READY ON ARRIVAL:
SUPER HORNET JOINS THE FLEET|
An Evolutionary Design Delivers Revolutionary Capabilities
By GORDON I. PETERSON
Senior Editor Gordon I. Peterson visited Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., in April and embarked on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May during the preparation of this article.
Approaching the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln from dead astern at an altitude of 1,200 feet and a distance of eight miles, Lt. Cdr. Matthew Tysler, operations officer of the "Eagles" of Strike Fighter Squadron 115 (VFA-115), eased his F/A-18E Super Hornet strike fighter--side number 210--to the right to align on his final heading for a straight-in night landing.
The Abraham Lincoln, participating in a U.S. Third Fleet joint task force exercise (JTFEX) in early May at the conclusion of its interdeployment training cycle, was operating approximately 80 miles off the coast of southern California with other ships in its battle group.
An approach controller in CATCC--the carrier air traffic control center--called out radar updates during the final minutes of Tysler's 1.5-hour aerial refueling "tanker" mission. Radio chatter was held to a minimum.
CATCC: "210, on glide path, on course."
CATCC: "210, on glide path, on course, three- quarter miles. Call the ball." (Tysler is asked to confirm visual sighting of the ball of amber light displayed in the Fresnel lens of the carrier's landing-
approach lights that will guide him to a safe landing on the carrier's dark ened flight deck.)
Tysler: "210, ball. 5-3." (Tysler confirms his visual sighting of the ball, his position relative to the beam of amber light, the
location of the "needles" on the cockpit display of his automatic carrier landing
system, and his remaining fuel available.)
Paddles: "Roger, ball." (The landing signal offi- cer--the LSO or "paddles"--confirms Tysler's radio transmission The LSO
monitors all carrier landings from a platform on the port side of the flight
deck near the ship's stern, radioing instructions as necessary.)
Eighteen seconds after his final radio transmission, Tysler's 40,500-pound Super Hornet slammed down on Lincoln's flight deck in an operation that pundits describe as a controlled crash. As his aircraft's tail hook reached for one of the four arresting cables spanning the flight deck, Tysler applied full power to the Super Hornet's two General Electric turbofan engines. In the event he missed grabbing a wire owing to a hook skip or landed past the wires, Tysler would "bolter" and make an immediate takeoff on the carrier's angled flight deck.
Only when a safe arrested landing was assured (on a "number three wire") and the flight deck officer's lighted wands signaled him to reduce power did Tysler pull his engine throttles back to idle and follow the directions of yellow-shirted aircraft handlers to taxi to his parking spot on the busy flight deck.
After a brief postflight inspection, Tysler went to VFA-115's maintenance-control office to report the status of his aircraft, followed by a debriefing of his mission and landing in the squadron ready room. (The LSO grades and critiques every landing on the ship as part of a continuing process of self-improvement).
As Tysler signed his aircraft's maintenance forms to close out his mission, VFA-115's commanding officer, Cdr. Eric Devita, quickly but purposefully reviewed the maintenance records for the Super Hornet he would fly during the squadron's third impromptu tanker mission of the night. Flight operations were scheduled to continue well past midnight, and it was proving to be an interesting but challenging conclusion to the day's exercise activity.
Tysler was not originally scheduled to fly his night tanker hop on 8 May. Just 30 minutes after "trapping" at 7:15 p.m. following a self-escort strike mission, he received a call in the Eagles' ready room informing him of his new mission. "They told me, 'You have to go now,'" Tysler said.
Earlier in the evening, a U.S. Air Force KC-135 aircraft scheduled to provide aerial refueling services to Lincoln's Carrier Air Wing 14 (CVW 14) suffered an engine failure during its takeoff roll at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., forcing it to abort its mission.
Two of VFA-115's Super Hornets, already fitted with drop tanks, were quickly pressed into service to refuel four of Abraham Lincoln's fighters flying critical defensive-counterair (DCA) missions against "enemy" forces participating in the JTFEX. Tysler launched for his tanker mission just 37 minutes after receiving the call to action. As a result, there was no gap in DCA coverage or in the aerial protection provided for the battle group.
Following hasty discussions among the CVW 14 staff, Devita, and Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, commander of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Battle Group, Devita was ordered to configure a third Super Hornet with drop tanks for refueling duty. The squadron's enlisted-maintenance personnel began immediately to move three large drop tanks from the Lincoln's cavernous hangar deck to the flight deck above. The Eagles' maintenance crew faced the difficult task of installing them--dangerous work on a dark and slippery deck--while flight operations continued.
"I estimated it would take my people five hours to reconfigure my aircraft," Devita later told Sea Power. "They were on the roof for 2.5 hours and finished the job. I knew they were good--but I did not know they were that good!" Under routine conditions, a day may elapse before an aircraft can be reconfigured for a tanker mission and flight tested to ensure that fuel can be transferred properly.
The night's tanking missions assumed even greater urgency when the pilot of another Lincoln F/A-18C Hornet--already at a low fuel state--reported that he was unable to lower the aircraft's landing gear during his approach to the carrier. The risk of losing the aircraft was real if the Hornet could not be refueled in time to allow its pilot to troubleshoot the discrepancy at a higher altitude.
Devita was ready, however. Following his catapult launch, he used his Raytheon APG-73 radar and IFF (identification friend or foe) system to easily locate and identify the troubled Hornet circling with the other "friendlies" in the "giant conga line" of orbiting aircraft. The same systems allowed Devita to rendezvous with and join on the Hornet quickly to transfer his precious supply of jet fuel.
Once refueled, the Hornet pilot soon identified the source of the problem with his landing gear--a circuit breaker had popped. After it was reset the gear worked properly, and the Hornet made an uneventful landing on the Abraham Lincoln.
The critical role that VFA-115's maintenance personnel played in reconfiguring Devita's aircraft in an incredibly short time was not lost on senior officers on the Abraham Lincoln. Later that night, Capt. Scott Swift, CVW-14's deputy commander, stopped by the squadron's maintenance-control office.
"Tell the troops they did a great job," he told Master Chief Aviation Maintenance Administrationman Ferrell Briggs. As the squadron's maintenance control master chief petty officer, Briggs is responsible for overseeing and assigning all maintenance work performed on VFA-115's aircraft.
A Revolution in Strike Warfare
Multimission flexibility, high readiness rates, ease of maintenance, greater survivability, and more potent combat capabilities are earning the Super Hornet high marks during its current transition to active service in the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Commenting on the performance of VFA-115 and its Super Hornets during May's JTFEX, Kelly told Sea Power, "We are getting an aircraft that does two critical things much better than existing airplanes--it can carry more ordnance and it can haul a lot more gas. As a result, it buys me flexibility across the air wing and changes the way that we can employ all of our forces--not just how we would employ one new capability."
Noted Scott: "Whoever is most flexible is going to win."
When VFA-115 takes its 12 F/A-18E single-seat Super Hornets to sea on the Abraham Lincoln this summer for their first operational deployment, it will, according to Capt. Jeffrey A. Wieringa, the aircraft's program manager at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), mark the beginning of a new era for naval aviation--capping a decade's development effort to design a new Navy tactical aircraft based on the combat-proven F/A-18 Hornet.
Since assuming his program-management duties at NAVAIR in April 2000, Wieringa has executed five major initiatives to sustain the Super Hornet's smooth transition from development to fleet operations. "One of the key items is to ensure that its first three deployments are successful," Wieringa told Sea Power. "My logic is that if we can make the first three deployments successfully, we will have the process down pat." Noting that it has been 20 years since the Navy has taken a new strike-fighter to sea, Wieringa emphasized that the Super Hornet represents leading-edge technology and is a very new airplane.
Lt. Cdr. Daniel Van Orden, NAVAIR's site-activation coordinator for the Super Hornet, continues to help fleet warfighters and maintenance personnel at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore adjust to a new airplane and the requirements associated with its integrated logistics support--training, manpower, publications, technical data, and computer-resources support. Van Orden meets with Super Hornet squadron personnel at Lemoore periodically to ensure that fleet-customer needs are being met.
"I thank my lucky stars that we have a new aircraft in production," said Vice Adm. John B. Nathman, commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMNAVAIRPAC). "With the age of our force we need a new airplane and all of its warfighting gains. Super Hornet brings about a revolution in strike warfare's capability and capacity on our flight decks--its combination of range, payload capability, and survivability will give a carrier air wing 10 times the striking power that an air wing had during Desert Storm."
Four squadrons assigned to AIRPAC are now flying Super Hornets. In addition to VFA-115 and VFA-122 (the Super Hornet fleet replacement squadron based at NAS Lemoore), VFA-14 and VFA-41 (flying the two-seat "F" model) were certified "safe for flight" on 1 April and 1 May, respectively. VFA-102--following its wartime deployment on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and a homeport change from Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., early this spring--entered the training pipeline at Lemoore on 29 April.
Although the Super Hornet represents an evolutionary extension of the Hornet's basic design, it is a new aircraft incorporating a larger airframe, upgraded engines, greater survivability features, and a more powerful sting in its improved combat systems in both strike and fighter profiles. Throughout its development, the Navy-industry team responsible for its design went to great lengths to meet the needs of the warfighter and the maintenance personnel tasked to keep their aircraft in an "up" status at peak readiness.
Ask any individual associated with the Super Hornet to describe the program and the phrase "teamwork" inevitably arises. Nathman praised the cooperation displayed by Super Hornet program managers in industry and at NAVAIR in developing such a highly capable aircraft, on schedule and within budget, without excessive risk. Built by the industry team of The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman, General Electric, and Raytheon, the aircraft won the Department of Defense's 1996 Acquisition Excellence Award.
"New Levels of Effectiveness"
A handful of NAVAIR officials played key roles throughout Super Hornet's development. Characteristically, retired Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Cook, the program executive officer for tactical aircraft programs (PEO-T) during much of the Super Hornet's early years, deflected praise to the program's three program managers during the 1990s--Rear Adm. Craig E. Steidle, Vice Adm. Joseph W. Dyer Jr. (NAVAIR's current commander), and Rear Adm. James B. Godwin III (now NAVAIR's PEO-T)--and retired Vice Adm. John A. Lockard, NAVAIR's commander at the time.
"We really did pick three unique Americans to serve as program managers when we needed them most," Cook told Sea Power. "We insisted on having team players of the highest caliber who would put the success of the program above personal ambition and other considerations."
Cook and his associates at NAVAIR all were experienced fleet aviators before entering their specialized fields of aerospace engineering and aircraft development. "We had spent time flying at sea," Cook continued. "We knew the challenges, the loneliness, and the fears. We wanted to do our part to develop one of the best-engineered aircraft in the world--one that would raise perform-ance to new levels of effectiveness and reliability."
Preliminary assessments by pilots and maintenance personnel of all four Super Hornet squadrons indicate that the aspirations and expectations of aeronautical engineers at Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and NAVAIR are being met during the early months of the F/A-18E/F's introduction to the fleet.
"I have 10 'up' aircraft on the roof right now," Devita said on the day following his night-tanker mission. He also reported extremely high mission-completion rates during the long months of training leading up to May's shipboard exercise.
Three months after receiving its "safe-for-flight" certification in the Super Hornet in May 2001 (completing a successful transition within 100 days of returning from deployment), the squadron went through the first Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program (SFARP) with the F/A-18E. Its mission-capable rate was outstanding, AIRPAC officials say, and the squadron was graded higher than any other Navy or Marine Corps squadron over the past three years.
Asked to compare the maintenance record of VFA-115's Super Hornets with the record of older F-14 Tomcat squadrons, Briggs said, "There is no comparison. We are light years ahead--it is the easiest aircraft in the Navy to maintain."
AIRPAC officials confirmed Briggs' assessment. During the past six months, VFA-115's Super Hornets averaged 16.8 maintenance-man hours per flight hour (MMH/FH) to achieve a mission-capable (MC) rate of 71.2 percent. Comparable statistics for another AIRPAC F/A-18C/D Hornet squadron were 21.7 MMH/FH and 63.2 percent MC rate. A Tomcat squadron, by contrast, required 80.6 MMH/FH to achieve a 61.5 percent MC rate. In short, maintenance crews in Tomcat squadrons must work roughly five times as hard to maintain their venerable but aging aircraft.
Navy officials say that the Super Hornet will advance the Hornet's legacy of superior reliability coupled with ease of repair--both of which qualities contribute significantly to higher readiness. Briggs attributed the aircraft's improved maintainability to several factors: (1) an onboard built-in test (BIT) system; (2) easily accessible components; (3) Boeing's supply support under a new performance-based logistics contract (referred to as the FIRST program); and (4) a new system of "paperless" maintenance manuals that are updated every three months on CD-ROM discs (Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals, or IETMs).
Master Chief Aviation Maintenance Administrationman Lawrence Ausmus, VFA-122's maintenance master chief, has logged 15 years of experience working on Hornet strike fighters during his 20-year Navy career. He describes the Super Hornet's reliability and maintainability as "everything the pilots wanted."
A 42 percent reduction in aircraft components (the backup manual flight-control system, for example) and beefed-up structures, including the Super Hornet's landing gear, also contribute to fewer required maintenance hours for every hour of flight.
"The aircraft is the tip of the spear," said Jerry Palmer, Boeing's senior representative at NAS Lemoore. "We are all in this for one purpose, and we are committed to make every Super Hornet deployment successful."
"A Real Team Effort"
As the VFA-115 Eagles prepare to deploy with the Super Hornet during Phase Two of the U.S.-led war on international terrorism, there is a natural tendency to dwell on the aircraft's substantially improved combat capabilities. It will carry every weapon in the naval aviation inventory, including the new J-family (i.e., joint) of through-the-weather precision-guided munitions that proved so effective during the Phase One combat operations of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Additionally, the Super Hornet will carry such proven performers as improved Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, HARMs (high-speed antiradiation missiles), SLAMs (stand-off land-attack missiles), and AMRAAMs (advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles). Also, new and sophisticated systems like the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, the Advanced Targeting FLIR (forward-looking infrared) system, the digital reconnaissance pod, improved data-link systems; and substantially improved self-protection measures will increase the Super Hornet's own survivability.
It would be a mistake, however, to focus solely on the Super Hornet's impressive capabilities if one is to gain a richer appreciation of the critical roles played by a host of supporting organizations in making VFA-115's deployment a reality. VFA-115 and the Super Hornet will deservedly take center stage, but this summer's deployment culminates many years of preparation and activity on the part of many units and individuals.
Development testing at Naval Weapons Warfare Center China Lake, Calif., by the F/A-18 Weapons Test Squadron--and, later, by the Navy's tactical aircraft Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX-9)--facilitated the full integration of the Super Hornet's systems, the development of new tactics, and the identification of design changes needed before full-rate production could proceed.
At NAS Lemoore, the Navy's largest and most modern master air station for jet aircraft, a 10-year, $559 million infrastructure improvement plan is underway to support the increased number of fleet squadrons stationed at the base. "It is a real team effort," Capt. John V. Stivers, Lemoore's commanding officer, told Sea Power, "involving a host of basic facilities."
Lemoore's state-of-the-art Naval Air Maintenance Training Unit (NAMTRAU), for example, allows Sailors to learn how to maintain the Super Hornet and Hornet as effectively, and as cost-effectively, as possible. Automated electronic classrooms, modern trainers and test benches, simulated cockpits, and actual aircraft engines and major systems support 72 different maintenance courses and 47 training pipelines for more than 6,000 students during fiscal year 2002.
NAMTRAU's staff of highly experienced senior enlisted instructors has literally "written the book" on how to teach young technicians (19- to 20-years old, on average) to maintain aircraft properly and safely using new digital maintenance manuals and record systems.
In their role as the Navy's only Super Hornet fleet replacement squadron, the Flying Eagles of VFA-122 developed and adapted multiple syllabuses to train pilots and weapon systems officers in both single-seat (E) and dual-seat (F) models of the Super Hornet. The often relentless pressure to produce qualified pilots in time to meet fleet deployment schedules has not distracted the squadron's leadership from focusing on long-range goals, however.
"A favorite phrase in our business lately is 'seed corn,'" said Cdr. Mark Adamshick, VFA-122's commanding officer. "If you do not plan to train and develop your seed corn--the young pilots and maintenance technicians--you might be able to succeed in the short term, but you will not address where the community must be five to ten years down the road."
Adamshick's emphasis on quality of work and life helps to sustain a positive training environment--an assignment that, because of the unit's rigorous training schedule, has been compared to "being on cruise 365 days a year." VFA-122 personnel and spouses traveled to NAS Oceana early in 2001 to help East Coast squadrons prepare for their upcoming homeport change. A half-inch- thick Spouses Support Group Orientation Booklet was written to ease their relocation.
The men and women of the USS Abraham Lincoln also play a special role in supporting VFA-115 and its aircraft during the upcoming deployment.
New magazines, maintenance equipment, and an aviation maintenance-parts allowance all have been put in place on the ship to ensure that VFA-115 is provided the same high-quality support as other squadrons.
Capt. Douglas K. Dupouy, commanding officer of the Abraham Lincoln, describes the Super Hornet's integration into the air wing and carrier operations as "remarkably successful.
"You expect to have some issues," he told Sea Power, "but they have been nonexistent."
The Abraham Lincoln also will be the first aircraft carrier to deploy with the new Naval Fires Network (NFN) system--a network-centric warfare system that provides the means to obtain and share real-time intelligence and targeting data in a joint or coalition environment. "It is about as joint as you can get for a C4I [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence] system for seamless communications in a collaborative environment," Cdr. Norman Hayes, the Lincoln's intelligence officer, told Sea Power.
The Road Ahead
East Coast squadrons now transitioning to the Super Hornet at Lemoore surmounted uniquely difficult circumstances during the past year. The men, women, and families of U.S. Atlantic Fleet squadrons--the VFA-14 Tophatters, VFA-41 Black Aces, and VFA-102 Diamondbacks--relocated to California following wartime deployments on the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2001 and 2002. After returning to their home station at Oceana, Va., they turned in their F-14 Tomcats for a final time and drove west for the change of homeports.
"The majority of our squadron was on the way to California within two weeks of returning in early November," said Cdr. Brian G. Gawne, commanding officer of VFA-41. "By Thanksgiving, probably two-thirds of our folks were already here."
Later this year, VFA-14 and VFA-41 will follow VFA-115 to the fleet in Carrier Air Wing 11. When they deploy with the USS Nimitz Carrier Battle Group in 2003, it will be the Navy's first air wing outfitted with an all-Hornet/Super Hornet strike-fighter complement.
By that time, the numerous "lessons learned" from VFA-115's initial Super Hornet deployment during the war on terrorism will have been carefully studied and applied. "We will do every job the boss asks us to do," Devita told Sea Power, "and we will show the value of this airplane. We have the people who can fly it to its full capability."
That outlook extends across the ranks of VFA-115's officer and enlisted personnel. "Without a doubt," said Master Chief Petty Officer Briggs, "someone will be in trouble if we unleash on them." *
Super Hornet at a Glance
35% higher thrust with F414-GE-400 enhanced perform-ance engines
33% increase in internal fuel (unrefueled combat range of 661 nautical miles)
can carry five external 480-gallon fuel tanks for aerial refueling missions
survivability enhancements (improved standoff lethality and countermeasures, low-observable technology, reduced vulnerability)
9,000-plus pounds "bringback" capability for fuel and weapons
additional payload flexibility with 11 weapons stations
avionics upgrades (with 90% commonality with C/D models)
room to grow (14.0 cubic feet of unused volume in larger airframe)
A View from the Cockpit
"They will be ingressing as a section. They will attack us as the bad guys. We will give them a presentation and, ideally, they'll kill us before going on to their target area to drop their bombs. Off target we'll give them another presentation that will be tougher. They should do what they need to do--execute their tactics and kill us."
Lt. Daniel Baxter, an instructor pilot assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 122 at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., provided a shorthand brief for the afternoon's training mission on 11 April with two "Cat 1" students--newly designated naval aviators assigned to the "Flying Eagles" fleet replacement squadron for training and qualification in the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The 2.0-hour hop would be the first time the students combined air-to-ground and air-to-air missions simultaneously on one run into a target area (located in a training area over the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains east of Lemoore's San Joaquin Valley in central California). I rode in the back seat of Baxter's F/A-18F strike fighter to observe the mission.
"They are required to protect themselves on a self-escort strike into the target area," Baxter continued, "just like they will in the fleet."
Baxter's premission briefing with the student pilots and other squadron instructor pilots was much more extensive. Lasting nearly two hours, it detailed all important tactical, safety, and procedural requirements. The student pilots had carrier qualified in the Super Hornet some weeks before, and the training mission was planned to give them some insights into the more advanced--and demanding--training they could expect after they report to their fleet squadrons.
For the first hour of the training flight, Baxter (formerly an F-14 Tomcat pilot) and his wingman were perched high over the target area in an orbit that ranged in altitude between 18,000 and 20,000 feet. The Super Hornet's touch-screen digital displays, electronic systems, and powerful radar presented a complete tactical picture of each student's run. Superb cockpit visibility also offered a panoramic view of what pilots describe as the "splendid desolation" of their arid, mountainous training area and--for fleeting seconds during head-on encounters--their opposition aircraft.
During low-level operations, the Super Hornet handled smoothly and responsively in steep four-to-six "G" diving turns and "nap-of-the-earth" bombing runs executed at speeds averaging 450 knots and at altitudes as low as 200 feet above ground level. Far too early, it seemed, it was time to return to Lemoore.
"I came here hoping to help lead the way with the Tomcat community's transition to their replacement aircraft in the E and F [Super Hornet]," Baxter said after our return to his squadron's ready room. "It is a great opportunity, especially qualifying crews to perform FAC-A [forward air control-airborne] missions so important during operations in Afghanistan."
The pilots and maintenance personnel assigned to VFA-122 work hard to move students through the demanding training syllabus and to keep their Super Hornets ready. There is clear recognition of the importance of the squadron's mission to the future of naval aviation.
"This is a good squadron to be a part of and a good environment to work in," Baxter said. "All of the instructors are top performers who are working long hours to make a better community for the Super Hornet." How did the two CAT-1 students perform during the training hop, I asked. "Just fine," said Baxter. GIP