A McDonnell Douglas (MDC) F-18E/F Super Hornet has undergone initial carrier-qualification tests on the nuclear-powered USS John Stennis, the US Navy's latest aircraft carrier. This significant milestone has been achieved in the wake of a grounding caused by an engine problem, and with political rough seas and a tactical-aircraft budget showdown on the horizon.

The F-18E/F programme suffered a month's interruption after an incident in November 1996 in which a General Electric F414 engine suffered a compressor stall during supersonic flight-testing. The pilot was able to retard the powerplant to idle and return to base.



Flight-testing resumed after GE developed a cure, and the overall schedule was unaffected because MDC completed planned wing modifications during the aircraft's grounding. GE fixed the two engines installed in test aircraft F-1, one of a pair of two-seat F-18Fs in the flight-test programme. Two spare engines aboard the Stennis were also modified. All seven F-18E/F development aircraft at the Navy's Patuxent River, Maryland, test centre were expected to have the modification installed during February.

The USN intends to buy 1,000 Super Hornets up to 2015 to replace its earlier F-18s, Northrop Grumman A-6 Intruder attack aircraft and Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighters. The type is scheduled to enter operational service in 2001. The E/F is a structural upgrade of the F-18 designed to increase range and weapons-carrying capability, improve survivability and provide growth capacity.

The aircraft has a stretched fuselage, larger wing, twin 98kN (22,000lb)-thrust engines and increased fuel capacity. MDC says that the E/F's handling qualities are "far superior" to those of the present F-18C/D because of the 25% increase in size and the larger control surfaces.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Defense's fiscal year 1998 budget request for $251 billion could slow some tactical-aircraft modernisation efforts, including that of the F-18E/F project. The Navy is seeking $2 billion for 20 F-18E/Fs in FY1998, four fewer than planned. Only 30 Super Hornets are planned to be bought in FY1999, six fewer than expected.

The spending plan could change in May, however, when the Pentagon completes its Quadrennial Defence Review, addressing whether US defence can afford to continue with plans for the Navy's Super Hornet, the US Air Force's Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 and the Air Force/Navy/ Marine Corps Joint Strike Fighter. A senior US defence official says that "-everything is on the table".

The debate will shift to the US Congress, where the Congressional Budget Office contends that the need to buy the Super Hornet may be questionable, based on current threats to the USA. The US General Accounting Office recommends terminating the project "-given the high cost and marginal operational improvements that the F-18E/F would provide".

The initial sea trials consisted of a series of tests, including catapult take-offs, arrested landings and other system evaluations. During the six-day deployment, the aircraft underwent 61 launches and recoveries and 54 touch-and-go landings. Single-engine, crosswind and failure-mode approaches were flown. The aircraft achieved a landing speed of 135kt (250km/h), 10kt slower than for the F-18C/D.


First Carrier Landing

Lt Frank Morley, a Navy test pilot, made the initial F-18E/F carrier landing, and Cdr Tom Gurney made the first carrier take-off in an E/F. According to Gurney, the Super Hornet's flying qualities in the landing pattern are "much better". He adds: "It's a little more stable because it's heavier and has extra wing area, increased efficiency and manoeuvreability at high attitudes and offers reduced approach speed."

Cdr Bob Wirt, the US Government flight- test director, likes the E/F's handling qualities. "The aircraft is a little bit bigger, therefore it has a lot better gust response, and it is a lot more stable in the 'up-and-away' configuration and during landings," he adds. In defending the E/F, he says: "We are now out of growth capability on the C/D. We have new technology we must put in the aircraft, which has grown in weight. That's a fact of life we must deal with."

Morley says that fleet Hornet pilots will feel comfortable moving to the F-18E/F. "It is a little bigger, but performs just as well, and is a little smoother flying," he adds.

Morley has test-flown 30 different aircraft, including the MDC F-15, the Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Mikoyan MiG-29. He is quick to praise the Super Hornet, but, pressed for his evaluation of the MiG-29, will say only that "-that's another story".

Source: Flight International