The Blue Angels’ F/A-18A/B/CD Hornets are some of the oldest and used-up fighters in the Navy and Marine Corps inventory. Recently, the Angels have had control surfaces break off in mid-flight, and their serviceability is not improving. As a result, the Navy has asked Boeing to come up with plans to convert Super Hornets into a configuration that actually makes sense for a group of flying acrobats.
Read the article linked below for full background on this topic.
These modifications would theoretically include removing the jet’s 20mm Vulcan cannon, enhancing the the aircraft’s fuel systems for prolonged inverted flight, adding an oil tank and extra plumbing to the Super Hornet’s exhaust for the smoke system, as well as other smaller changes. It may also include the addition of some extra forward tension to the jet’s control stick for more precision – something currently done by just adding a heavy spring.
But is transitioning the Blue Angels, a non-combat unit, to Super Hornets a smart move? The earliest operational Super Hornets entered the fleet in the early 2000s, the oldest Hornets operating today are from the early 1980s. The fact that front line units and heavily tasked reserve units, which often perform aggressor duties, will have to soldier on with aging legacy Hornets while the Blue Angels get not only newer, but more capable Super Hornets might be a bit silly. Even worse, there may be a possibility that a Navy reserve squadron could get shuttered due to a lack of serviceable aircraft.
With this in mind, one would think the Blue Angels would carry on flying legacy Hornets until the type fully ages out of service, a scenario which won’t happen for well over decade. This could change if the Navy decides to step farther away from the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter and continue to buy squadrons of Super Hornets in the coming years. Such a move may allow for enough aircraft to be available in the fleet to make such a transition appear more logical.
The U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds currently fly late-model Block 52 F-16C/Ds. As such, there is a contemporary precedent within the Pentagon for an American demonstration team getting relatively young and highly capable mounts, even if it doesn’t mean providing late-model hardware to the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels makes a lot of sense.
The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds jets can be converted relatively easily back to front-line condition, and the Thunderbirds have proven it before. Yet when you have a shrinking a force, and money is tight, this is a small factor to consider when making such a decision.
The Blue Angels’ mission is an important one that needs to continue, and our crews deserve more than aircraft that are literally falling apart in the air. Yet the decision to convert the Blue Angels over to Super Hornets is not as simple as some would like you to believe. If in doing so, we lose active and reserve squadrons, and end strength overall, or leave one of these squadrons with the gear the Blue Angels would otherwise utilize, it may not be a good decision.
The tightrope NAVAIR is walking right now when it comes to managing its fighter fleets is a result of high operational tempos over the last 15 years and the delays and costs associated with the F-35C program. These factors are then balanced against current operational needs and the politics and fiscal realities of keeping the Super Hornet production line open. As with anything F-35 related, if the Navy continues to buy less than optimum per year, theoretically costs for the program overall could rise. If this practice is executed by the Air Force as well, they could skyrocket. The truth is that this is already happening.
The Super Hornet, although not as athletic in some ways as its Hornet predecessor, would offer the Blue Angels a large increase in range, which would allow them to be less dependent on aerial refueling in some cases. Additionally, the jet is larger, which could give the team’s formations a fuller look, and its slow-speed handling and nose-pointing abilities could enhance the solos’ energetic performances. Beyond punching up the Blue’s already intense show, the “Rhino” would offer the team more reliable aircraft with enhanced support.
The Navy’s request to Boeing for an engineering plan is not the same as making this transition happen, far from it really, but it is a start.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Photos via Tyler Rogoway/Foxtrot Alpha