Boeing has flown the first Block III production example of the F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter. The June 4 flight, involving aircraft with build number F287, was conducted at the St Louis, Missouri, factory. It is the first of two Block III aircraft that will be delivered to the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Patuxent River in Maryland for tests and verification with the VX-23 squadron.
The planned trials will include carrier suitability evaluation, and also serve to familiarize the Navy with the Block III’s new avionics systems. These tests are likely to be followed by weapons trials at China Lake, California with the VX-9 squadron.
In March 2019 Boeing received a multi-year procurement contract for 61 single-seat F/A-18Es and 17 two-seat F/A-18Fs in the Block III configuration. Deliveries are due to begin next year and run through 2024. The first aircraft was rolled out at St Louis on May 8 and is not yet fitted with the conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) intended for the full-spec configuration, although these have earlier been flown on a test aircraft.
Block III production follows on from a total of 608 Block I/II aircraft, with the Block II having introduced Raytheon’s APG-79 active electronically scanned array radar that is retained in the Block III. A significant proportion of the existing Block II fleet will be upgraded to Block III standard, including a service life modernization that extends airframe life from 6,000 to 10,000 hours. The upgrade program is due to run from 2022 to 2033. By 2024 the Navy hopes to have at least one Block III-equipped squadron within each carrier air wing.
The Block III version is based on the Advanced Super Hornet that Boeing has been marketing for export. As well as the CFTs, which add 3,500 pounds of fuel and reduce drag, the main features of the Block III are a 10x19-inch wide-area cockpit display, a Lockheed Martin Block II infrared search and track system that is already in test, new mission computers, and greater networking capability.
In the meantime, Boeing is also building 22 F/A-18Es and six F/A-18Fs for Kuwait, which will have many, if not all, of the Block III features, including the wide-area display.
In other Super Hornet news, Boeing rolled out the first of nine F/A-18Es and two F/A-18Fs to be modified for service with the Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Blue Angels display team. Conversion work is being performed at Boeing’s plant at NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida. The aircraft—an F/A-18E single-seater—will not be painted in the team’s blue/yellow colors until verification trials have been completed. After roll-out the aircraft was ferried to NAS Patuxent River for tests. The first displays with the new mount are expected to be flown next year.