The F/A-18 is an all-weather carrier-capable strike fighter, designed to attack both ground and aerial targets. It was developed by McDonnell Douglas and designed in the 1970s, entering service in 1978. Today, its true owner is Boeing, a result of the merging between the two companies (Boeing and McDonnell Douglas) in 1997.
The plane was built on the second VFAX (Naval Fighter Attack Experimental) program, in order to supply the U.S. Navy a multirole airplane that will replace the A-4 Skyhawks, the A-7 Corsair IIs, the remaining F-4 Phantom IIs and most of all, the expensive F-14 Tomcat (which was the first VFAX program). The F-18 is basically an advanced and modified version of the YF-17, an airplane which lost the LWF (Lightweight Fighter) project to the YF-16 (which became F-16 Fighting Falcon), but sparked the Navy’s interest for its design-unlike the F-16, it had two engines and a wide landing gear which seemed to fit the Navy. Furthermore, in 1980 the F-18 was redesigned and equipped with parts fitting air to ground role. Since the F-18’s modification to multirole tasks it was referred to as F/A-18.
The Hornet was among the first aircraft to heavily utilize multi-function displays, which allow the pilot to easily perform attack roles. This "force multiplier" capability gives the operational commander more flexibility in employing tactical aircraft in a rapidly changing battle scenario. Moreover, the F/A-18’s lifespan is three times longer than any other Navy strike aircraft, and its maintenance takes only half the usual time (for example, replacing one of its engines can be done within a couple of hours).
The F/A-18’s first kill was made during the first day of the Gulf War (17 January 1991), by two U.S. Navy pilots: Lieutenant Nick Mongilio and Lieutenant Commander Mark Fox, who shot down two MiG-21s on their way to bomb an airfield on southwestern Iraq. After bringing down the two MiG-21s they resumed their primary mission, and bombed the airbase. By doing so, they became the first U.S. pilots to bring down enemy airplanes during a bomb-run mission and complete the bombing mission itself afterwards. Sadly, at the same day, two other F/A-18s were destroyed, while one of their pilots is presumed dead, and the other is missing in action.
The F/A-18 can be counted as a successful airplane. While it was criticized for its short range and small payload, it still broke records for tactical aircraft in availability, reliability, and maintainability. As good as it may be, the U.S.A. will replace it (gradually) by a better and more advanced aircraft-the F-35 Lightning II, scheduled to enter U.S. service in 2011. But even after it will be completely retired, it is more than just reasonable to assume that other countries will still continue to exploit the F/A-18’s great advantages.