It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...Superbug!

Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet, BuNo. 165665 ("NJ-173")
Moffett Federal Airfield, California
September 13, 2003

Mountain View, California.  Among the many interesting things showcased during this year's AirExpo at Moffett Federal Airfield was the airplane that represents the future of tactical naval aviation.  The F/A-18E Super Hornet (known, somewhat irreverently, in certain circles as the "Superbug") is currently being introduced into the fleet along with her two-seat sister, the F/A-18F, and has already seen a fair amount of combat.  On Saturday morning, shyly tucked away on the Moffett ramp behind a restored P-51 and two F-16Cs from Hill AFB, a pristine example of the type could be seen patiently waiting for its chance to introduce itself to the crowd.

This particular Super Hornet is F/A-18E BuNo. 165665 (the 19th E-model built), wearing the stylized eagle's head that is characteristic of aircraft belonging to Strike Fighter Squadron One Twenty Two, based at Naval Air Station Lemoore in central California. It bears the side number "173," unusual for a fleet squadron embarked aboard a carrier but typical in the case of training aircraft.  VFA-122 "Flying Eagles" is the Navy's Super Hornet RAG (the "Replacement Air Group," a technically obsolete but still popular term), responsible for initiating new aircrews into the mysteries of the Superbug.  It's a big job, as virtually the entire F-14 community is slated to convert to the two-seat F/A-18F in the next few years, while a number of C-model Hornet squadrons will convert to F/A-18Es.  That process has already begun, and as of this writing two squadrons have already converted to E-models (VFA-115 and VFA-14), and two more to F-models (VFA-41 and VFA-102).  Some of these squadrons have already seen combat in their new mounts over Afghanistan and Iraq.

The first thing that strikes you about the Superbug is its size.  The F/A-18E is about 25% larger than the original C-model, and adds about six feet of overall wingspan.  To the left are two Hornets viewed from roughly  the same angle.  On the top is one of VFA-125's F/A-18Cs, which also happened to be visiting the Bay Area for AirExpo; on the bottom is the F/A-18E.

Whereas the nose and fuselage dominates the front profile of the C-model, the E-model has noticeably broader "shoulders."  The larger leading-edge root extensions and squared-off air inlets on the Super Hornet give the impression of a bulkier aircraft.  The Super Hornet also seems to have larger control surfaces; flaps, slats, rudders, horizontal stabilizers -- everything moves when the pilot does his control checks.

In the air, the Superbug makes a definite impression.  Its planform is strikingly large, almost on the order of an F-14 (its overall length is only two feet shorter, although what seems to make the real difference are the larger wingroots).  During the flight demonstration, the Super Hornet joined a beautifully-restored Hawker Sea Fury in a salute to naval aviation old and new; as you can see above, the younger fighter dwarfs its elder.

Reportedly, the Super Hornet's bulkier airframe causes its top speed to suffer when compared to the C-model, although there is nothing to suggest this to the casual observer observing both types in flight -- the jet appears to defy both inertia and gravity.  The F/A-18E's new twin General Electric F414-GE-400 engines generate an enormous 22,000 lbs. of thrust apiece, which is considerably more thrust than is available in the older (but admittedly lighter) Hornet models.

Technical minutia aside, watching the Superbug in flight is a positively visceral experience.  During a barely-subsonic high-speed pass, the F/A-18E hurtles along whisper-silent, looking for all the world like a rounded black arrowhead.  Then, just before it passes, you hear the tearing screech of those jet engines assault the ground, and then the jet flashes overhead, pulling up and to the right...and in its wake there's that boom, a thousand pounds of sonic ordnance bellowing deep in your chest.  Then you blink and the Superbug's gone, having disappeared somewhere into the heavens, with only a momentary wingflash to mark its departure.

The single most obvious external feature distinguishing the Superbug from earlier A- and C-models is, of course, the pair of large, trapezoidal inlets that replace the small rounded jet intakes of the classic Hornets.  Those, combined with the bigger wing roots on either side of the fuselage, give the F/A-18E the hooded look of a cobra.  Despite the E-model's size, it is said to have a radar cross-section that is only a fraction of that of the earlier Hornets.

On the right, the demonstration pilot takes a bow.  BuNo. 165665 is personalized for VFA-122's operations officer, a very experienced driver of the type who, reportedly, has since been promoted.  VFA-122's instructor crews are the Navy's Superbug experts, and their experience is highly sought after in the line F/A-18E/F squadrons that are currently joining the fleet.  -RJL.

All photographs were taken by the author using a 3.2-megapixel Sony Cybershot DSC-P72 pocket digital camera.

My impression of a VFA-41 "Black Aces" two-seat Superbug, done with CorelPHOTO-PAINT  last Christmas.  Yeah, it's not a photo and it's not even an F/A-18E, but I thought I'd include it anyway.  The Black Aces have since taken their F-models to war with CVW-11 aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68).

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Copyright 2003 Robin J. Lee <>.  All rights reserved.