The RAAF’s fleet of 71 McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18A/B ‘classic’ Hornets passed a fleet total milestone of 400,000 flying hours in August.
The RAAF took delivery of 57 single-seat F/A-18As and 18 dual-seat F/A-18B ‘tubs’ between 1985 and 1990, with all but four having been manufactured at Avalon in Australia from imported and locally produced components. The aircraft is currently operated by 2OCU and 77SQN at RAAF Williamtown, and 75SQN at RAAF Tindal. Williamtown-based 3SQN converted from the F/A-18A to the F-35A in 2018, and 2OCU is scheduled to follow in early 2020. 77SQN and 75SQN are due to follow at roughly 12 month intervals.
For an aircraft with a designed 6,000 hour service-life, the fleet average of 5,333 hours per aircraft is an impressive one when attrition is taken into account and, until recently, the fleet had two dedicated test aircraft.
Eleven of a planned 49 RAAF Hornets received new fuselage centre-barrel structural replacements in the mid-2000s which added at least up to 4,000 additional flight hours to their service lives. But the rest of the centre-barrel program was discontinued when DSTO testing found the components that had been removed from RAAF and Canadian Hornets were not as fatigued as had been feared.
Instead, the entire fleet has received less-invasive upgrades to landing gear, wings, engine mounts and other key components as part of structural refurbishment Phases 3.1 and 3.2 of the broader Project AIR 5376 Hornet Upgrade Program.
During its RAAF service life, just four Hornets have been lost in accidents, three of which have been attributed to pilot error. Compared to a projected attrition rate of 11 aircraft by half life-of-type (c.2004), this is a remarkable endorsement of the aircraft’s rugged design and systems redundancy.
The milestone comes two and a half years before the Hornet is scheduled to be retired from RAAF service, to be replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Several Hornets have already been retired as they have become due for major servicings, and two of a planned 25 F/A-18A/Bs have been transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force to bolster its fleet of similar CF-18s pending a replacement decision being made by the Canadian Government in 2020/21.