The first production F/A-18C Hornet made its maiden flight on September 2, 1987.
During the mid-1970s the Navy was directed to evaluate two aircraft then under consideration by the U.S. Air Force to fulfill its requirement for a lightweight fighter. While the Air Force selected the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Navy chose to pursue development of the Northrop YF-17, which after McDonnell-Douglas was selected as the prime contractor for production, became the F/A-18 Hornet.
The Hornet was a true multimission platform designed to execute the air-t0-air mission of a traditional fighter and the air-to-ground strike mission of attack aircraft. It appeared in multiple versions, including the two-seat F/A-18D employed primarily by the Marine Corps.
The first version of the Hornet, the F/A-18A, entered operational service with the VMFA-314 Black Knights in 1982. The so-called Legacy Hornet made its combat debut in strikes against Libya and participated in every major air action that followed to include Operations Desert Storm, Desert Fox, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom as well as combat missions over Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the F/A-18D remains operational, single-seat jets were retired from front-line service in 2021. The Hornet also operated with the famed Blue Angels between 1987 and 2020.
The Museum’s Aircraft:
The F/A-18C on display in the museum, Bureau Number 163508, is one of two Hornets that shot down a pair of Iraqi MiG-21 Fishbed fighters on January 17, 1991, the first day of Operation Desert Storm. Flown by LCDR Mark “MRT” Fox of the VFA-81 Sunliners, the jet launched from USS Saratoga (CV 60) as part of a strike against an Iraqi airfield. En route to the target, reports of enemy aircraft shifted the pilots’ focus and Fox soon fired a missile at one of the approaching MiG-21s.
“I heard the [AIM-9] Sidewinder’s distinctive growl at the same time I saw the speck of the Iraqi fighter, and squeezed the trigger. The missile fired like a passing train…then simply disappeared,” he recalled. Having launched Sidewinders in training, Fox remembered that they normally gave off a telltale plume of white smoke, but forgot that on this day he carried ones with smokeless motors. He launched an AIM-7 Sparrow for good measure, watching it track toward the enemy airplane. Before it hit, his AIM-9 impacted with a “bright flash and cloud of black smoke.” The Sparrow followed suit, and Fox observed that the “front of the Iraqi MiG-21 was intact, with the rear half enveloped in flames. The pilot didn’t get out. I passed through the black smoke from the first missile impact as we continued toward the target.”
After lengthy service in Naval Aviation, the aircraft was retired and delivered to the museum for restoration in 2019. It is displayed in the markings from the day of the MiG kill.