US Navy Blue Angels Receive First F/A-18 Super Hornet at Pensacola!

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It's a new dawn for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels as the sun rises on July 30, 2020 over the Blue Angels first F/A-18 Super Hornet to arrive in Pensacola The Blue Angels will be the featured performers at the 2021 KC Air Show Presented by Garmin July 3-4, 2021 at New Century AirCenter.

Updated 8/5/20

There was some exciting news from the U.S. Navy Blue Angels last week.  The team announced that they have accepted their first F/A-18 Super Hornet at their headquarters in Pensacola.  The team will be transitioning to the Super Hornet during this upcoming off-season in preparation to perform as a full team beginning with the 2021 season.  Of course, the KC Air Show Presented by Garmin is excited to have been selected to host the Blue Angels for their special 75th anniversary performance in the new Super Hornets July 3 & 4, 2021 at New Century AirCenter.

Initially designed in the late 1980s, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is a large twin-engined, carrier-launched fighter with a crew of one (E model) or two (F). With a 60-plus foot fuselage, a wingspan over 44 feet and a pair of General Electric F414 engines producing a noisy 44,000 total pounds of thrust in afterburner, the Super Hornet is essentially a 25 percent larger, updated version of the Legacy Hornet the team flies now.

While the Blues have been doing flyovers and rehearsing in hopes of resuming the 2020 airshow season, they’ve had a second team at work on the transition to the Super Hornet, nicknamed the “Rhino”. Former Blue Angels leader, Navy Captain Eric “Popeye” Doyle, who led the Blues during the 2018-2019 seasons has stayed aboard to lead a smaller team which is overseeing the transition.

Along with four others, all former Blue Angel pilots and maintenance officers, Doyle has been planning for the acceptance of the first Super Hornets to the Blues’ base at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Eleven aircraft will be delivered this year.

The Blue Angels Super Hornets are the oldest F/A-18E/Fs still in the Navy inventory, early production (Block 21/22) aircraft that the first Super Hornet squadron (VFA-115) used for training Rhino pilots in the early 2000s. Doyle flew Super Hornets in 2003 during their first carrier deployment aboard the USS Lincoln.

First the Super Hornets are being refurbished and modified for the Blue Angels’ air show-specific requirements in Jacksonville, Florida at Boeing’s Cecil Field facility. The airplanes will have special fuel pumps added to allow them to fly inverted for longer than a stock Rhino as well as a 40-pound spring linked to the control stick which resists movement, helping pilots to make smaller control inputs. Tanks for airshow smoke chemicals, a stopwatch for timing maneuvers, and civilian-friendly avionics will be added as well as the requisite blue and gold paint scheme.

Lieutenant Commander Garrett Hopkins, who was the Blues’ maintenance officer during the 2018-19 seasons, is now on the transition team too. Blue Angel maintainers have Legacy Hornet maintenance down to a science. But they’ll have to learn what the Rhino needs and how it wears and tears over a show season.

Generators and mission computers are typical items that need to be replaced on the road but their larger size and weight in the Super Hornet makes packing them tough. The specific fatigue life of some parts hasn’t been determined because Super Hornets don’t have the high number of flying hours that the Legacy Hornet fleet accrued. The composite construction of the Super Hornet will be tougher to inspect and possibly repair as well.

As aircraft are delivered, Hopkins will better understand their needs. He’s already obtaining Super Hornet-specific tools and parts, a tougher job now that the Blues are competing for the same spares as Fleet squadrons.

The first partially modified Blue Angels Super Hornet was sent to the Navy’s flight test center at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland in May to test its new airshow modifications. Doyle has flown some of the show maneuvers in a Super Hornet simulator, giving him initial impressions of how the airplane will fly compared to the Legacy Hornet.

“The aileron roll for example will be a little bit slower, maybe a bit more sluggish. How is it going to roll or loop in [diamond] formation? We have some reasonable idea of what to expect based on [flying] the simulator at Patuxent River but we really have to get in the airplane and feel it.”

Blue Angel wingmen fly by feel as much as by sight, adjusting the Hornet’s engine power without looking at their throttles. The Rhino’s throttle-by-wire system may be an advantage since power setting is based on the throttle handle angle.

“In a Super Hornet with FADEC [Full Authority Digital Engine Control] that’s going to be darn near the same spot every time,” Doyle says, leading pilots to develop simple muscle memory.

That computer may require some work-arounds. In the pirouette maneuver done by Blue Angel solos with the current Hornet (which has its own FCS), the pilot points the nose skyward, kicks full rudder and the airplane yaws/rolls around itself. But the stock Rhino’s flight control software won’t let a pilot do that.

“So we had to build in a little ‘notch’ into the flight control computers to allow us to do a pirouette,” Doyle says.

It’s one of many nuances that Blue Angel pilots will learn - from taxiing the larger jets together to using new visual references on the aircraft to hold formation. Aiming to limit wear and tear on the jets, the transition team is looking at ways to fly the Super Hornets a bit less aggressively while still performing an impressive show.

Doyle, who did an operational test tour with the Air Force, plans to apply a methodical approach to readying pilots for the Rhino.

“From the walk-down to the startup to the smoke checks, taxiing, takeoffs, landings… our goal on the transition team is to get as much of the procedures ironed out as we can before we hand off operations to the full team.”

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Empty Weight - F/A-18E: 32,100lb (14,552kg)

Max Takeoff Weight - 66,000lb (29,937kg)

Thrust - Each engine up to 17,000lbs

Carrier Bringback Payload - F/A-18E: 9,900lb (4,491kg)
F/A-18E: 9,000lb (4,082kg)

Field Landing Weight - 50,600lbs

Speed - Mach 1.6

Length - 60' 2"

Wingspan - 42' 10"

Height - 16'

G Limits - +7.5 to -3.0

Engines - Two General Electric F414-GE-400 engines

Range - 1,275 nmi (1,458 mi, 2,346 km)

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