Painted on the tail of a development aircraft at the US Navy's NAS Patuxent River flight test centre in Maryland, the unofficial designation "KF/A-18" says much about the Super Hornet's increased capabilities.

"I never thought I would ever see a buddy refuelling store on an F/A-18," says Capt Jeff Weiringa, former navy F/A-18E/F co-IPT lead. Because of its increased internal and external fuel capacity, he says, the F/A-18E has a tanker capability similar to that of the now-retired Grumman A-6.

The underfuselage hose-and-drogue refuelling pod is one of 27 stores configurations that will be cleared by the time E/F operational evaluation (Opeval) begins in May. A total of59 configurations is planned to be cleared by the initial operational capability date. This is all part of a flight test programme that involves fewer aircraft and less time than the original A/B development effort.

Four aircraft and one year were removed from the E/F development programme by forming a government/industry integrated test team. Duplication of effort was avoided, Weiringa says, by eliminating separate contractor development test and navy technical evaluation phases, and operational testers joined the team to smooth the transition to Opeval.

Four phases of operational testing have been conducted so far, and the E/F has been judged potentially operationally effective and potentially operationally suitable - "the best grade possible," says USN F/A-18 programme manager Capt James Godwin. The latest phase of operational testing endorsed design changes to eliminate manoeuvre wing drop.

"Wing drop is dead," says Godwin. Efforts continue to eliminate "residual lateral activity", and to reduce transonic drag and recover range lost as a result of the wing drop fix.


Seven aircraft - five Es and two Fs - have been used in flight testing, which began in November 1995. The original plan was for a three-year programme involving 2,500 flights totalling 4,000h, but this was extended by the effort required to resolve the wing drop problem, and is now due to end in April. The 4,000h mark was passed in mid-January.

Flight testing is now focused on the remaining technical issues and on fine tuning the aircraft for Opeval. Consisting of more than 800 flights over a six-month period, Opeval will involve seven low-rate initial production E/Fs, the first of which was delivered in December to enable operational test pilot training to begin.

Back at Boeing, meanwhile, development of the E/F training system is gathering pace. Under the USN's "buy through the prime" philosophy, the company is managing the acquisition of the Super Hornet training system as an upgrade to the existing C/D aircrew and maintenance training systems.

Boeing is working with the existing F/A-18 training equipment manufacturers. Raytheon Systems is developing the weapons tactics trainer (WTT), a 12m (40ft)-diameter dome simulator, and the tactical operational flight traner (TOFT). Reflectone is supplying a cockpit part-task trainer (PTT), while ECC is providing a suite of maintenance trainers. Boeing is responsible for developing courseware for the computer-based training systems.

Fielding the E/F training system will involve updating existing C/D training devices, including one PTT and one WTT. The TOFT will be a new device. The existing devices represent the single-seat C, and will be updated to model the two-seat F. The PTT is used mainly for cockpit procedures training, and will be updated with simulated displays and a new host computer. The WTT is used for tactical training, and will be updated with simulated displays and an emulated mission computer.

The TOFT will combine the capabilities of the current F/A-18 OFT and WTT and will be used for both tactical training and to practice landing and emergency procedures. Instead of a dome, the device features a "virtual image" display system - five pentagonal back-projection screens arranged to provide a 300í by 55í field of view. The same visual system will be used on simulators being developed for the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22.

Using the same system software as the WTT, the TOFT will simulate the E/F's radar, forward-looking infrared targeting pod, electronic countermeasures system and weapons, with the "aircraft" operating in a simulated threat environment including air-defence radars and missiles and other aircraft. TOFTs and WTTs will be networked to allow joint training.

The E/F aircrew training devices are to be ready for training at NAS Lemoore, California, in July. Training is due to start in November, beginning with instructor pilots. A similar training system will be set up on the US East Coast, at NAS Oceana, Virginia, in the third or fourth quarter of 2003

E/F maintenance training also is set to begin at Lemoore in November, using an enhanced electronic classroom featuring computer-aided instruction and interactive courseware. Classroom training will make extensive use of three-dimensional graphics drawn from the same Unigraphics design database used for production definition, making it easier to stay concurrent with the aircraft.


The database will also be used in the E/F's interactive electronic technical manual system (ITEMS), which will provide personnel with graphics-based instructions on a laptop computer that is carried out to the aircraft.

A suite of six maintenance trainers will be delivered to Lemoore beginning in August. These devices will be used to train navy maintenance technicians on aircraft systems such as electrics and hydraulics, and will include full-scale sections of the E/F airframe to allow hands-on troubleshooting in a realistic hardware-based environment.

Responsibility for preparing E/F aircrew and maintainers for the aircraft's entry into service in 2001 rests with the USN's fleet readiness squadron, VFA-122, which was formed in mid-January. The unit is to receive its first aircraft by November. The squadron will also be responsible for developing tactics that exploit the E/F's capabilities, which the navy emphasises are different to those of the C/D.

Looking back at the early opposition to the multirole F/A-18 from the navy's fighter and attack communities, former programme manager Rear Admiral Craig Steidle, now vice-commander of Naval Air Systems Command, believes one problem was a lack of understanding of the aircraft's capabilities. "By fleet deployment in 2002, tactics will be in place that exploit the E/F's capabilities," he says.

Another former F/A-18 programme manager agrees. Mike Sears, now president of Boeing's Military Aircraft and Missile Systems Group, says: "The E/F is not an F-22, or an F-117, it is a high-technology multirole strike fighter, and there are still people out there who are not familiar with multirole aircraft." The key to successful introduction of the Super Hornet into US Navy service will be learning how to exploit those capabilities.

Source: Flight International