The F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter has successfully demonstrated that it can take off from a ski jump, Boeing has revealed in a press release and video. The trials were most likely undertaken sometime in the summer at the U.S. Navy’s principal test base at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland and were performed by the test and evaluation unit VX-23 “Salty Dogs”. The trials validated the results from extensive simulation studies, and are aimed at supporting Boeing's bid to sell the Super Hornet to the Indian Navy.
While the U.S. Navy itself has dabbled with the idea of ski jump launches for many years and has tested aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet on a shore-based ramp at Patuxent River, the concept was never seriously considered for adoption by the fleet’s carriers. However, it has gained traction with all other carrier-operating nations, with the exception of France.
One navy that is wedded to the ski jump launch is that of India, which has been employing the technique since 1987, when the former HMS Hermes of Falklands War fame, renamed as INS Viraat, was purchased to carry Sea Harrier fighters. Today the Indian Navy operates the converted Kiev-class carrier Vikramaditya, and hopes to commission an indigenous carrier, Vikrant, in late 2021. Built at the Cochin shipyard in Kerala, Vikrant was launched in August 2013, and last month had completed basin trials with an aim of achieving initial operating capability in 2023. Both of these carriers are fitted with ski jumps.
In 2018 the Indian Navy issued a request for information concerning the supply of 57 Multi-Role Carrier Fighter aircraft to replace the current MiG-29Ks. Boeing responded with a proposal based on the Block III Super Hornet. In mid-2020 it emerged that the requirement is likely to be cut to 36 aircraft, with a twin-engined, navalized version of the HAL Light Combat Aircraft fulfilling the remainder of the requirement at a later date. The Dassault Rafale, already in Indian Air Force service, is the primary competitor, while Boeing is also offering the Super Hornet to the air force for its next round of fighter acquisitions.
“The first successful and safe launch of the F/A-18 Super Hornet from a ski jump begins the validation process to operate effectively from Indian Navy aircraft carriers,” said Ankur Kanaglekar, Boeing’s India Fighter Sales lead. “The F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet will not only provide superior war fighting capability to the Indian Navy but also create opportunities for cooperation in naval aviation between the United States and India.”
The ski jump concept is thought to have first been used by the UK’s Royal Navy in 1944, when a temporary wooden ramp was installed on HMS Furious to permit heavyweight Fairey Barracuda bombers to launch on a long-range raid against the German battleship Tirpitz. The idea was fully implemented by the UK's Invincible-class carriers commissioned from 1980 to embark Sea Harrier STOVL (short takeoff, vertical landing) aircraft, and was adopted by the navies of India, Italy, Spain and Thailand for their “Harrier-carriers”.
The Soviet Union took the concept further with the Kuznetsov-class STOBAR (short takeoff but arrested recovery) carriers, the ramps permitting high-performance MiG-29K and Su-33 fighters to launch without the need for catapults, and then recover to an angled flight deck with arrester wires. This arrangement was adopted by India, allowing the Sea Harriers to be replaced by MiG-29Ks with the introduction of Vikramaditya, and also by China.