Hornet Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A fighter and attack aircraft that represents one of the first truly multirole military aircraft.


One of the most successful combat aircraft in history, the F/A-18 Hornet finds its orgins in the failure of another aircraft, its precursor, the Cobra. Designed by the Northrop Corporation in the late 1960’s, the Cobra was a lightweight, multimission aircraft offered to the air forces of smaller nations that could not afford large numbers of separately dedicated fighter and attack aircraft.

Although the Cobra was a capable aircraft, it found no takers. However, an opportunity emerged in the early 1970’s, when the U.S. Air Force solicited proposals for a lightweight fighter design. Air Force fighters of the early 1960’s, such as the F-4 Phantom II, relied on long-range missiles as their primary armament. During the Vietnam War, however, the Air Force found itself engaging smaller, more agile Soviet-built fighters in close-combat situations, in which the pilots of the U.S. aircraft could not use their missiles and had difficulty outmaneuvering their smaller adversaries.

The purpose of the new aircraft design search was to reverse the trend of increasingly larger and more expensive aircraft. The Air Force planned to build hundreds of the lightweight fighters to counter the Soviet threat to Western Europe at the height of the Cold War. In January, 1972, the Air Force opened the Lightweight Fighter Program (LFP) by soliciting design bids from various aircraft producers. Northrop responded with an updated version of the Cobra, labeled the YF-17. A year later, the Air Force selected the YF-17 and an offering from General Dynamics, the YF-16, for prototype production, and both aircraft flew in 1974.

The two designs had significant differences. The Northrop aircraft featured two smaller engines with twin vertical tails, whereas the General Dynamics craft had a single large engine and a single tail fin. The YF-16 carried a limited armament of short-range air-to-air missiles and an internal 20-millimeter cannon. In comparison, the YF-17 carried the same weaponry, but also featured advanced radar capable of guiding medium-range air-to-air missiles. Despite meeting all of the flight requirements and possessing a greater range of weapons, the YF-17 lost the competition to the less expensive YF-16 in 1975.

This defeat was not the end of the Cobra, however. By 1975, the U.S. Navy had opened its Carrier Fighter and Attack, Experimental (VFAX) competition to find a new strike fighter for its aircraft carriers. The new Navy aircraft, in replacing two different aircraft, would have to perform multiple tasks in limited carrier deck space. The Navy wanted the new airplane to replace the F-4 Phantom II, an air-defense fighter with a secondary attack capability, and the A-7 Corsair II, a dedicated light attack aircraft. Northrop gained the upper hand in the VFAX competition by teaming with McDonnell Douglas Corporation, a company with a long history of building carrier aircraft for the Navy. Northrop and McDonnell Douglas adapted the original land-based Cobra design into a that of a carrier-based strike fighter, adopting the new designation XF-18 Hornet to signify the emergence of a new plane from the XF-17 Cobra. With McDonnell Douglas now acting as the lead company in the aircraft’s development, the Navy selected the XF-18 Hornet as its VFAX winner in 1976. Final design work proceeded, and the single-seat F/A-18A and two-seat F/A-18B became operational in 1983.

The redesigned Hornet immediately proved its worth. The Navy had originally intended to produce separate versions of the Hornet in F-18 fighter and A-18 attack models. The advanced radar originally installed for the LFP, however, proved capable of handling both missions, and separate variants never emerged. As a multimission aircraft, the Hornet became the only airplane with the F/A designation, symbolizing its dual role of air defense and attack.

In 1987, the Navy took delivery of its first improved Hornets, the single-seat F/A-18C and the two-seat F/A-18D, with provisions for Maverick air-to-surface missiles, AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, and advanced avionics for night flying. The popularity of the Hornet eventually led the Navy’s precision-flying team, the Blue Angels, to adopt the agile aircraft in 1986. The Hornet’s multimission capability attracted several other buyers; the U.S. Marine Corps replaced its F-4 Phantoms, A-4 Skyhawks, and A-6 Intruders with the Hornet. The Hornet is also employed by the air forces of Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain, and Switzerland.


The Hornet F/A-18 boasts an excellent combat record. It first entered combat in 1986, when the United States bombed the North African country of Libya in retaliation for that nation’s support of terrorist organizations and the bombing deaths of U.S. citizens. In support of the air raids, Hornets from the USS Coral Sea destroyed Libyan air defense sites with HARM antiradar missiles.

Hornets also participated in Operation Desert Storm, the 1990-1991 military campaing to end Iraqi occupation of its neighboring nation, Kuwait. In this conflict, the Hornet’s flexibility proved to be its biggest asset. F/A-18’s destroyed Iraqi patrol boats that threatened Allied ships with antiship missiles, provided air defense for coalition forces, and bombed Iraqi targets in support of the ground offensive. The best example of the F/A-18’s flexibility during the Gulf War happened when two Hornets on a bombing mission came under attack from two Iraqi fighters. Without dropping their bombs, the Hornet pilots switched their radars to air defense mode, shot down the Iraqi aircraft, switched their radars back to ground attack, and finished their bombing run.

The Hornet continues to receive upgrades that will keep it in service for years to come. In 1995, the prototype F/A-18E Super Hornet made its first flight. Designed to replace U.S. Navy A-6 Intruders and F-14 Tomcats, the Super Hornet is 25 percent larger than earlier F/A-18’s, with a corresponding increase in capability.

  • Drendel, Lou. F/A-18 Hornet in Action. Carrollton, Tex.: Squadron, 1993. A study of the F/A-18, from its F-17 origins to its combat in the Gulf War, featuring many photographs.
  • Gandt, Robert L. Bogeys and Bandits: The Making of a Fighter Pilot. New York: Penguin, 1998. A description of U.S. Navy fighter pilot training, from recruitment to assignment to an active F/A-18 squadron.
  • Jenkins, Dennis R. F/A-18 Hornet: A Navy Success Story. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Details the development of the F/A-18 as a best-case example of the Pentagon’s weapons-systems acquisition process.
  • Kelly, Orr. Hornet: The Inside Story of the F/A-18. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 1991. A brief summary of the F/A-18’s career, complete with photographs of various Hornet models from all the nations flying the aircraft.

Air Force, U.S.

Aircraft carriers


Fighter pilots

Gulf War

Marine pilots, U.S.

McDonnell Douglas

Navy pilots, U.S.


Vietnam War

F/A-18 Hornet Characteristics

F/A-18C, F/A-18DF/A-18E, F/A-18FPrimary FunctionMultirole attack and fighter aircraftMultirole attack and fighter aircraftBuilderMcDonnell Douglas (prime), Northrop (major subcontractor)McDonnell DouglasUnit Cost$24 million$35 millionPropulsionTwo F404-GE-402 enhanced performance turbofan enginesTwo F414-GE-400 turbofan enginesThrust per Engine (pounds static thrust)17,700 22,000 Length (feet)56 60.3 Height (feet)15.316 Maximum Takeoff Gross Weight (pounds)51,900 66,000 Wingspan (feet)40.444.9 Ceiling (feet)50,000+50,000+SpeedMach 1.7+Mach 1.8+CrewC model, 1; D model, 2E model, 1; F model, 2ArmamentOne M61A1/A2 Vulcan 20-millimeter cannonOne M61A1/A2 Vulcan 20-millimeter cannonExternal PayloadAIM 9 Sidewinder, AIM 7 Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAM, Harpoon, HARM, Shrike, SLAM, SLAM-ER, Walleye, and Maverick missiles; Joint Stand-Off Weapon; Joint Direct Attack Munition; various general-purpose bombs, mines, and rocketsAIM 9 Sidewinder, AIM 7 Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAM, Harpoon, HARM, Shrike, SLAM, SLAM-ER, Walleye, and Maverick missiles; Joint Stand-Off Weapon; Joint Direct Attack Munition; various general-purpose bombs, mines, and rocketsDate DeployedNovember, 1978 (first flight) December, 1995 (first flight)Source: Data taken from (www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/factfile/aircraft/air-fa18.html), November 6, 2001.

Categories: History