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Quick and early Flightline Friday July 16, 2014

Posted by Tantumblogo in Admin, Basics, Flightline Friday, foolishness, non squitur, silliness, Society.

I found the following a long time ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever posted it.  It’s almost sort of an inside joke.  The pointy plane on the right, refueling the rounder plane on the LEFT, is an F-18F Super Hornet.  It has a much shorter range than the plane on the left, the EA-6B Prowler electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft. Descended from the long range (for a carrier aircraft) A-6 Intruder medium/attack plane, the Prowler generally has a lot of gas for most missions.

I don't know who says that, but they're wrong

I don’t know who says that, but they’re wrong

The F-18 series……not so much.  The F-18 came online in the early 80s to replace both the F-4 Phantom II as a fighter and the A-7  Corsair II as a light attack aircraft.  Definitely a better fighter in most scenarios than the F-4, and in some respects a better attack aircraft than the A-7, it looked like win-win.  But, the F-18 always had one huge shortcoming – really short legs.  It never had the range of either aircraft it replaced.  It needed a ton of tanker support.  Throughout the 80s and most of the 90s, that was no problem, as the Navy retained very capable KA-6D tankers (another version of the long range A-6) in the carrier air wings.

Unfortunately, US Navy tactical aviation came close to imploding in the 90s.  They had great plans in the late 80s to revitalize the fleet, replacing A-12Mainthe A-6 with a very stealthy attack aircraft, the A-12.  But then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in one of a series of still very controversial moves (the lawsuit is still in the courts, a quarter century later), cancelled the A-12 in 1991 claiming cost overruns. In reality, he had been given the job of finding a post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’ and was looking for scapegoats.  The A-12 fit the bill (he also tried to kill the V-22 Osprey, mostly desired by the Marines, but was overcome by opposition, which shows the enormous political clout of the Marines).

At the same time, Cheney killed new versions of the F-14 Tomcat that the Navy was already building, and a much improved version of the A-6 a6f-1
with a composite wing called the A-6F.  He also nixed a Navy version of the F-22.  The admirals, who a few months before had a very clear and funded recapitalization program for their air wings, were now faced with chaos.

They cast around trying to find an aircraft that would be cheap enough to buy in bulk under the new, much reduced defense budget, and capable enough to at least somewhat realistically replace all these cancelled types.  The only alternative was the F-18, which McDonnell Douglas enlarged, put in more powerful engines, and updated avionics.  This was the F-18E/F “Super” Hornet.


Two seat F-18F left, single seat F-18E right

Unfortunately, the endemic problems with the Hornet remained.  Even though it was increased in size about 20%, and fuel load went up nearly 40%, the more powerful engines ate up most of the increase, and the Super wound up with only a slight increase in range over “legacy” Hornets.  With continuing dwindling acquisition budgets throughout the 90s and 00s, the Navy chose to retire many specialist types like the A-6, the KA-6D tanker, the S-3 Viking anti-submarine aircraft (which also had long range and could serve as a tanker), and the F-14.  So carrier flight decks today consist of F-18s and a few support aircraft.  The Super Hornet, even with its short range, has had to be pressed into the tanker role, as well, even though on many missions the tankers can only transfer a very limited amount of fuel.

To make matters even worse, another claim to fame for the Super Hornet was that it had more stores pylons under the wings, and could thus (notionally) carry a large load than the “legacy” Hornet.  This was seen as vital by the Navy in order to give the Super some credibility in replacing the heavy-load carrying A-6.  But a little problem developed in testing. McDonnell, to meet the Navy’s requirements, had to place the stores pylons close together, and during weapons separation tests, it was found ordinance from one pylon could crash into another.  Ooops. Now, the sensible thing to do would have been to reduce the number of pylons and spread them out, eliminating the problem, but the Navy just couldn’t accept that, so they had the pylons angled out at about 3 degrees to improve separation.  That left ordinance turned sort of sideways to the airflow, greatly increasing drag and further decreasing range.  So, with a heavy load, the Super Hornet often has a shorter range than the “legacy” types!  It also winds up being very slow, with many typical loads it is barely able to exceed 500 kts in full afterburner.

Angled pylons

Angled pylons

And so that’s the joke……it is perverse that a short range, fuel-limited strike aircraft would be refueling a long-range ECM aircraft.  But that is the boat the Navy finds itself in, at least until the F-35C carrier version comes along, if it ever does.  The massive shortcomings in the F35’s design would be a whole ‘nuther, and far longer, post.  I pray the military has learned the F-111 lesson once and for all, now, and especially now knows that saddling a design with STOVL requirements will always lead to (comparatively) poor performance.

I guess it wasn’t so quick.  Oh well.


1. Bill D. - July 17, 2014

Good stuff. I didn’t know that. (most all of it)

2. Brian E. Breslin - July 17, 2014

Ah, Tantum, you do us and yourself proud again. Perhaps someday, if you haven’t already, you can tell the tale and sing the praises of that old workhorse of the Canoe Club, the P3 Orion. What a glorious old gal! I was stationed for three years at BNAS Brunswick and fell in love with that baby and was honored to serve the crews that manned them, ( well, they did ” man” them in my day).

3. David - July 18, 2014


I enjoy your flightline Fridays, grew up a little with aviation. I still remember the day the Navy announced the retirement of the F-14, and McDonnell Douglas got its ROI on the F-4. I still remember ANG and Reserve units flying F-4’s through the 1980’s.

I also recall that the Super Hornet replacing the Tomcat. Now I know why – budgets, cutbacks and schedules. Sounds like the demise of the US Space program, along with political agendas.

Tantumblogo - July 18, 2014

It reminds me of the collapse of the British military from the mid 50s to mid 60s.

It started just a few years after the NHS was introduced.

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