The program's genesis: from the U.S.A.F. YF-17 to the Navy and Marine F/A-18

In the U.S.A. the 90's period was marked by the simultaneous withdrawal of several planes from the Carrier Air Wing inventory. The U.S.N. lost its A-6s, it's A-7s and was beginning to withdraw the F-14. The U.S.M.C. had to face the loss of the F-4S, the A-6, the A-4 and of the RF-4B. A typical CAW in 1990 was made of: two squadrons of F-14s, one of A-6s, one of A-7s, one of E-2Cs, one of S-3s, and several helicopter detachments. Today a CAW looks more like this: one squadron of F-14s, three of F/A-18, and the E-2Cs, S-3s and helicopters. This shows the importance of the Hornet for U.S. carrier aviation.
Paradoxically, the Hornet's history is closely linked to that of the U.S.A.F.'s F-16 Fighting Falcon. In 1972 the Air Force initiated a competition for the development of a new light aircraft for dogfighting, fitted with a canon and AIM-9 Sidewinders only, to complement the F-4 and the F-15, more designed as heavy air superiority fighters. This aircraft was to be the first of a new generation of fighters, equipped with digital Fly-by-Wire (FBW) controls and a small side-stick. The competition saw General Dynamics' YF-16 face to face with Northrop's YF-17.
Northrop YF-17 in flight. (©United States Air Force)In those times of budgetary restraint, the American Congress considered this small fighter to be the perfect sidearm for the F-14 on aircraft carriers. It compelled the U.S. Navy, which at the time was seeking to replace its ageing attack planes, to buy the same plane as the U.S.A.F., the winner of the YF-17/YF-18 competition. The U.S.A.F. eventually chose the YF-16, but this decision did not satisfy the Navy, which favoured the YF-17. During the YF-18's development phase, the plane saw so many modifications that the decision was taken to change it's name, first to F-18 Hornet, and then to F/A-18 Hornet. The Marines were much more reluctant to get the Hornet, for three reasons: they had just bought the Harrier which suited them better; the Hornet's developments cost were rising every day; and finally the Hornet's performances, especially its range, were inferior to that of the A-7 Corsair II. The first predictions called for 11 pre-production aircraft and 1,366 production aircraft, to equip 24 U.S.N. squadrons and 6 U.S.M.C. squadrons. Added to that were 332 aircraft for Reserve units, and 124 aircraft kept for attrition. Final production numbers were lower.
From the beginning the plane was called F/A-18, a designation that supposed a fighter (F) and an attack (A) role. The single seater was designated F/A-18A, and the two seater was originally designated TF-18, but was renamed F/A-18B. This two seater was capable of combat missions, with the rear cockpit identical to the front one.
F/A-18C Hornet du VMFAT 101 de l'USMC sur le pont de l'USS John C. Stennis en juin 2008. (©United States Navy)The F/A-18 made its first flight on November 18th 1978, and the F/A-18B on October 25th 1979. The Hornet reached U.S.N. squadrons in February 1981, with VFA-125. The Hornet was operational in the U.S.M.C. in March 1983 with VMFA-314.
400 A and B versions came out of the assembly line. Furthermore, 483 Hornets of all versions (A, B, C and D) were manufactured for foreign countries: Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand.
Upon its service entry, the Hornet was immediately appreciated for its performances, its versatility, and its availability. In the U.S.N., the Hornet flew on average three times more than other planes, but needed half the maintenance time. The Hornet can perform the following missions: air superiority, escort, reconnaissance, SEAD, CAP, CAS, Fast FAC, interdiction and deep strike. Pontée de F/A-18C Hornet du Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195 sur l'USS Kitty Hawk en août 2008. (©United States Navy)In April 1986; the U.S.N. and the U.S.A.F. attacked Libya during operation El Dorado Canyon. During the operation, F/A-18As were based on the U.S.S. Coral Sea and flew SEAD missions (with the AGM-88 HARM missile) against SAM sites around Benghazi.
The main evolution of the Hornet was the upgrade to the C and D versions in 1986. Whereas the F/A-18C was an upgraded version of the A, the F/A-18D was an entirely new plane, for the U.S.M.C..The F/A-18C is different from the A in that its avionics are new and that it carries the AIM-120 AMRAAM and AGM-86 Maverick missiles. The cockpit was modified to accommodate a navigation FLIR, night vision goggles (NVGs), and multifunction color displays. It flew for the first time on September 3rd 1987. The F/A-18D received the same modifications, but the backseat cockpit lacked flight controls. The second pilot was replaced by a weapons system officer (WSO). The U.S.M.C. uses this Hornet for deep strike, missions for which a second crewmember is welcomed. The F/A-18D made its first flight on June 5th 1988, and entered service in May 1991 with VMFA(AW)-121.
Eventually, 1,048 Hornets in all four versions were produced, the last airframe rolling out of the factory on September 30th 2000, while the F/A-18E was entering production.

The " tricolor " Hornet : the F-18(FN)

A first try in the late 70's
Northrop and McDonnell-Douglas' project was found very interesting by the French Air Force and Navy, which were seeking to replace the interceptors in their squadrons.
The aircraft : an YF-17 transformed into a F-18L Cobra wearing French roundels and threecolored control surfaces. (©VA Michel Debray)The Air Force was already studying the Mirage 2000 (first flight on March 11th 1978) and the big Mirage 4000 (still on the drawing board, but similar in performance to the F-14 Tomcat) as a replacement for the ageing Mirage IIIC, but decided to try the American YF-17/18 Hornet. As for the Navy, it was replacing its Etendard IVM with Super Etendards, but needed an aircraft capable of fulfilling the Crusader's (in service since 1964) fleet defence mission, but also capable of strike missions to support the Super Etendards and replace the final Etendard IVMs. Some 40 aircraft were required. That was the situation Northrop was facing when it contacted the Air Force, which was supposed to send two pilots from the BPM (Bureau des Programmes de Matériel / equipment supplying bureau) to the USA. Yet since the aircraft was a carrier-born fighter, Northrop was put into contact with the Navy, not the Air Force.
The embassy's deputy naval attaché in Washington, Michel Debray (14.F squadron CO from March 1970 to September 1971; in post in Washington since 1976) took things in hand.
Northrop shared the production, but also the financing, with McDonnell-Douglas, according to the version produced: for a carrier-born airframe Northrop received 40% of the financing and of the work; but for a land-based airframe it received 60% of the share. This explains why Saint-Louis based McDonnell-Douglas never insisted on exporting the plane, since the US Navy's huge order was more than it had ever dreamt of! On the contrary, Northrop was moving heaven and earth to sell it's land-based version of the plane, the F-18L (L for land) Cobra, the only solution to make money. These test flights were planned for June 28th 1978 at the huge Edwards test bed in California. The airframe was the YF-17, transformed into an YF-18L Cobra. Four flights were programmed: two per pilot, the first one to test performances (climb rate, maximum Mach speed, low speed) and the second one to test flight characteristics (combat, aerobatics…).
Commander Michel Debray in the cockpit of the YF-17 (F-18L) on Edwards AFB tarmac, on June 28th 1978. (©VA Michel Debray)The main differences with the production F-18 were the wing shape; similar to that of the F-5, its lighter weight; because of the absence of weapons (except for two mock wingtip sidewinders)and avionics, and its engines; GE YJ101s instead of F404s. The French pilots were stunned by the plane's features and by its unbelievable manoeuvrability; the engines were so powerful that on touchdown you had to quickly shut one engine off, instead of what the brakes would overheat trying to slow the plane down. Vice-admiral Debary (ret.) comments : the flights went perfectly, and we had a chase F-5, flown by Hank Chouteau, Northrop chief test pilot. I had the satisfaction of really impressing him during a flight when I saw him coming from 4 o'clock. I said to myself "now's the time to see what the plane is really worth", and broke him up, full AB and stick to the stomach…until I found myself in his 6 o'clock incredibly easily. It was great to hear him ask where I was, and to tell him "in your 6 o'clock, in firing position" ! Picture of the F-18L seen in flight with Commander Michel Debray at controls, shot by the wingman, Hank Chouteau, Northrop Test Pilot Team chief from his F5. (©VA Michel Debray)During the course of this flight while performing a loop without the afterburners and without pulling too hard, I found myself in a touchy situation at the top of the loop but with my speed decreasing fast, down to 60 knots (very slow for this kind of plane). I engaged the AB and realised that the plane was climbing and accelerating, which was astonishing and more proof of the plan's qualities. I has the opportunity to debrief the flight (with Northrop test equipment to prove my claims) with Canadian pilots in charge of their fighter replacement, and I sincerely think I was part of the their decision to choose the F-18. After his first flight, colonel Bonnet told me as he was climbing down the ladder "the Mirage 2000 will never do what this plane can do". As far as I was concerned I was not convinced by the plane's performances strictly speaking which were inferior to that of the Crusader (Mach 1.6 instead of 1.8 and a smaller climb rate), but it's handling and thrust-to-weight ratio were really impressive. Since then I have always thought, and still do openly, that the best fighter for our carriers was the F-18. In spite of the plane's excellent results, the French Air Force (even if the dice were loaded) chose the Mirage 2000, which it ordered in it's "C" fighter, "B" training and "D" strike versions, and more recently upgraded old 2000Cs into 2000-5s. As for the Navy, it delayed its announcement of the new fighter another ten years.

A second chance for the ACM program
Faced with the urgent need to replace the ageing F-8E Crusader, and with the delays of the Rafale M program which would only be available in 1996 (Ndlr: actually, the Rafale Ms are today only being delivered one at a time and squadron 12.F is not yet fully operational), the French Navy considered the lease or purchase of Mc Donnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, already available and in service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps since 1981.
Vue d'artiste d'un F/A-18 Hornet aux couleurs françaisesThe French Navy openly pronounced itself. "Only the F/A-18 would be able, as soon as 1993, to give carrier aviation defence strong capabilities, that today are decreasing every day"(interview of vice-admiral Goupil, Navy chief-of-staff, to Cols Bleus magazine in 1989). It is also hard to believe "that the purchase of several second-hand aircraft would endanger a new program of at least 400 planes". A Northrop delegation came to Paris in September 1988, to back its offer of 40+ F-18(FN) for the French Navy. It was taken by CV Robert Feuilloy (officer in charge of the nuclear carrier program in 1988-1989 for the Navy headquarters) aboard the Foch aircraft carrier docked at Toulon, and visited the ships aviation infrastructures.
Experts and engineers from both the French Navy and Northrop concluded that only a few minor modifications (worth as much of a F-18 at the time) would be necessary on the carriers, mainly concerning the catapults and jet blast deflectors. Furthermore, the elevators were entirely compatible with the Hornet. Compatibility tests were planned with two US Navy F/A-18C Hornets (VI Fleet) aboard the Foch (R99) during the month of August 1989, but the carrier docked for the Mediterranean Sea on August 19th and mission Capselle. The Foch returned on September 25th, but no Hornet ever did land on its deck or that of the Clemenceau, because the government abandoned the program. Simulated approach performed by a F/A-18 Hornet from the US VIth Fleet in the Mediterranean sea on the deck of a French aircraft carrier, probably in 1989-1990. (©Marine Nationale)The killing of the French Hornet program was partly compensated by the three fold decision to upgrade the F-8E Crusader to the F-8P (P for Prolongé) standard, to allot the first Rafales to the Navy and not the Air Force, and finally to readjust the budgetary balance of the program in favour of the Navy. The lease, or purchase of 20+ new or second-hand aircraft would have allowed the Navy to wait for the ACM. However this option was criticized by Dassault-Aviation, the national manufacturer, which refused to see the Navy do such a move, which would endanger the future of its own plane the Rafale. Bruno Revellin-Falcoz, then vice Dassault president in charge of technical matters, research and cooperation, brought up the issue: "How can you ask French manufacturers to develop a high performance combat aircraft, and at the same time consider the purchase of a foreign aircraft unable to respond to the requirements?".
Yet the French Defence Secretary Jean-Pierre Chevènement said he was waiting for "all conditions to be gathered before taking, in due time, a decision that had to be true to France's interest". Vice-admirals Yves Goupil and Guirec Doniol had clearly said that they wanted the F-18 to be a gap filler until the arrival of the Rafale M and not, as they had been accused of saying, a pure and simple replacement for the Rafale M.
One has to remember the Navy's stand at the time: its main concern was to find a suitable fighter to defend the carriers; keeping the Crusader, even with an important upgrade would not be fit for the task. The Navy also confirmed that the Hornet would only be a stopgap, and insisted on the small number of aircraft required; 12 to 15 second-hand F-18s, with just enough lifetime left to wait for the Rafale M.
Vue d'artiste d'un F/A-18 Hornet aux couleurs françaisesThe decision to risk the absence of a decent interceptor or not could only be a political one: indeed in November 1989 Chevènement met with his counterpart Dick Cheney (current US Vice President), to discuss the possible purchase of 15 aircraft. However on December 22nd 1989 the government confirmed the Rafale M as the sole option for the French fleet air arm. The outcome proved the two admirals right. The Navy kept its Crusaders until December 1999, after 35 years of service (not a record to be proud of), and squadron 12.F only had 4 Rafale Ms on the day its reactivation (May 18th 2001). Fifteen years had passed between the type's first flight and the service entry of the first plane, not a record to be proud of either.

Un Hornet sur le porte-avions Charles de Gaulle
F/A-18C Hornet de l'U.S.Navy (VFA-131 "Wildcats") en provenance du porte-avions USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) roulant sur le pont du Charles de Gaulle. (©Marine Nationale)F/A-18C Hornet de l'U.S.Navy (VFA-131 "Wildcats") en provenance du porte-avions USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) roulant sur le pont du Charles de Gaulle. (©Marine Nationale)Le 4 mai 2005, le groupe aéronaval constitué autour du porte-avions Charles de Gaulle appareill
e du port militaire de Toulon pour une mission de deux mois en Atlantique et en Manche.
Au cours de ce déploiement baptisé Frame 05, des interactions entre groupes de porte-avions sont prévues avec l’U
nited States
Navy dans la continuité des exercices et des opérations menées au cours des dernières années (opération Héraclès en 2002, exercices en Méditerranée en 2003 et mission Agapanthe en 2004). F/A-18C Hornet de l'U.S.Navy (VFA-131 "Wildcats") en provenance du porte-avions USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) roulant sur le pont du Charles de Gaulle. (©Marine Nationale)F/A-18C Hornet de l'U.S.Navy (VFA-131 "Wildcats") en provenance du porte-avions USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) roulant sur le pont du Charles de Gaulle. (©Marine Nationale)Le 22 mai, un avion de chasse F/A-18C Hornet de l'United States Navy, le No400 du Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-131 "Wildcats" de la NAS Oceana en provenance du porte-avions USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) a apponté sur le Charles de Gaulle aux mains du Capitaine Bud Bishop. Il a été catapulté du bâtiment sans aucune difficulté.
C’est la première fois depuis les années 60 qu’un avion de chasse américain apponte sur un porte avions français.
En outre, les marins français ont régulièrement l'occasion de se mesurer tant aux F/A-18C/D Hornet de l'United States Navy et de l'United States Marine Corps qu'aux récents F/A-18E/F Super Hornet de l'United States Navy lors d'exercices ou d'opérations de guerre au-dessus de l'Afghanistan.

sources - acknowledgements :
Vice-amiral Michel Debray, attaché naval à Washington en 1976.
Amiral Guirec Doniol, chef du Service Central de l'Aéronautique Navale en 1986-1989.
Capitaine de Vaisseau Robert Feuilloy, officier de programme PAN en 1988-1989 auprès de l'Etat-Major de la Marine.
Vice-amiral d'Escadre Yves Goupil.
"Les Crusader Français en action" Jean-Marie Gall - LELA Presse - 1997
Benoît Marembert.


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