“So which is better?”
It’s the first question aviation enthusiasts ask me when they find out I’ve been lucky enough to fly both the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet and the Lockheed-Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon. And like any good fighter pilot, my answer is almost always, “It depends.”
Like comparing a Ford Shelby Mustang GT500 to a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, it’s a rivalry that often boils down to operator preference and skill– a head-to-head battle that rarely disappoints and sometimes comes down to what one pilot had for breakfast, or how much sleep the other got.
Of course, in that comparison, there’s also the Navy versus Air Force comparison that also invariably pops up. Although fighting under the same Department of Defense under the same American flag, the two services can be drastically different, affecting how each aircraft is employed.
In this series, I’m going to give my perspective from an operator’s point of view. Beyond the rivalries and the rhetoric, we’ll take a look at some of the basic differences in piloting America’s lightweight strike fighters.
The competition between the Hornet and the Viper began at birth. As a result of Vietnam-era lessons learned in dogfighting, the Air Force called for a new lightweight fighter with a high thrust-to-weight ratio in the early 1970s. Out of the five finalists participating in the Lightweight Fighter Program, the YF-16 and YF-17 were born.
Put forth by Northrop, the YF-17 “Cobra” was derived from the F-5E and featured longer fuselage leading-edge root extensions, two powerful General Electric YJ101-GE100 turbofan engines, partial fly-by-wire control, and twin vertical stabilizers. In testing, the aircraft attained a top speed of Mach 1.95, a peak load factor of 9.4G, and demonstrated the ability to sustain 34 degrees angle of attack in level flight.
At its plant in Fort Worth, TX, General Dynamics rolled out its YF-16 competitor. Like the YF-17, the YF-16 was a 9G-capable supersonic fighter weighing in at just under 20,000 pounds. The single tail fighter had only one engine, sharing the same Pratt and Whitney F100 engine as the F-15.
The competition was fierce, but on January 13, 1975, the Air Force declared the YF-16 to be the winner, citing superior acceleration, climb rates, endurance, turn rates, and engine commonality with the F-15. Five months later, the Navy announced that it had selected the YF-17 under its Navy Air combat Fighter competition, and the F/A-18 Hornet was born.
Forty years later, the aircraft in service today barely resemble their prototype grandparents. The F-16C Blocks 30, 40, and 50 have all been upgraded, sporting advanced radar software, datalink, color displays, and helmet-mounted cueing systems. The aircraft has matured from a lightweight fighter to a capable multi-role aircraft that has seen combat all over the world.
The F/A-18A-D Hornet and F/A-18E-F Super Hornet have seen similar upgrades. The aircraft is bigger and more capable than its YF-17 Cobra granddad, but also heavier and slightly less maneuverable. It has traded some of its lightweight fighter capabilities to become a more robust and durable strike fighter.
Today, the missions of these aircraft are very similar. Both aircraft are capable of fighting their way into a contested environment, dropping precision guided bombs, and fighting their way back out. They are both active in the Middle East providing Close Air Support to troops on the ground using advanced targeting pods, and both aircraft can be called upon to provide defensive counter-air to protect high value targets like ships and air bases from air threats.
I’ve been fortunate to fly the F-16 Block 25, 30, and 42 as well as the F/A-18A,B,C and D. Although I have four times as many hours in the F-16 as I do in the F/A-18, I think both jets are phenomenal aircraft, and in the right hands, they’re equally deadly to a potential adversary. There are hundreds of pilots that have flown both, and I’m sure that if you ask all of them, you’ll get a hundred different opinions on the pros and cons of each. These are just my own humble musings on the topic.
With that said, as I go through these comparisons, some of the differences are nothing more than different ways of doing business between the Air Force and Navy. To Air Force guys, some of the Navy methods may leave them scratching their noggins, while the same is probably true for Navy guys reading about Air Force techniques. A lot of it is personal preference and based solely on training. I was trained by the Air Force and transitioned later in my career. Most guys who fly both start out in Hornets and later transition to the Air Force and F-16s, so it’s important to keep that in mind.
So with the ground school/disclaimers out of the way, in the next edition I’ll talk about the differences in ground ops from suiting up to takeoff.