Fighters For The Missile Era
An attack version, the A-18, was announced in June 1976 to replace the A-7 Corsairs in the Navy’s 24 attack squadrons. This version had nine weapons stations and electronics chosen for ground targets. An F-18L designation was promulgated for a lighter land-based version offered for export to NATO in November, but no buyers appeared then.
In September 1978, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) VADM Frederick C. Turner, chose the unusual designation F/A-18 to represent the naval strike fighter. Jack Krings flew the first F/A-18A Hornet on November 18, 1978, at St. Louis, and armament included a 20-mm M61 with 400 rounds in the nose, two AIM-9L Sidewinders on wingtip rails, and a pair of AIM-7F Sparrows under the engine nacelles.
Five other stations could be used for three 330-gallon drop tanks with two more Sparrows or four more Sidewinders. Ground attack weapons could include a choice of four Mk 84 or ten Mk 82 bombs, four AGM-65E or AGM-88 air-to-ground missiles, two B61 nuclear bombs, eight rocket pods, or four laser-guided bombs for precision strikes when a FLIR heat seeker and a laser spot tracker replaced the Sparrows. Up to 13,700 pounds of stores could be lifted, and a retractable refueling probe was provided.
Computer-controlled leading and trailing edge wing flaps are part of the digital fly-by-wire system. Hughes APG-65 multi-mode radar, ASN-130 navigation set and defensive chaff/flare dispensers helped the pilot.
Since the high cost of Grumman’s F-14 limited that two-seater program to 18 of the Navy’s fighter squadrons on the larger carriers, the first Hornets were expected to equip the remaining six Navy fighter squadrons on the Midway-class ships and 12 Marine fighter squadrons would get single-seat F/A-18As to replace their F-4 Phantoms. Production plans for these 18 squadrons, plus six reserve squadrons and an annual attrition of 4.5 percent, were expanded with the decision to replace all 24 light attack squadrons with Hornets.
While a Hornet Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) was commissioned as VFA-125 in November 1980, VMFA-314 did not become the first operational F/A-18A Marine squadron until January 1983. Navy Fighter Attack squadrons retained the VFA designation although renamed Strike Fighter squadrons on March 25, 1983. A-7E units converted to F/A-18s as VF-113 and VF-125 first deployed on the Constellation on its February to August 1985 WESTPAC cruise.
The St. Louis factory produced 380 single-seat F/A-18A Hornets and 41 two-seat F/A-18B trainers. McDonnell also built 98 CF-18As and 41 CF-18B trainers for Canada from October 1982 to September 1988, and 57 AF/A-18A Hornets with 18 AF/A-18Bs assembled in Australia, beginning in June 1985. Spain began receiving 60 F-18A (C.15) fighters and 12 CE.15 trainers in July 1986.