Australia Bids Farewell to the Classic Hornet Fighter

 - November 30, 2021, 6:40 AM
Group Captain Jason Easthope, Chief of Staff, Air Combat Group, flies one of the last F/A-18As in the type’s final display in RAAF hands at Williamtown on November 29. (Photo: Corporal Craig Barrett, RAAF)

November 29 marked the final day for the Boeing F/A-18A/B Hornet fighter in Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) service. The retirement of the ‘classic’ Hornet was commemorated in an event held at RAAF Williamtown, New South Wales, which was attended by Australian defense minister, Peter Dutton, and chief of the Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld. On the previous day, a Hornet made the type’s last public appearance during the Wings over Illawarra Airshow.

The final seven classic Hornets departed their base at Tindal in the Northern Territory to fly to Williamtown for the close-out ceremony, performing flypasts at both bases. Group Captain Jason Easthope, Chief of Staff, Air Combat Group, then flew aircraft A21-02 in a single-ship display as a fitting end to the aircraft’s career of more than 35 years and 408,000 flight hours.

Australia selected the Hornet to replace its Dassault Mirage IIIO fighters, having also examined types such as the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. An order for 57 F/A-18A single-seaters and 18 F/A-18B two-seaters was placed in 1981. The first two arrived in disassembled state inside a C-5 Galaxy on June 6, 1984. They were followed by two more U.S.-built aircraft that conducted a 15-hour trans-Pacific ferry flight on May 17, 1985. Subsequent aircraft were assembled in Australia by Government Aircraft Factories in Victoria, with test flights being conducted at Avalon.

The Hornet entered service with 2 Operational Conversion Unit at Williamtown, which began pilot training in August 1985. A year later, the first front-line unit—No. 3 Squadron—formed at the same base, where it was joined by No. 77 Squadron in June 1987. Both units have subsequently converted to the Lockheed Martin F-35A.

The third Hornet unit was No. 75 Squadron, which had earlier operated Mirages from Butterworth in Malaysia before being recalled to Australia to fly from Darwin. In May 1988, following conversion to the F/A-18, it moved into the newly-constructed airfield at Tindal. It will now convert to the F-35 and remain at its Northern Territory base.

In 1999 the fleet entered a three-phase Hornet Upgrade (HUG) program, that introduced numerous improvements, such as APG-73 radar, Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, Link 16 datalink, Litening targeting pod and MBDA ASRAAM missiles replacing the AIM-9 Sidewinder. All of the aircraft underwent remedial structural work, including 10 aircraft that received new central fuselage sections.

Australian Hornets were deployed in 2001 to Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territories to defend the base, which was a major bomber base for operations over Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom. Australia called its contribution to the effort Operation Slipper. RAAF Hornets first saw action during Operation Falconer, the nation’s contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, flying from Al Udeid in Qatar on close air support and high-value asset escort missions.

Between March 2015 and May 2017 Australian Hornets returned to the Middle East as part of Operation Okra for operations against Daesh forces in Iraq and Syria.  During the course of 1,937 missions the six aircraft from No. 75 Squadron flew more than 14,780 flying hours and delivered around 1,600 munitions. Good serviceability was recorded, despite the age of the aircraft.

Australia aims to retain a number of the retired airframes for museum display, while 25 were sold to Canada, which aims to place 18 in service to cover a fighter capability gap. The first was handed over in February 2019, and the ex-Australian aircraft are to undergo a modernization program that adds APG-79 AESA radar prior to entering service. The remaining seven are to be used for spares and as battle damage repair trainers.

In March 2020 it was announced that Australia’s remaining aircraft are to be sold to Air USA for civilian-contracted aggressor training duties, although that deal has not been concluded.