular military close formation flying. At this point the other Hornet was seemingly welded just off our left side with the wingtip and its Sidewinder missile rail a couple of feet above our cockpit, so close that I could count the rivets in the missile rail which was almost near enough to touch.
Our two Hornets zipped around the snow-covered summit of Mount Whitney while in the background a female voice warned, “Altitude, altitude” as the mountain ridges rose towards us. This audio warning was one piece of the Star Wars gadgetry in the Hornet. Driven by the radar altimeter, this device warned of rising ground beneath us.
Now RAIDER 58 broke hard left and floated off into the distance to complete his own airwork, while we headed east for Panamint Valley, a huge dry lakebed to the east of the Sierra Nevada, rimmed by saw-toothed mountains.
Rich handed the Hornet controls back to me and we were cleared by ATC to climb to 30,000 feet. I climbed initially at a constant airspeed, showing a 6,000ft/min climb on the HUD, then switched to a Mach number profile.
Once at altitude, I leveled out to assess the low speed handling. Rich brought up the controls display on the right hand MFD in both cockpit. I retarded both throttles. As the Hornet slowed, the flaps were in AUTO mode and the display showed the leading edge flaps inching down, while the trailing edge flaps remained up. Unlocking my shoulder harness and twisting round to see behind me, I could see the leading edge flaps now fully down on the wing some feet behind me.
As I monitored the HUD repeater indications, I was steadily bringing the power up as the drag increased. Angle of attack was increasing. As speed dropped through 150 knots we entered buffet which got progressively heavier until the Sidewinder rails at our wingtips were visibly shaking. I continued slowing the Hornet to 120 knots. This gave an impressive thirty degree nose up pitch angle. Both throttles were now forward to Military Power and yet we were gradually descending because the induced drag was so high.
At this point Rich said,” See what lateral control is like…without using rudder”
Did I hear correctly? In over twenty years of flying I had learned, and then in turn taught others that in slow flight you always use the rudder. Never use aileron near the stall, lest you provoke a stall on one wing and roll yourself inverted.
“Without using rudder?”
I gingerly moved the stick to the left. The left wing went smoothly down to forty-five degrees, then stopped as I centralized the stick. We were still flying, although the ride was uncomfortable, like riding an unsprung cart over a washboard road. I moved the stick to the right. Obediently the Hornet reversed its bank and we turned to the right.
I was in awe. Any other aircraft from an earlier generation of tactical jets would have been spinning wildly by now. “Look at your controls display” Rich said. I looked down at the controls display and remembered from our briefing. The Hornet of course had a fly-by-wire digital flight control system. Built into this was a spin protection system. At low speeds any aileron input was automatically washed out. As the display now showed, as I rolled back to the left again, the horizontal stabilators, moving differentially, the leading edge flaps and the vertical rudders were all moving to roll the aircraft, while the ailerons remained at neutral. Turning round to look at the wing, I watched all the surfaces move in concert as I moved the stick. It was a humbling experience to realize that the computers could fly better than any human pilot under this flight condition.
Captain Karwowski took control and we descended to 19,000 feet to demonstrate some Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM). First came a Horizontal Scissors, to force an opponent to overshoot. Starting from 150 knots in afterburner, Rich pulled the nose up to sixty degrees, we came out of burner and the stick went fully forward as the throttles slammed back to flight idle. A negative alpha warning tone sounded in my headset. My feet tried to float off the rudder pedals as we arced over the top at no more than ninety knots.
In contrast to earlier aircraft the Hornet had no restrictions on throttle movement. The rugged F404s responded well to this harsh treatment. By now our sudden stop in mid-air would have caused our imaginary opponent to overshoot in front of us.
At 140 knots we commenced a Split-S, lighting afterburners and rolling inverted, pulling full aft stick to pull back into level flight at the same speed but a mere couple of thousand feet lower and on a reciprocal heading. Not many opponents could follow that.
Next we performed a high-g evasive maneuver. With an imaginary bogie at our seven o’clock, both afterburners were lit and we snapped into a steep left turn, rapidly pulling to 6.6g (the limit allowed by the flight computer for our present weight to prevent overstressing the aircraft) This was the first move in an out-of plane maneuver to get us away from the danger area in front of the bandit’s nose. The pitch rate was impressive. My g-suit inflated cruelly, and I now weighed over half a ton. It felt as if I had been jumped on by an elephant. Immediate application of bottom rudder started our nose slicing down towards the lakebed floor, and then a continuing pull brought our nose up above the horizon, to a point where our imaginary target would still be floundering along, wondering where we had gone. This ability of the Hornet to swap ends rapidly was disconcerting to any adversary and had caused embarrassment on a number of occasions when other types of aircraft had attempted ACM against Hornets for the first time.
In the space of about five grueling minutes we covered the complete gamut of Air Combat Maneuvering between ninety knots and 400 knots.
In this apparently limitless blue bowl above the desert, there was a lot of jet traffic. Now a pair of targets appeared on the scope and we locked onto them with our APG-65 Radar. As they came closer, I got a visual on a pair of smoke trails, then the pair of grey Marine F-4 Phantoms as they slid across the jagged mountain backdrop below. We would have splashed them both.
So far I had seen the F/A-18 Hornet in its F(Fighter) role. How about the A (Attack)?
We dropped down towards the edge of Panamint Valley, skirting the outer rim of the mountains surrounding the valley. Again that “Altitude...Altitude” warning sounded in our ears. Rich switched the radar to the ground mapping mode and the radar began to paint the rising ground in front of us. A notch in the lunar landscape in front of us was Rainbow Canyon, a sinuous sheer-sided valley which ran down to the lakebed. We entered the canyon, descending below the rim for maximum cover. At 400 knots and pulling 3g round each convolution of the river we whistled down the canyon. The ride inside the Hornet was impressively quiet and smooth. In mere seconds we descended the length of the canyon, emerging 1,000 feet above the dry lakebed into Panamint Valley itself, maintaining altitude by radar altimeter. We were now loitering at 200 knots and looking for trouble, multi-mode radar searching for targets on the ground.
Throttles now went forward to the Military Power detent and we accelerated effortlessly to 300 knots before going into afterburner. We continued to accelerate, with a growing whine from the canopy above 500 knots. My digital airspeed flickered up to 600 knots, the cockpit still uncannily quiet as the desert blurred past outside at over a thousand feet a second.
To prevent us going supersonic and decimating the jackrabbit population with our shock wave, Rich pulled the nose up and, sitting on the twin arrows of flame crackling from our jetpipes, we soared up and over into a giant loop, coming back to Military Power and topping out inverted at 24,000 feet.
We were still fat with fuel, with ten minutes before we were due to rendezvous with RAIDER 58 for the homeward flight. Rich rolled us out from inverted, raised his gloved hands from the stick and throttles and said, “OK, it’s your airplane.”
What do you do when you are given control of eighteen million dollars worth of fighting machine? First of all you gingerly take hold of the button-encrusted stick with your right hand. Secondly your left hand wraps around the pair of hefty throttles. Thirdly, I must admit, under your oxygen mask, you start grinning. Walter Mitty never had it so good.
So here I was, sitting under a bubble canopy under a cloudless deep blue sky, while on my instrument panel three green displays give a good imitation of a Star Wars control room whilst monitoring our progress. The left hand display showed as a repeater of the pilot’s HUD display, with airspeed, altitude and g, together with a few other flight parameters. On the right hand scope our radar was busy painting airborne targets, in anticipation of meeting up with RAIDER 58. On the central MFD the navigation display pinpointed our position with uncanny accuracy over Panamint Valley. I confirmed this by looking westwards to see the Sierra Nevada stretching majestically to the horizon off our left wing as we headed north. With the shoulder harness unlocked I could turn round and see the twin verticals some feet behind me. The sky was empty.
I hesitated, then asked, “Anything I shouldn’t do?”
Older jets were hedged around with airspeed and g-force limitations. Rich shrugged, then shook his helmet.”Just fly it like a Pitts”
The statement was not as casual as it appeared. The Hornet’s computer-driven flight controls included a sophisticated g-limiting system which would back off on the controls if an over-zealous pilot tried to pull round a corner too hard. This could otherwise bend the airplane. Even so, Hornet pilots were very aware of blacking themselves out as the aircraft could then take more gs than the pilots.
I started with a few basic aerobatic maneuvers. An Immelmann first, initiated from 350 knots. I pushed both throttles forward through the detent at Military Power and through into full afterburner. There was a dull rumble from somewhere behind me and a strong shove in my back as the afterburners lit. I hauled the stick back, intending to keep the pull-up in the loop to 4g, but the Hornet was so responsive that I overdid it, with the g-meter reading an accusing 5.4g on the display. My g-suit inflated hard, squeezing my thighs and abdomen. Floating over the top of the loop, as the horizon slid down under the nose I pushed forward until we were in level flight, then moved the stick sideways, rolling out from inverted to complete the Immelmann turn.
The controls were certainly light and precise.
Rich said,” Want to try a split S?”
For the Split S I slowed to 140 knots, heading south, then selected full afterburner and rolled inverted, pulling the stick full aft to get the nose pitching down at this low speed. The HUD repeater display showed me that we were now snow-ploughing through the air, forcing the wing through the air at thirty-five degrees to the relative airflow even though the nose was pointing straight down towards the salt flats of Panamint Valley. Our lift was increased by the vortices being produced by the Leading Edge Extensions. As we fell like a rock towards the desert the engine’s thrust balanced the tremendous drag. An audio warning beeped in my ears…don’t pull any harder. The whole aircraft was buffeting in protest and the speed remained uncannily stabilized at 140 knots.
Unbelievably, to one used to previous generation jets which used miles of airspace to carry out a maneuver, as we hammered round into level flight, heading north again, our Hornet was only 2,000 feet lower than when we started. It was an awesome display of the capability of the aircraft. In a classic dogfight even the Red Baron would have had trouble following that maneuver. Coming out of afterburner, we continued accelerating to 400 knots in an uncannily quiet cockpit, with only the green digits on the HUD confirming the increasing speed.
I pushed the stick a couple of inches over to the left and playfully rolled the Sierras around us. Once we were level again I tried a full deflection roll, banging the stick over until it hit my knee. The Hornet zipped round with alacrity at over 200 degrees/second. Control was precise and instantaneous. As I centered the stick we flipped back into level flight. Rich’s helmet vanished behind his seat headrest, and reappeared on the other side. In this aircraft the roll rate was limited by the neck-snapping acceleration on the unfortunate crew.
I tried wingovers and reversals between 300 and 150 knots. These were just plain fun as we wheeled and soared above the mountains. It was only when the g-suit inflated that I realized that I was pulling nearly 4g during this effortless series of maneuvers. A single-handed pull at 300 knots gave an effortless 6g. Low-speed handling was remarkable. Behavior was viceless and the handling was more appropriate to a light aircraft like the Pitts than a heavy tactical jet.
All too soon it was time to go back to work.
We locked up the radar on a head-on target at twenty-eight miles. A minute or so later I picked up the target visually as it flashed down our right hand side some two thousand feet below. It was a Hornet. Gray-painted and with smokeless engines, the Hornet was much more difficult to acquire visually than the F-4s.
Then our radar picked up RAIDER 58. I was flying at 20,000 feet heading northwest over the Sierras when RAIDER 58 closed with us and slid into close formation on our right side. Engaging the ALTITUDE HOLD mode of the autopilot lowered my workload as I tried the various radar modes. The radar controls on the throttle made it simple to vary the search elevation of the radar and to move the cursor on the screen. As I switched from air-to-air mode to air-to- ground mode, the ground –mapping capability of the APG-65 radar built up a picture of Fresno. Individual buildings and roads could be seen. I could zoom and freeze the radar picture at will. It was far superior to earlier generations of radar.
Meanwhile our navigation system was indicating the direction for us to steer to head back to base at Lemoore. We let down with RAIDER 58 on our wing for an overhead break over the field for our individual landings.
Following normal Navy practice, all landings at Lemoore, for Hornets and A-7s, were done as simulated carrier landings. Rich Karwowski followed the meatball of the mirror landing sight down to a purposely firm touchdown on the carrier deck painted on the runway before spooling up the engines to get us airborne again. We cleaned up and climbed to the downwind leg. Once established on downwind, Rich went momentarily to full afterburner as a graphic demonstration of the amazing acceleration at light weight. My helmet slammed back against the headrest as we accelerated like a dragster up to three hundred and fifty knots. Before we rocketed out of state he cut afterburner, extended the airbrake, then flaps and gear to bring the Hornet round on final approach. Rock steady on approach we touched down for a short landing with anti-skid brake system cycling, speed brake still raised, stick back to fully deflect the stabilators to maximize aerodynamic braking.
The Hornet was typical of the latest generation of all-weather attack aircraft, but additionally was a hell of a fighter, often flying from the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier. The Hornet’s flying qualities were exceptional, the capability of the weapons system was awesome. It was the ultimate war machine.