End of the Line for the Fleet’s Legacy Hornets

 - January 31, 2019, 7:43 AM
VFA-34's "CAG-bird" F/A-18C launches from Carl Vinson during the last cruise by an active-duty F/A-18C squadron in 2018. (photo: U.S. Navy)

On February 1, the U.S. Navy is holding a special ceremony to commemorate the passing of one of its stalwarts, as the Boeing (previously McDonnell Douglas) F/A-18C Hornet leaves the active-duty fleet. Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 34 “Blue Blasters” was the last unit operating the type in the front line and flew the “legacy” Hornet on its final operational deployment, a cruise with Air Wing Two to the Western Pacific theater aboard the USS Carl Vinson. That deployment ended in April 2018, but VFA-34 went back to sea briefly for routine carrier qualifications in October.

The retirement of the “Blue Blasters” Hornets at their base at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, completes a process that has already seen all Pacific Fleet F/A-18C squadrons convert to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The last few active-duty squadrons operating F/A-18Cs (VFA-34, -37, and -83) were all assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, and all have converted or are converting to the F/A-18E.

The end of fleet use does not signify the end of the legacy Hornet in Navy service. The Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron—better known as the “Blue Angels”—continues to fly the type, but is to convert to the Super Hornet, perhaps in time for the 2021 display season. U.S. Naval Reserve units will also continue to fly the C model, primarily as adversary aircraft for dissimilar air combat training.

As the F/A-18A/B, the Hornet entered U.S. service in 1983 with the Marines and 1984 with the Navy. It saw its first combat action in 1986 during attacks on Libya in Operations Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon and went on to play a major part in the 1991 Gulf War, during which Navy Hornets shot down two Iraqi MiG-21s. In 1987 the improved F/A-18C/D appeared, which remained in production until 2000. Legacy Hornets equipped 26 Fleet squadrons in the Navy, and 17 in the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps will continue to fly the F/A-18C/D until they are replaced by F-35B/Cs. Recently the Corps elected to install Raytheon’s APG-79(v)4 AESA radar in their legacy Hornets to maintain their combat viability for several more years.

Overseas, the legacy Hornet continues to serve in Australia, although 25 F/A-18A/Bs have been sold to Canada to augment an aging fleet of CF-18s. The first Australian aircraft are due for delivery in the spring of 2019. While Canada is in the early stages of selecting a replacement for its Hornets, Australia is now receiving F-35As as the type’s successor.

Spain operates Hornets, as do Finland and Switzerland. The latter two countries have active competitions for a replacement, with bids having recently been delivered by interested fighter manufacturers. In Kuwait, the country’s F/A-18C/D fleet is to be replaced by a mix of Super Hornets and Typhoons. Malaysia operates eight F/A-18D two-seaters.