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 runwayraces by on both sides. Your back presses hard against the ejection seat andthings seem to happen very, very fast.
Courtesy of Boeing I had the chance to experience this verysensation in a US Navy Super Hornet on the sidelines of the LangkawiInternational Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) 2011. I also had thechance to experience loops, a 6G turn, and even break the sound barrier.
Aside from the phenomonal experience of flying in one of theworld’s top fighter jets, I also learned a great deal from the pilot, a US navyaviator who goes by the call sign ‘Tonto’, about how pilots actually work withthe Super Hornet in the real world, as well as some of the things they likemost about it.
Winging along over the Straits of Malacca I took the stickfor a while. Manoeuvring was easy, justlike an air show simulator. Tonto told me that new Super Hornet pilots onlyspend four or five flights actually learning to fly the aircraft, and after thefirst flight the emphasis is on instrument flying. For pilots of the F/A-18 A/Bthe transition is even easier. Super Hornet training, he told me, lasts fornearly a year, but about 90% of this time is learning, as he put it, “to fightthe aircraft.”
Tonto also demonstrated the Super Hornet’s ability to retainuseful manoeuvrability at very high alphas where most other fighters wouldstall out. At 20,000 feet he pitched the nose 45 degrees up, and our speed fellto just 89 knots. Nonetheless, he wasable 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 inwith greater energy,” he said. “In this situation we can often surprise guyswho aren’t used to flying against Super Hornets.”
In other words, a Super Hornet pilot can still bring weaponsto bear at low speeds and a high alpha.
Tonto also gave me a demonstration of the aircraft’sRaytheon APG-73 pulse-Doppler radar. Thirty miles from the Langkawi airfieldthe APG-73 was able to paint a grainy black and white picture of the area. Buildingswere clearly visible, but the aircraft in the static area were little more thana string of fuzzy white dots.
A crosshairs appeared and started moving around the radarimage. “This is how we’d aim a weapon,” said Tonto. He was using the tiny finger-joystickson 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 ablack and white picture,” he said.
Though our aircraft lacked AESA, Tonto said it iscommonplace in the US Navy these days. The APG-79 also equips Australia’s SuperHornets, and is part of Boeing’s bid in the Japanese and Malaysian fightercompetitions – in both competitions the Super Hornet is the only aircraft withan operational AESA radar.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned, however, ishow taxing it is to fly in a high performance jet. In terms of power andperformance the Super Hornet is to passenger aircraft what an F1 car is to apublic bus. The serious G forces, breathing oxygen through a mask, wearing40lbs of gear, and being strapped down tight to a hard seat don’t make for acomfortable ride, though Tonto said he’s used to being in the cockpit for hours.
Halfway through our one hour flight I was feeling prettystretched. I wanted nothing more than a swim and a cold drink. It felt good toland, climb out of the plane, and stretch my legs. That said, I’d hop back inthe Super Hornet this very minute if I could.