Is there anything more that I have to look forward to in life? On Thursday, July 12, I had the opportunity to fly a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet at the Farnborough air show in England. So, barring another flight in the Super Hornet, or perhaps a spin in a Boeing F-15D or E, a Lockheed Martin F-16, or maybe a Eurofighter Typhoon (and while we're dreaming--maybe getting checked out in a F-22 Raptor or F-35), I would say no... I've accomplished all I've set out to do. I can now die a happy man.
Though Boeing arranged the flight, I was flying with Commander Jonathan "Gabby" Wise, the operations officer for the US Navy's Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic.
It was about 08:00 when I showed up at Boeing's chalet to meet the saintly Mary Ann Brett, the company representative who setup my Super Hornet sortie. Soon we were on our way to Farborough's north side where all the flight display aircraft were parked.
Once at the hangar--which is possibly the cleanest hangar I've ever been in--I was taken to meet the life support guys to be fitted out with a g-suit, helmet, life preserver and everything else I needed for my flight. Lanny (I completely forgot his last name--sorry) and Reginald Mathis, the two Boeing life-support techs got me kitted out quickly and efficiently... One thing of note--the Boeing flight gear didn't include the Combat Edge upper pressure garment. The only real problem we had was my shoulders are way too big to fit properly into the flight suit. But these things happen...
Next, we went upstairs to do my briefing with Gabby and Boeing's chief pilot Dave Desmond. Desmond has so many hours in the Super Hornet that he could practically fly the jet in his sleep... The briefing was, of course, a pretty standard affair... basic safety/common sense stuff (Like don't fly when you're sick, for example).
Then it was on to the flight line... As I strode towards the F/A-18F; I could scarcely believe I was actually going to fly in a Super Hornet. This particular aircraft is currently equipped with a Raytheon APG-73 mechanically scanned array radar and is based out of NAS Lemoore in California with VFA-122. While it doesn't have the much more capable Raytheon APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, it does have the advanced displays in the back. Also unlike a fleet aircraft, as a trainer, it has dual-controls installed... It also had two AIM-9X and two AIM-120 training rounds hanging on the wings. The other thing I noticed was how it absolutely dwarfed the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Saab Gripen parked next to us.
Lanny and Reggie helped me strap into the jet... which was actually pretty straight forward. Then Gabby ran through the start-up procedures. For me, the most important thing to remember was to turn on the oxygen flow to my mask and turn on all the displays. That was easy enough. I was a little surprised that the flow from the OBOGS was cool--I'd always assumed that since it came though the bleed air system that it would be warm.
We then taxied out to the runway... As we received clearance for take-off, Gabby told me to arm the ejection seat. Again, easy...
A full afterburner take-off is quite different from what you'd expect from an airliner or strategic airlifter like the Boeing C-17. I was pushed back into my seat and the aircraft basically leapt into the air in its relatively lightly loaded configuration. But we had to quickly cut back on the power because of airspace restrictions and the sheer volume of traffic over the skies over the UK.
After we cut back on the power, we flew a relatively benign climb profile due to traffic. The APG-73's air-to-air modes (range while search--if memory serves) helped in spotting general aviation traffic and gliders as we headed west toward Boscombe Down. But even so, I was impressed at how quickly Gabby could visually pick-out traffic...
User upload by Billypix
Once we got into our designated box to demo the jet, that's when the fun started. We started off with a couple of g-warming turns. I was a little worried because I had had a bout of food poisoning the night before and I had bit of a cold (and my ear drums are still paying for it). Incidentally, flying with either one of these conditions is a big no-no normally... but additionally--to make matters worse--I was also somewhat dehydrated and sleep deprived. But you only have one chance to fly a Super Hornet and I took it.
As it turns out I had nothing to worry about, the two g-warming turns of about 4G and then 6G were mildly uncomfortable, but it was all good--similar to doing a medium weight set of squats in terms of exertion. Seeing that I was fine, Gabby started putting the jet through its paces. (It turns out being relatively short and muscular has advantages)
Not my flight, Navy Pax River jet... USN Photo
We did a high angle-of-attack (AOA) maneuver called the pirouette. As the jet slows down and the angle of the attack increases to the high 40s and even touches 50 degrees before the jet rotates around its own Z-axis. Then Gabby repeated the maneuver inverted--it was unbelievably awesome. At low speed, the Super Hornet's handling is nothing short of spectacular... especially in afterburner. We were flying at airspeeds between 40 and 50 knots--which is near the stall speed of a Cessna C-172!
Then onto the high-speed maneuvers... Gabby showed me what a mock visual range dogfight might look like. As Gabby explains, the Super Hornet was designed to dominate in a one-circle fight--which it usually does--if it is properly flown. (Though it'll do pretty damn well in a beyond visual range fight too... especially with the APG-79. The Navy gave up nothing in terms of BVR with the retirement of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, even the Blk 1 Super/legacy Hornet's APG-73/AIM-120 combo is far superior against fighter-sized targets. AWG-9/Phoenix combo kinda sucked against anything that wasn't bomber-sized, Gabby tells me. Boeing pilots tell me that if one takes into account the F/A-18E/F's classified capabilities, even advanced Sukhoi Flanker derivatives are not a problem for the Navy's Super Hornet drivers).
Pax River bird, USN Photo
In full afterburner the jet accelerates quickly... we very quickly approached Mach 0.95 from barely 275 knots. As we entered the merge--so to speak, since we were flying against an imaginary threat--Gabby stood the throttles up to avoid having us being shot in the face and then he put the jet into a hard 7.4G turn--I was surprised that I wasn't graying out or getting any sort of tunnel vision--especially since I have no idea how to do the L1 anti-g straining maneuver. I was perfectly fine--I can only describe the sensation as being similar to a heavy-ish (it wasn't like doing a max or anything) set of squats or a leg press. After a couple a violent high-g maneuvers, Gabby finished off our imaginary adversary with a high-alpha (I think we touched 53 degrees AOA!) vertical loop...
I was still doing quite well at this point, but after a couple of more high-g turns, my stomach was starting to act up (aforementioned food poisoning--the night before many of the other Flight reporters thought I was going to die...), so I asked Gabby to take it easy for a couple of minutes. His response was to let me fly the jet, so I took the controls.
Pax River jet, USN Photo
The real jet is as easy and delightful to fly as the Boeing full dome simulator... Of course, a simulator can't replicate the physical sensation of the g-forces in the cockpit. But the Super Hornet handles magnificently. I started off with some benign turns, mostly at 4G to 4.5G--I kept things relatively flat since I was having some difficulty clearing my ears--but it turns very precisely. I also pushed the jet up to about Mach 0.96 or so and put it into a hard turn, Gabby had to reign me in a touch since I almost over-Ged the jet (at higher speeds, it's easy to assault the limiter--so even though there is a 0.5G cushion--you can take the Hornet up to 8G even though its limited to 7.5G). But I sustained 7.4G--which was freakin cool!
My full blower high-speed runs burned off a lot of gas... So on our way back towards Farnborough, Gabby showed me the APG-73's air-to-surface mapping mode. The APG-79 AESA radars on the newer Block II jets are vastly superior--Gabby says it's like comparing night and day--I was still impressed at how good some of the imagery generated was. I also learned something--a radar needs a squint angle to generate a good map.
Not my landing at Farnborough... USN Photo
Touching down at Farnborough we did the standard Navy unflared landing--but it wasn't that bad. It was much smoother than I would have imagined. I've suffered through far rougher landings--mostly at my own hands when I was first learning to fly...
So the flight was awesome... The Super Hornet may not be the fastest or highest flying jet out there, but it's by far the most powerful aircraft I've ever flown and it was just awesome. Even US Air Force pilots admit its avionics are spectacular even if they say they'd want more power and speed. But for the Navy, the service is less concerned with sheer power and speed and more with delivering an all-round performer that can deliver air power from wherever the service deploys its fleet of carriers. And in that role, the Super Hornet excels.
In the future, the Navy hopes to replace the Super Hornet with a new F/A-XX starting in the 2030s... Until then the F/A-18E/F will the Navy's primary fighter.
Now to convince the bosses to let me go to Japan to fly with the USAF 18th Wing's Boeing F-15D-model Eagles...