by Allan Ng
(with ST Priestley)
Canadian Defence Procurement – November 2003
The CF18 Hornet fighter aircraft – In Detail (Part 2)
F/A-18 — the Hornet Gains its Sea Legs
Allan Ng examines the evolution and development
of the CF's fighter
The US Navy and US Marine Corps had been impressed by the performance of the Northrop YF-17. But, the
Navy insisted that contractors should have recent naval aviation experience. Northrop had none. So, the
company teamed with McDonnell Douglas which had extensive experience in naval aviation. In May of 1975, the
Navy announced that, having better matched its stringent requirements for carrier fighters than the F-16,
Northrop/McDonnell Douglas would develop the YF-17 as its new naval
The capabilities important to the US Navy were the added safety of twin engines for over-water flying, and the
ability to launch medium-range radar-guided air-to- air missiles (the AIM-7 Sparrow) which would require a multi-mode radar with a large antenna.
None of these capabilities were then available in the smaller single- engined General Dynamics F-16 fighter
being adopted by the US Air Force.
Vespidae Metamorphosis — the Hornet's Weight Gains and Growing Pains
Northrop's second YF-17 was to fly as their "F-18 prototype" but, the true naval prototype was a
far different machine. This aircraft, which flew in November 1978, was designated F/A-18 – revealing a
stronger emphasis on the secondary Attack role. As would be expected, this new F/A-18 had carrier
fighter features such as folding wings and a tail arrestor hook. Less apparent was the aircraft's
increased weight. (Configured for the fighter role, a YF-17 weighed about 10,500kg whereas a similarly
configured F/A-18A Hornet tips the scales at approximately 15,750kg.)
To cope with all that extra weight – and with the rigors of carrier operations – the F/A-18 airframe
had to be considerably stronger than the lightweight YF-17. The Hornet – as the new
fighter was to be dubbed by the US Navy – also needed to be somewhat larger. The fuselage required
considerable alteration. Not only did it need to accomodate engines which were given bigger fans to increase
thrust, the fuselage also had to be enlarged to carry more fuel and to fit the 71cm antenna of an APG-65 radar.
The wings were also increased in size and modified to carry fuel.
Carrier operation also required that F/A-18 Hornets had a completely new, much beefier undercarriage.
Navalization displaced the YF-17's delicate and stalky landing gear with the rather robust units
which provide a Hornet recognition feature to this day – twin wheel nosegear with a
catapult strop, and gawky, knuckled main gear legs which shift the mainwheels aft to avoid tipping on a
pitching carrier deck.