F15 Low Level

Military aircraft using the USA Low Flying System

A brief description of the more commonly seen military aircraft, photographed in the USA Low Flying System.

Northrop T-38 Talon

The Northrop T-38 Talon is a two-seat, twin‑engine supersonic advanced jet trainer, introduced into service with the United States Air Force in March 1961. The aircraft superseded the subsonic Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star and complimented the subsonic Cessna T-37 Tweet in pilot training.

Powered by two Turbojet General Electric J85-GE-5 afterburning engines, the T-38 was the worlds first supersonic trainer having a top speed of Mach 1.08 (812mph or 1307km/h at sea level) a range of 1093 miles (1,759km) and a maximum ceiling above 55,000ft.

A two-seat tandem cockpit offers the student seated in the front and instructor in the rear a good all round view. The aircraft engines are positioned side-by-side, with small air intakes positioned just aft of the cockpit either side of a well-contoured aerodynamic fueslage. The small area main plains are low mounted, as are the tailplanes with a single vertical tail. A tricycle undercarriage retracts into a relatively clean and flat belly.

T-38 Talon low-level through Rainbow Canyon Northrop T-38C Talon of 445th Flight Test Squadron, Edwards A.F.B. United States Air Force.

Most T-38's were of the T-38A variant, but a small number were designated AT-38B which were converted for weapons training. This variant was fitted with a gunsight and could carry a gun pod, rocktes or bombs on a centreline pylon.

Begining in in the year 2000 most T-38A's and T-38B's were being converted to the T-38C as part of an Avionics Upgrade Program (AUP), which included an all-glass cockpit display, the addition of a head-up display (HUD), Global Positioning System (GPS), Inertial Navigation System (INS) and a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). The majority of aircraft also received engine modifications under the Propulsion Modernization Program (PMP), where the engines were modified to enhance reliability and maintainability, while engine inlet/injector modifications increased available take‑off thrust. Airframes with high usage also underwent structural replacements and upgrades, with some receiving new wings to extend their service life to 2029.

Apart from learning aerobatics, formation flying, night instrumentation and cross-country navigation training, the T-38C allows students to learn the advanced systems used in the modern day fighters and bombers onto which they will progress.

Being a versatile and relatively low cost aircraft to operate, the T-38 is used as a proficiency aircraft for U-2 and B-2 pilots respectively and also as a training aircraft by test pilots and test engineers at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilots School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Air Force Material Command (AFMC) use the T-38 to test experimental equipment such as electrical weapons systems, while NASA use it as a chase plane and trainer for astronauts and observers.

The T-38 Talon is still in service today (as of 2021) and is the most produced jet trainer, with 1,146 being built between 1961 and 1972.

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C & D Hornet

In the early 1970's the United States Navy under the ‘Naval Fighter-Attack Experimental’ (VFAX) program was looking to procure a multirole combat aircraft to replace the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, Vought A-7 Corsair II and McDonnell Douglas F‑4 Phantom II's. Also the Navy's primary air superiority fighter//fleet defence interceptor, the Grumman F‑14 Tomcat, though very capable was a very expensive aircraft to operate and Congress had mandated that the Navy pursue a lower cost alternative.

Around the same time, the United States Air Force had initiated the ‘Lightweight Fighter’ (LWF) Technology Evaluation program to look at the concept of a light-weight fighter, which would be highly manoeuvrable with a high thrust‑to‑weight ratio. The program resulted in the development of the General Dynamics YF‑16 and Northrop YF‑17 (Cobra).

The Navy was directed to evaluate the two aircraft and though the single-engine YF‑16 won the LWF competition and went into service with the Air Force as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Navy opted for the twin-engine YF‑17 after Northrop teamed with McDonnell Douglas to produce a heavily re-designed version called the F/A-18 Hornet. The F/A-18 designation means the aircraft was designed to be both a fighter and an attack aircraft. The single seat variant was designated F/A-18A and the two-seater F/A-18B. The two-seat F/A-18B was designed to be fully combat-capable, but was used primarily for training.

F/A-18C Hornet low-level through Rainbow Canyon McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet of VMFA-232 ‘Red Devils’, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, United States Marine Corps.

The F/A-18 Hornet first flew in November 1978, entering service with the United States Navy in November 1983 and the United States Marine Corps in January 1984, with the aircraft becoming the Navy's main fighter aircraft as the F‑14 Tomcat was relegated to the interceptor role.

The F/A-18 though similar in appearance to the YF-17 with its canted vertical stabilizers is a vastly different aircraft. The airframe and landing gear are strengthened, with the addition of wing-fold mechanisms, an arrestor hook and catapult attachments for carrier operations. The aircraft is highly manoeuvrable with its two General Electric F404-400 engines giving a high thrust‑to‑weight ratio. The engines were designed with operability, reliability and maintainability first and though their performance is unexceptional, they are robust and resistant to stall and flameout. A digital fly‑by‑wire control system with quadruple redundancy (the first to be installed in a production fighter) and Leading Edge Extensions (LEX) allow the aircraft to remain controllable at high angles of attack.

The Hornets primary missions are fighter escort, fleet air defence, suppression of enemy air defences, air interdiction, close air support and aerial reconnaissance. The aircraft has a head-up display and multi-function CRT displays, the latter which allow the pilot to easily transition between fighter or attack roles, or perform both.

The Hornet can carry a wide variety of bombs and missiles, including air‑to‑air and air‑to‑ground ordnance, supplemented by a 20mm M61 Vulcan cannon.

In 1987 McDonnell Douglas (the prime contractor) introduced the single seat F/A-18C and two-seat F/A-18D (the latter can be configured for training or as an all-weather strike aircraft). The F/A-18C and D had upgraded radar, avionics, improved night attack capabilities and the capacity to carry a new range of air‑to‑air and air‑to‑ground missiles, while uprated F404‑GE‑402 engines gave a 10% increase in static thrust.

The F/A‑18 has a top speed of Mach 1.8 (1,190mph or 1,914km/h) at 40,000ft (12,200m) with a range of 1,089nm (2,017km). The aircraft has nine hardpoints, two on the wingtips, four under-wing and three under-fueslage, with a capacity of 13,700lb (6,200kg) for external fuel or ordnance.

The F/A-18 Hornet saw combat during the 1986 bombing of Libya, the 1990/1991 Gulf War, the 2003 Iraq War, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Though the United States Navy retired the F/A-18C from combat roles in April 2018, the United States Marine Corps plan to use the F/A-18C/D till the 2030's, when it will be replaced by the F-35B and F-35C.

Boeing F/A-18E & F Super Hornet

The Super Hornet is a twin‑engine, carrier‑capable, multirole fighter aircraft.
Designed and initially built by McDonnell Douglas (now a part of the Boeing Company after the merger in August 1997) the Super Hornet first flew in November 1995, with full production beginning in September 1997. The aircraft entered service with the United States Navy in 2001, working alongside the existing F/A-18C/D ‘Legacy’ Hornets and as a replacement for the Grumman F‑14 Tomcat which was retired in 2006.

The single seat version of the Super Hornet is known as the F/A-18E and the two‑seat version the F/A-18F, the latter having a second crew member in the role of Weapons Systems Officer (WSO).

F/A-18E Hornet low-level through Rainbow Canyon Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet of VFA‑147 ‘Argonauts’, Strike Fighter Squadron, United States Navy.

Though similar in appearance to the ‘Legacy’ Hornet, the Super Hornet is larger with a heavier maximum weight, but has fewer parts and lower maintenance demands. The aircraft incorporates radar cross section reduction measures, notably at the front and rear of the aircraft. The design of the engine inlets reduce the aircraft's frontal cross‑section, while the use of perforated panels which appear opaque to radar waves at the frequencies used, replace grilles covering various exhaust and inlet ducts. The fuselage has been stretched by 34in (86cm) to make room for more fuel and avionics upgrades. The aircraft can carry 33% more fuel, increasing mission range by 41% and endurance by 50%. The wing area has been increased by 25% with two extra wing hard points for payload (for a total of 11), retaining hard points on the bottom centreline, wingtips and two conformal fuselage positions.

Re‑designed large rectangular air intakes increase airflow into new General Elctric F414‑GE‑400 turbofans, which produce 22,000lbs maximum thrust, an increase of 35% over the ‘Legacy’ Hornet which enable the Super Hornet to match the ‘Legacy’ Hornets top speed of Mach 1.8 (1,190mph/1,915km/h) at 40,000ft (12,190m).

The Super Hornet has an internal 20mm M61 rotary canon and can carry a variety of air‑to‑air missiles and air‑to‑surface weapons and can return to an aircraft carrier with a larger load of unspent fuel and munitions than the ‘Legacy’ Hornet. This load which is known as ‘bringback’ is in excess of 9,000lbs (4,100kg). Unlike the ‘Legacy’ Hornet, the Super Hornet can also be configured as an airborne tanker by adding an external air refuelling system.

Initially the Super Hornet retained the mission software and majority of avionics found in the C/D models, but this has been upgraded significantly over time, such as the aircrafts defensive countermeasures and radar system. The Super Hornet has a quadruplex digital fly‑by‑wire system as well as a digital flight‑control system that can detect and correct battle damage. In the cockpit differences include a colour digital map, a touch‑sensitive control display, a larger multi‑purpose liquid crystal colour display which shows tactical information, two monochrome displays and a new engine fuel display. In May 2007 the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System ((JHMCS) was introduced which provides multi‑purpose situational awareness and high‑off foresight missile cueing.

As the Super Hornet is significantly heavier than the ‘Legacy’ Hornet, the catapult and arresting systems for carrier deck operations must be set differently. To aid safe flight operations and avoid confusion in radio calls, the Super Hornet is unofficially referred to as the ‘Rhino’ to distinguish it from the earlier Hornets.

In 2020 the United States Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration team which had flown the ‘Legacy’ Hornet since 1984 transitioned to the Super Hornet.

Boeing EA-18G Growler

The Growler is an American carrier‑based electronic warfare aircraft, a specialised version of the two‑seat F/A‑18F Super Hornet. The aircraft has crew of two, with the second crew member being an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO).

The first test aircraft of a Growler known as an EA‑1 made its maiden flight in August 2006. Production started of the type in 2007 with the aircraft entering operational service with the United States Navy in September 2009, eventually replacing the Northrop Grumman EA‑6B Prowler which was retired from service in June 2015.

Boeing EA-18G Growler low-level through Rainbow Canyon Boeing EA-18G Growler of VAQ‑142 ‘Gray Wolves’, Electronic Attack Squadron, United States Navy.

The Growler has more than 90% in common with the F/A‑18F Super Hornet, such as the airframe, radar and weapon systems. The flight performance being similar also allows the Growler to perform escort jamming, as well as the traditional standoff jamming missions (radar jamming and deception) and the ability to accompany Super Hornets during all phases of an attack mission.

The aircraft has nine weapons stations free (six under the wing and three under the fuselage) to provide additional weapons or jamming pods, but most of the dedicated airborne electronic attack equipment is mounted on the aircrafts wingtips and in the space which was occupied by the internal 20mm canon.

The AN/ALQ‑218 wide band receivers on the wingtips, the under wing mid‑board pylon mounted AN/ALQ‑99 high‑band jamming pods and the centreline fuselage mounted AN/ALQ‑99 low‑band jamming pod are able to provide detection and jamming against all known surface‑to‑air threats.

Under the fuselage the two multi‑mode conformal stations can hold AIM‑120 AMRAAM missiles, with the remaining inboard under wing pylons available for 480 gallon fuel tanks, with the outboard pylons reserved for AGM‑88 HARM missiles.

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