SuperHornet Simulator Experienced

by Brian P
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Recently I had the opportunity to test fly the Boeing F/A-18F simulator and I thought Id share my impressions and experiences. First I have never flown the actual F/A-18E or F, but the Boeing guys claim that its flight performance is simulated exactly. Every display, function, dial, gauge and switch is exactly as it is on the real thing and functional as well as the exact flight model. But as I wasnt interested in the radio settings or the cockpit bleed air flow we got right to business. The world was projected in front and around me not quite 180 degrees, but very close. 

The jet was clean (no external stores) and fuel bags full. Launching off the pointy end of a carrier in a simulator is nothing compared to the real thing, but I busied myself with cockpit work. Gear handle on the left up, flap switch just below it to auto (this was my first indication that this is a different kind of jet. Im used to a flap handle, not a tiny switch). In the real world, pilots can elect to have all flap/slat commands handled by the computer. I leveled off at 2500 AGL and waited until I had accelerated up to 350 knots, pulled the throttles out of the afterburner detent. This jet simply does not have the acceleration of an F-14 (something that people always want to compare it to) I must have made a comment to that effect as my Boeing technician echoed that it was not indeed a Tomcat. Instead of setting up the pattern, I decided to have a little fun, yanking and banking, just to get used to the stick. One thing that the average simulator flier would notice is that it takes some muscle to move the stick around. I regularly found myself with full stick deflection using my left hand on top of the stick for support and I have strong arms (insert joke here). I made a number of hard turns and climbs. One thing of note was even as I bleed off airspeed, I was able to keep the nose from sliding below the horizon easily. Sensing my desire for high speed and Gs, the technician suggested full blower. I complied, letting the speed build up to over 500 knots. Once there, I kept full blower and started some turns. At higher altitudes to my surprise the jet held the knots better than I expected. After a series of turns and climbs it was time to magically refuel the jet. While fun in the simulator, my combination of prolonged afterburner and high G maneuvers would have left me with a fuel critical situation in the real world, not to mention very small distance traveled. I ended my little airshow routine with a pitch up into the vertical at 485 knots while pulling the throttles to idle. That worked well to bleed off speed quickly and the jet was rock steady the whole time. While the speed came down under 100 knots, I still had complete control of the nose. I was planning to execute a tailslide, dropping the nose, cobbing on the power while making some strong rudder and stick inputs with the nose pointed at the ground, but I got a little to excited and pulled the throttles past the stops and shut down the engines, which in the simulator, ends the flight. Oops. Wait a minute until it gets reset. 

This time I launch off the carrier and go straight into the carrier pattern. Again, this jet is a dream at low speeds, something the technician keeps reminding me. He does his best at a sales pitch as well as a support coach for my questions as I dirty up passing the ninety (the hook handle is stiff and requires a solid pull) and let the speed bleed down to 180 knots. One thing I noticed that in the slow speed regime in level or descending flight, the jet wants to hold the knots its got. A quick power reduction, tap on the breaks and two hard turns takes care of that, and I steady up again abeam the ship. I descend from 850 feet to 500 feet while making my base and final turn, using mostly rudder and slight nose corrections, pulling back on the power and rolling on final at 140 knots looking for 134 knots. Hit the glideslope, center the rails, slight power correction almost by feeling, come right a little more (the ships moving), recenter and trap at 2-wire. Not bad for my first attempt. I flew another 3 patterns its hard to make it look easy, but I found with concentration I kept it on. 

Next I wanted to do some more dynamic tactical flying, so I headed for the beach, plugged in the afterburner and waited for the speed. I did a number of low level runs over land, found some low mountains to play around and did a number of flybys of the power station and oil refineries that were nearby. I kept on the knots, worked on inverted low level flights, 4 point rolls (things of beauty by the Blue Angels). After burning off another tank of gas, it was time for something more tactical. Reluctant to really load down the jet, I managed to convince the tech to load 4 mk83s and 2 external fuel tanks. Wow that changed things a bit, but again I was surprised that it wasnt as much of a drag as I thought it would be. At low speed, I still had great control authority. The higher speeds were harder to achieve and it definitely bled off faster. The tech made the comment, that the outboard towing of the pylons was not something that was a positive influence on the jets performance (and it looks funky), but now I had bombs to drop. As I ingressed to the power station, I found myself plugging in the blower far more than I should to maintain good tactical speeds. I wont get into numbers, but suffice it to say, my knots were well below that of an F-14 with 4 2000lbs bombs (twice my ordnance weight). Pulling up to execute a low pop, I was whipping the ponies. I cut the pop well short of 10,000 feet and rolled down to acquire the target. I pickled 2 Mk 83s and they found their target. I made a second pass and dropped the  other 2 Mk83s in a low level run. I went back to strafe, but was told that I wouldnt see bullets or anything blow up. Oh, well, I still hosed out 300 rounds of 20mm on a roadway doing CAS on imaginary vehicles and troops - Ive got a good imagination. 

Next we set up an air-to-air scenario that every fighterpilot dreams of, a 1v1 against a Mig-29. I climbed to 25,000 feet and the situation unfolded. An F/A-18C driver talked my through some of their current tactics. Wanting to enjoy the BVR capabilities of the super hornet before reaching the merge, I fairly easily set up an Aim-120 solution but held off taking the shot. Wanting to elevate my blood pressure I presented a cherry target to the Mig and he dutifully fired off a missile. Going defensive, nose low, high power, I descended 16,000 feet quickly while making some hard inputs, again muscling the jet through the sky. Missile defeated, I again put the nose on target, this time waiting for him to shoot a heat seeking weapon, which he did. Using the knots I had just gained, I pulled back on the throttles, popped flares and again put the jet in a defensive maneuver. Okay, enough of that, now it was time to kill a Mig-29. One thing to note if you ever go against a mig-29, it has a lot of power. Where the hornet must drop its nose and pick up knots, the 29 has the power to continue on through. From F-14 pilot bubbas that have fought the Superhornet the Superhornet has 2 turns in it. Not wanting to look stupid or dead, I did my best to defeat the Mig in 2 turns. Fortunately, it kept its nose low and I was able to use the amazing slow speed maneuverability to fire off a sidewinder for a kill shot. (I think the computer was dumbed down a bit because the Mig used some poor choices in tactics). I headed back to the ship for one more trap, crabbed it in there at the 3-wire, but was low all the way. All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon and I enjoyed my 1.5 hours in the front seat.  

Things that I learned The F/A-18E/F is not a Tomcat so dont try and compare it. (I love the quote that they tried to turn the Hornet into a Tomcat and succeeded miserably) It does have great slow speed handling (Boeing showed this off at a recent airshow, flying its full routine carrying 2 external fuel tanks and 2 2000lbs bombs it never did anything fast). It does have an improved bring back margin on the carrier. It is a new jet and maintenance is not the same issue it is in the F-14 community. (though when it came time for mission ready jets in OIF, more F-14 squadrons posted a higher mission readiness and completion percentage than Hornet and SuperHornets, including VF-154s amazing 100% readiness while flying F-14As!). It can carry a lot of ordnance (But even the C models cant claim the 4 planes, 16 bombs, 16 targets destroyed ratio that the Navy wants). It has easy to manage cockpit sensors, and technology.  

This opportunity afforded me with chance to become more aware of this aircraft and its performance. The bottom line is that I learned things that I didnt expect, was impressed by a number of things and am further aware of what some would call its faults -unfortunately those being important in the tactical world. Would I take this jet into combat if they let me sure. Would I put the simulator in my basement and fly the hell out of it in a heart beat. Is it the best jet for the navy umm, well  I may not like it, but the truth is the F/A-18E/F is here to stay, replacing the F-14, EA-6B and S-3. Now I feel I have a better understanding of the capabilities both positive and negative that is now the reality for Naval Aviation.

Brian 

Photos and text 2003 by Brian P