⏩ Hush-Kit grilled Hornet fighter pilot Dave Buonerba to find out what was the hottest fighter in the US Navy. Buonerba has a wealth of experience flying the old F/A-18C (‘Charlie’) Hornet. Two years ago, he began flying the Super Hornet, making him the ideal man to give us the low-down on Charlie’s big sister and how she compares with the legacy ‘Bug’.
🔵 “On the one hand it’s very similar; you could almost, as a Charlie pilot, jump in and figure it out. There are some differences, it’s got a lot more capability. The APG-79 AESA radar is much more capable, it’s got all the bells and whistles. We’ve been slowly upgrading the legacy Hornet Charlies, giving them the helmet-mounted sight, Link 16, the AIM-9X, I mean those are the big upgrades now, they all carry ATFLIR now. But the Super Hornets come with all that stuff. The digital displays are that little bit nicer, they’re all colour. Whereas on some, especially the older F/A-18 Charlies, it’s just a green display. The WSO (the backseater) of the Foxtrot, he’s got a really nice, huge display in the back. It’s totally missionised in the back. Most of the mission we can do single-seat, but there’s some, like Forward Air Control where the back-seater earns his keep.”
“Most of the other fourth gen’ fighters have all been touted as multi or swing role. Which is true, and its pretty much a push-button to switch between air-to-air and air-to-ground. But this is the first one that can do both at the same time. I can be in the front painting the air picture as pilot and my WSO can be doing the air-to-ground picture back, painting a SAR image of our target area, getting some coordinates. Meanwhile I can be watching the air picture, whether its enemy, or frankly sometimes friendly, you gotta watch out for other traffic. It’s a nice airplane.”
⏩ In terms of handling how does it compare with the C model?
“The engineers will tell you, that the flight control software in the two airplanes they tried to make as similar as possible. But you can feel some differences. As the pilot, it feels just a little heavier. I think that’s to be expected. It’s bigger, its got a bigger wingspan, much bigger leading extension extension on the wings. It’s heavier. Everything is just a little thicker. The legacy Hornet, to me, feels just a little more nimble, just a little sportier.”
“Landing on the ship, this one is definitely easier. They’ve made the approach speed slower, and it’s just a little bit more forgiving if you deviate from glide slope. You can recover a little more gracefully in a Super Hornet than you can in a Hornet. The Hornet is a lot less forgiving coming aboard the ship, it’s totally do-able, but if you get yourself low or underpowered you can get yourself in trouble pretty quick. Whereas the Super Hornet is about a 10 knot slower approach speed, to begin with, and it’s just a little more responsive and to me it’s an easier plane to fly.”
⏩ How does the E compare to the C in terms of acceleration?
“I think down on the deck it’s better, and then up at altitude, the higher you get, then it’s maybe a little less responsive.”
“The legacy Hornet, to me, feels just a little more nimble, just a little sportier.”
⏩ Have you flown against dissimilar types?
“Since flying in the Super Hornet, I’ve only flown against other Hornets, Super Hornets and F-5s. When you get slow, the handling characteristics are a bit better than the Hornet. You’ve got pretty good nose authority, it is really good at high Alphas. It’s damn near impossible to depart the thing from controlled flight- the computers help me out there. But, it’s a solid, solid airplane.”
⏩ In terms of threat platforms, which would you rate as the most capable? The Su-30 for example?
“I’ve not flown against those, we tried to arrange some training with the Malaysians when we were passing through there with the carrier last year. But unfortunately they just sent out F/A-18Ds at us. Something we’re quite used to, still it was good to turn with those guys. The Chinese are investing a lot in that Sukhoi airframe, and from what I understand it’s pretty darn capable.”
⏩ Which aircraft would most like to fly against in a training exercise?
“Any of the Sukhoi products (‘Flanker’ series), it would be pretty fun to turn with those guys and see what they can do. We’re definitely not going to keep up with those guys in drag race, but it would be nice to mix it up in the BFM environment.”
“The biggest advantage the Super Hornet would have against the ‘Flanker’ would be the pilot-machine interface. I mean that was great on the Hornet, but even better on the new aircraft. It fuses your radar information, your link information, all the different sources are brought together for the pilot. This is combined with the HOTAS capability, allowing you to do anything pretty much. There isn’t voice control though and I don’t know if there are any plans to integrate that. But I’m pretty happy with the way the interface is now.”
“The HOTAS for the most part is pretty good. On a lot of the things, you can either use HOTAS or push button functionality on a menu. In some cases it’s pilot preference, there’s somethings I like to do HOTAS and there’s somethings I like to do just hitting a manual button. We’re going more to touch screen now, as opposed to the original Hornet. Most of the displays on this jet, you got the display with roughly twenty buttons going around. Today data entry is done via touchscreen and this took me a little time to get used to, as it’s different when you’re used to feeling a button. On the original Hornet I could do a lot of data entry without even looking at the keypad, just resting my hand there and I could feel what I’m doing.”
“And with this one, I’ve got to look at and touch it, to make sure I’m hitting the right button and occasionally I get into fights with it..I’m doing loops and it will error out..because I’m going too fast and it can’t keep up or whatever. It’s just like trying to teach an old dog new tricks.”
⏩ Are there particular upgrades you’d like to see?
“In this day and age, it’s mostly software upgrades. Getting all the capabilities out of the radar, installing new systems. You can always work on improving the radar and the FLIR, I mean that technology is always moving. Though we haven’t currently got a dedicated IRST, you can use the ATFLIR to cue what you’ve got on the radar.”
⏩ How frequently do you take the Super Hornet to its maximum stated speed?
“You’ll do it on functional check flights; so, acceptance flights or after maintainance, especially on the engines. You’ll do Mach runs, and there’s different systems to check. In training, a lot of times you’re limited on your airspace. Even in the US, there’s very few places where we can go supersonic. There is particular ranges and what-not. There’s more freedom when you’re operating off the ship, over the water, when you’re outside, roughly, 30 miles of the coast. Then you really don’t have those restrictions. So if you have the airspace, you’ve then got to have the luxury of the gas to do it and sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.”
Is the aircraft comfortable at Mach 1.8, or is that an absolute maximum that is achieved for very brief durations?
“That is the top end speed.”
I’ve also seen the figure of Mach 1.6 listed as its top speed, is that a speed the aircraft is more comfortable in attaining?
“If you’ve got enough fuel! I mean at that speed its burning a lot of fuel. obviously it depends on its configuration, what you got hangin’ on the airplane. This aircraft right here could get there (Dave points to the aircraft behind him, which is fitted with two AMRAAMs, one on each wing, and one AIM-9X on each wingtip). You start sticking drop tanks on, or a lot of laser-guided bombs and stuff like that hangin’ off, you’re going to be hard-pressed to get up to those top speeds. It’s easy to go supersonic at forty five thousand feet. In a light configuration, it’s supersonic at sea level. In Hawaii we did a demo for friends and families and did a supersonic fly-by at 300 feet with both Super and regular Hornets.”
“But let’s face it, in any fighters, 95% of your time in the tactical regime will be spent at 400-500 knots and you can manage that without any issues, with a large air-to-ground load-out. The only time you’re really going to go supersonic is if you’re going to try get up there and intercept somebody or if you’re trying to get away from somebody.”
🔴 (Dave Buonerba is the Operations Officer of the Strike Fighter Wing Pacific Fleet. He was previously Operations Officer at Carrier Air Wing 14)