Taking off in the backseat of a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet is, for lack of a better word, awesome. As the afterburners light up the runway races by on both sides. Your back presses hard against the ejection seat and things seem to happen very, very fast.
Courtesy of Boeing I had the chance to experience this very sensation in a US Navy Super Hornet on the sidelines of the Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) 2011. I also had the chance to experience loops, a 6G turn, and even break the sound barrier.
Aside from the phenomonal experience of flying in one of the world's top fighter jets, I also learned a great deal from the pilot, a US navy aviator who goes by the call sign 'Tonto', about how pilots actually work with the Super Hornet in the real world, as well as some of the things they like most about it.
Winging along over the Straits of Malacca I took the stick for a while. Manoeuvring was easy, just like an air show simulator. Tonto told me that new Super Hornet pilots only spend four or five flights actually learning to fly the aircraft, and after the first flight the emphasis is on instrument flying. For pilots of the F/A-18 A/B the transition is even easier. Super Hornet training, he told me, lasts for nearly a year, but about 90% of this time is learning, as he put it, "to fight the aircraft."
Tonto also demonstrated the Super Hornet's ability to retain useful manoeuvrability at very high alphas where most other fighters would stall out. At 20,000 feet he pitched the nose 45 degrees up, and our speed fell to just 89 knots. Nonetheless, he was able to easily pirouette the nose this way and that. Total control.
"How is this useful in combat?" I asked.
"After the merge, sometimes you can find yourself in a situation where another fighter comes in with greater energy," he said. "In this situation we can often surprise guys who aren't used to flying against Super Hornets."
In other words, a Super Hornet pilot can still bring weapons to bear at low speeds and a high alpha.
Tonto also gave me a demonstration of the aircraft's Raytheon APG-73 pulse-Doppler radar. Thirty miles from the Langkawi airfield the APG-73 was able to paint a grainy black and white picture of the area. Buildings were clearly visible, but the aircraft in the static area were little more than a string of fuzzy white dots.
A crosshairs appeared and started moving around the radar image. "This is how we'd aim a weapon," said Tonto. He was using the tiny finger-joysticks on the throttle to move the crosshair.
He added that the APG-79 active electronic scanned array (AESA) radar is an immense improvement over the APG-73 - which was, to be fair, once one of the world's top radars a decade ago. The image AESA provides is "just like a black and white picture," he said.
Though our aircraft lacked AESA, Tonto said it is commonplace in the US Navy these days. The APG-79 also equips Australia's Super Hornets, and is part of Boeing's bid in the Japanese and Malaysian fighter competitions - in both competitions the Super Hornet is the only aircraft with an operational AESA radar.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned, however, is how taxing it is to fly in a high performance jet. In terms of power and performance the Super Hornet is to passenger aircraft what an F1 car is to a public bus. The serious G forces, breathing oxygen through a mask, wearing 40lbs of gear, and being strapped down tight to a hard seat don't make for a comfortable ride, though Tonto said he's used to being in the cockpit for hours.
Halfway through our one hour flight I was feeling pretty
stretched. I wanted nothing more than a swim and a cold drink. It felt good to
land, climb out of the plane, and stretch my legs. That said, I'd hop back in
the Super Hornet this very minute if I could.