A few years ago, a Fighter Sweep reader asked about the real differences between the old F/A-18 Hornet and the updated Super Hornet. Now, with Block III upgrades for the Super Hornet on the horizon, it seems like a good time to revisit just what set the Super Hornet apart in the first place.
The following was written by a Fighter Sweep contributor that went by the name G M publicly – he’s a Naval aviator with extensive experience in the cockpit of multiple aircraft, including over 150 carrier landings on four different carriers. Here’s what he had to say:
Awesome question! This is a question I used to ask a lot while going through flight school. I am truly fortunate to have experience flying both jets. They are both awesome machines with tremendous capability, but you’ll see why I prefer the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet by the time you finish reading.
Keep in mind that these thoughts are just my opinions and dozens of others have had the chance to fly both jets (although I’d say that most of those people would agree with most of these points).
It is hard to believe that the Rhino has been flying for 20 years. The Super Hornet is a bit paradoxical to describe in relation to the Hornet because while it is evolutionary and looks similar (both inside and out), it is largely a new aircraft. When Boeing pitched the Super Hornet to Congress they said the jet would keep the same F/A-18 designation and use numerous common parts with the Legacy Hornet.
This economical argument helped Boeing win the contract. I am glad they did, because the Super Hornet is a much improved aircraft over its predecessor. Among the aircraft’s general improvements include: more powerful engines controlled by FADEC, much larger internal and external fuel capacity, 2 more weapons stations, numerous avionics improvements, and some radar cross-section (RCS) reduction measures.
Besides the obvious larger size, you can distinguish the Rhino from the Legacy with some key design features; mainly the enlarged Leading Edge Extension (LEX), “sawtooth” outer wing, and larger rectangular intakes. All of those design features not only make the jet look badass, but enhance the jets’ capabilities too. We’ll talk about all of that in a bit.
You can take a newly qualified Legacy Hornet pilot, put him into the cockpit of the Rhino, and he will be able to start-up, takeoff, and land. It is that similar from a basic airplane standpoint. There are some very subtle changes to some of the switches and procedures, but outside of that, the ground ops are very similar. Folding the wings is easier in the Rhino (not that it was that hard before), and the only thing that may trip up a transition pilot will be the use of the Up Front Control Display (UFCD).
The UFCD replaces the old physical keypad in the cockpit for entering data. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you do, you’ll find it to be a huge upgrade. Think of it like going from a flip phone with a physical keyboard and screen, to an iPhone where the screen can show you anything you want. Another nice feature in the cockpit is the Engine Fuel Display (EFD), and Reference Standby Display (RSD) on the new Super Hornets.
You would also notice the full color cockpit displays instead of the monochrome displays of the Hornet. These all add a nice touch of technology to the cockpit that is not only ergonomic, but also adds to the cool factor. Once you’ve entered your data and have the motors fired up, the high performance Nose Wheel Steering works exactly the same as it did before as you head towards the runway.
You’ll get your first taste of the Rhino’s improved performance when you push the throttles past the MIL detent and into afterburner. A fully functioning FADEC always provides the pilot with the requested thrust and the much larger intakes can feed a much higher amount of air into the compressors. When you combine those factors with the larger wings you get fantastic takeoff performance (I know, Mover–still not the same kick in the pants as the Viper).
The Super Hornet gets airborne in nearly 1,000 feet less distance and nearly 20 knots slower than the Hornet. On the ship, the procedures are nearly the same as they were in the legacy Hornet, except now the catapult launch is in full flaps and there is no selection of afterburner mid-catstroke. There can still be afterburner shots for certain weights and configurations, but some of those procedures have slightly changed.
The sensation of catapult stroke is the same as before (i.e awesome). The jet tends to leap off the flight deck easier than the old Legacy, too. I haven’t flown a tanker configured jet from the ship yet, but I hear that the cat shot for that is as intense as they come.
One of my favorite improvements in the Rhino is the gas. There’s a lot more gas. SO MUCH MORE GAS! Most Cessna drivers take it for granted the endurance they have in their aircraft. They have endurance that a Legacy hornet couldn’t hope to achieve without aerial refueling. With about 4,000 more pounds of internal fuel and larger external tanks, I feel comfortable flying the Super Hornet without gluing one eye to my fuel quantity.
Gas was precious when flying the Charlie (worse in the Delta during my initial training). This was especially true around the boat when you had to wait for a specific time to land unlike at an airfield. This gas is huge for tactical training, cross-countries, and combat missions.
Although, there is still no capability to fly a civilian ILS in the Super Hornet, RNAV capability was recently added to the Rhino fleet. Also, while the Legacy Hornet could only hold a few dozen preplanned waypoints, the Rhino can hold hundreds.
Flight characteristics when flying from Point A to Point B are the same as in the Legacy. All of the same autopilot modes exist, and all of the displays including the HUD have virtually identical symbology. There is also no physical speedbrake on the Super Hornet. When the speedbrake switch is activated, the flight control computers deflect the flight controls to maximize drag while minimizing any pitching moments.
There’s really not much to talk about here. The two jets are very similar when it comes to the administrative phases of flight.
There are some small subtle differences with landing the Rhino at the field. The autothrottles, should you choose them, are mechanized a little bit differently. In short, it judges the magnitude of the rate of stick movement, vice the magnitude of distance of stick movement. In short, both jets’ autothrottles are awesome, but I think the Legacy takes the cake on that one. The Rhino lands about ten knots slower than the Hornet, thanks to the large LEXs and wings. Unlike the Hornet, the Rhino has a nice ability to aerobrake if you hold the nose off the ground after touchdown. The jet’s beefy brakes get you to a quick stop as well, should you need them.
At the ship, the Rhino wins the landing competition easily. With the slower approach speed, large wings, and more powerful engines, glideslope corrections are faster and easier. Not only that, but thanks to a new symbol in the HUD called the power carat, the pilot is much more easily able to fine tune his ball-flying technique. To me, the boat landing feels slightly less like a car crash than it did in the Hornet, but by no means is it a glassy smooth event. I always used to go to full afterburner on touchdown in the Hornet, but that is strictly verboten in the Rhino. If you see one do that on YouTube, he’s wrong.
Finally, a huge improvement for the Rhino is the “bringback” capability. Its robust design and large gas tanks allow the pilot to land with more weapons unreleased. In a Hornet loaded up with bombs, it may only have enough gas for a couple of tries to land on the ship before having to tank airborne or divert. The Rhino is able to land with much more fuel, allowing for both more heavy loadouts at launch and for more landing attempts at recovery.
Now to FINALLY answer the questions that the reader probably intended to ask! How well does the jet do what it was built to do: fight in combat. In nearly every metric, I would argue that the Super Hornet beats its predecessor in air-to-air combat. I write the word “nearly” intentionally, but we’ll get to that later.
In a beyond-visual-range (BVR) fight, it’s not even close, especially when the Rhino is equipped with the APG-79 radar. This AESA radar is truly phenomenal. With the ability to see at farther ranges and track more targets at once, it truly presents a clear picture of exactly what is in front of the pilot. Not only that, but the radar can be run simultaneously in air-to-air and air-to-ground modes.
With additional weapons stations under the wings, even more AIM-120 AMRAAMs can be brought into the fight, and with the extra gas, can fight for longer. Survivability is also drastically better thanks in part to an advanced countermeasures suite and reduced RCS. The jet can carry more chaff and flares, has a powerful ALQ-214 jammer, an upgraded radar warning receiver, as well as options for towed decoys.
All of the Link 16 capabilities of the Hornet have been carried over and all of these features combined make the Rhino very formidable. However, there is something negative that can be said. The Super Hornet’s pylons are canted outboard very slightly, significantly increasing drag at high speeds. Also, for you nerds out there, the Rhino’s design doesn’t incorporate the Area Rule as well as the Hornet, meaning that the Super Hornet will have lower transonic acceleration performance and lower top speed.
In the within-visual-range (WVR) arena, we finally arrive at the original question: which is more maneuverable? In my opinion, I’d say the edge goes to the Hornet….slightly. Both jets have excellent handling characteristics, and to be honest, they feel very similar. If both aircraft have no external wing stores attached, the Hornet will have a noticeably crisper roll rate, but not by much. It is recommended for both aircraft that to get the best roll performance, they roll unloaded.
That is to say, roll while minimizing positive G. It is just a little bit tougher to get there in the Rhino than the Legacy; the Rhino requires a much more deliberate push forward of the stick to unload than the Hornet. However, both aircraft have excellent high angle-of-attack/slow-speed maneuvering, and both jets have excellent flight control logics, such as the “Pirouette.”
An additional logic was built in for the Rhino called Turbo Nose Down. As funny as that sounds, it is an important logic that allows the jet to recover from a slow-speed, nose-high attitude much easier by flaring the rudders and raising the spoilers. At lower altitudes, the Rhino’s engines produce much more thrust than the Hornet’s. This allows for improved energy addition and sustained turn rate. Maintaining airspeed while pulling high G is much easier than it was before. At higher altitudes, however, both aircraft have a little bit of a hard time with energy addition.
In summary, if I had to choose which aircraft to dogfight in, I’d pick a “big motor” legacy Hornet, with it’s crisper maneuverability and enhanced thrust. However, both aircraft utilize the AIM-9X Sidewinder and Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), so as I usually say, it comes down to the “man in the box.”
In the air-to-surface environment, there are not too many differences between the jets. Both aircraft use the JHMCS and ATFLIR. However, the Rhino’s APG-79 allows for synthetic aperture radar mapping, or SARMAP. When I first saw this I couldn’t believe it; the radar was painting the ground and displayed an image as good as the ATFLIR.
The same inventory of smart weapons are available to both aircraft. Just like in air-to-air, the Rhino can carry more thanks to more weapons stations.
As far as the “dumb” weapons are concerned, the Rhino actually carries a few less rounds in the M61 20mm cannon than the Legacy. The Rhino also can’t carry unguided rockets, as I have previously mentioned. When it comes to delivering general purpose bombs, such as the MK 82 series, the roll-ins are a little more sluggish in the Super Hornet. This is all in the same vein of what we discussed in air-to-air: the Legacy is a little crisper.
In an interdiction or strike mission, all of the Rhino’s survivability that I mentioned earlier makes it by far the aircraft of choice in a non-permissive environment. Going against a robust IADS, the reduced RCS and advanced countermeasures, coupled with my Growler buddies from the Ready Room next door help take a little bit of the edge off. Link 16 technology is the same in both aircraft and is still awesome technology.
I’d take the Rhino in all air-to-surface missions, in both permissive and non-permissive environments.
Something the Rhino can do that the Hornet can’t is be an aerial tanker. I personally have not flown one in that configuration, but I hear that the jet performs as a pig. That is no surprise with all of that drag and 30,000 pounds of gas. As an LSO, I can tell you a “5-wet” tanker is much more prone to settle below glideslope behind the ship and requires a bit more reaction time to get back above glideslope. The mission is important, however, and has provided me both mission gas and recovery gas during an emergency at the ship.
Aerial refueling is pretty much the same as in the Hornet, except it takes longer to top off.
Overall, the Hornet was my first love. I’ll always look back fondly on flying the F/A-18C and often times I miss it. However, there is no doubt the Rhino is the jet I want to fly off the boat into combat. Great question, keep them coming!