Celebrating 20 Years of RAAF Hornet Operations

A Hornet History


RAAF began searching for a replacement for the Mirage IIIO from as early as 1973

Even before the last Mirage IIIO fighters had entered service, the Royal Australian Ai Force (RAAF) was already looking ahead to their replacement. In fact, a requirement definition can be traced as far back as 1968 as new aircraft were studied when they were announced or became available. However, it was not until 1973 that the RAAF carried out its first serious studies.

The first study team visited the US and Europe in 1973 to consider the McDonnell Douglas F-15A, Northrop P600, Saab 37 Viggen and the Dassault AMD Mirage F1 programs, but its recommendation was that the RAAF defer any decision until further fighter aircraft developments emerged.

The F-16, along with the F/A-18, was one of the final two contenders to replace the Mirage for the RAAF's Next Tactical Fighter Program.

The Tactical Fighter Project Office (TFPO) was formed in 1976, and a Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued for the Next Tactical Fighter (NTF) to replace the Mirage that same year. The RFP drew 11 responses, of which six were considered serious enough to form the initial shortlist, announced in March 1977. Short-listed were the General Dynamics F-16, Dassault Mirage 2000, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, the Panavia Tornado, McDonnell Douglas F-18A, and its land based variant, the Northrop F-18L.

Following further studies of the initial shortlist, two aircraft were dropped from the list in 1978 - the Tornado and the F-15A. With its principle role being strike, the Tornado really wasn’t the multi-role fighter aircraft the RAAF was looking for, especially considering the strike oriented F-111C had only entered service five years before. On the other hand, the F-15 was reportedly a favourite of the RAAF chiefs; however its elimination from the competition was thought to have been as much due to politics as to the fact that the aircraft was yet to have its multi-role strike capability fully developed.

In 1979, two evaluation teams were established to conduct simultaneous reviews of the remaining four contenders during 1979. One team was tasked to examine the operational capabilities, and the aircraft engineering and support requirements, with a TFPO mission touring the US and Europe to further study the remaining contenders – the Mirage 2000, F-16, F-18A and the F-18L. The second evaluation team was tasked to explore the potential for Australian industry involvement, and assessments were made of the potential for Australian Industry Participation (AIP) and likely follow-on benefits for each of the remaining contenders.

The Hornet's forebear, the YF-17. The YF-17 had lost the competition to become the USAF's next fighter to the F-16 in 1975, but was selected by the USN for development into the F-18.

Test pilot Wing Commander (WGCDR) Bob Richardson was one of the RAAF evaluation pilots tasked to fly and evaluate the four short listed contenders, along with WGCDRs Bruce Grayson and Ray Conroy. WGCDRs Richardson and Grayson flew the Northrop YF-17 at Palmdale near Los Angeles in 1979. The YF-17 was a forerunner to the Hornet, and was being used by both Northrop and McDonnell Douglas at the time to demonstrate their F-18L and F-18A respectively.

Following these evaluation flights, the short-list was further reduced with the elimination of the Mirage 2000 and the F-18L in November 1979. While both aircraft had some very strong points in their favour, particularly in their handling and performance characteristics, neither was deemed suitable for different reasons. The Mirage 2000 trials had shown up significant shortcomings in the likely performance of its radar and avionics suites, fuel system, cockpit design, and weapons capability when compared to its US-made rivals. The F-18L, on the other hand, was deemed too risky for the RAAF, which would have been the launch customer for an aircraft that had failed to attract any major customers. This position was vindicated when Northrop dropped the F-18L in 1983, having failed to attract any orders.

With the competition now reduced to two, the F-16A and the (by now re-designated) F/A-18A, WGCDRs Richardson and Conroy made a further visit to the US in 1980 to again fly and evaluate the aircraft. The F/A-18 hadn’t been available to fly in 1979, but in 1980 the team was able to get its hands on the US Navy’s brand new strike fighter.

WGCDR Richardson, one of the RAAF test pilots tasked with evaluating the competitor's for the NTF program, gets familiar with the F/A-18.

Bob Richardson, who much later retired from the RAAF as an Air Vice Marshal, describes those flights: “Notable features were deficiencies in the early digital flight control system (FCS), where there was a lag of up to 120 milliseconds between pilot input and control response, some 100% above minimum acceptable fighter handling characteristics, ... [offset by]... the extremely impressive cockpit layout and engine handling and response. The first ever aircraft to be designed from the outset around the pilot-machine interface, it had the most beautiful cockpit – the head-up (HUD) and head down displays (HDD) were all in the right place and the F-18’s engine handling was just a dream. Everyone who flew it was lost in admiration for that engine.

There were, however, a number of deficiencies in the aircraft, which caused concern. Apart from the control input lag, the F/A-18 was also demonstrating a far slower than expected roll rate, and at high angles of attack (AoA), it exhibited a vortex-induced hard-edged buffet over the rear control surfaces which could result in oscillations of the horizontal stabilisers and fin tips of up to 300mm two or three times per second.

Questions were also raised regarding the range payload figures coming out of the US Navy test force at Pax River, which were between 10 and 15% below expectations. It was also found that various detail design changes between the aircraft’s initial concept and construction had left some aerodynamic blemishes, which contributed to the range shortfalls.

Following recommendations by the evaluation teams, the decision was pushed back by 12 months in late 1980 to late 1981. Neither the F-16 nor the F/A-18 were thought to be mature enough programs for the Commonwealth to risk making a commitment, and it was felt that both aircraft and the RAAF would benefit greatly from another years development.

WGCDR Ray Conroy, one of the test and evaluation pilots for the NTF program, prepares to board an F/A-18.
WGCDR Ray Conroy

In 1981, a further comprehensive evaluation was conducted by almost the same RAAF and Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) team as in 1980. Again, the two evaluation pilots were WGCDRs Bob Richardson and Ray Conroy. Both General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas companies had improved their aircraft in a number of areas, with the evaluation team able to verify that McDonnell Douglas had addressed their concerns about the roll rate of the aircraft and the FCS response time, with both now meeting the RAAF’s requirements.

After this last evaluation, the teams submitted their recommendations to the TFPO. Richardson recalls: “It was clear that both the F-16 and the F/A-18 substantially met the RAAF requirement in broad terms. While the F-16 project cost was significantly less than the F/A-18’s, several key issues led to a strong, unanimous recommendation from all Project Team members that was fully supported as the RAAF choice of the Hornet.

“Based on actual experience with the F-16 and other single engine fighter aircraft, and estimated attrition using F-15 experience with an allowance for the higher risk of the RAAF air-to-surface strike role, this showed a dramatically higher attrition likelihood for the F-16. In a series of briefings given by Ray Conroy and myself to representatives of the high level committees, including from Treasury, Finance, Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s Departments, it was clearly apparent that the attrition comparison was the clinching factor in the final decision – especially when it was pointed out that all the planned F-16 attrition spare aircraft were likely to be needed as squadron replacements before the final aircraft was delivered!”

Despite some eleventh-hour marketing and intense lobbying by General Dynamics and Pratt & Whitney, then Defence Minister Sir James Killen announced to Parliament on the evening of 20 October 1981 that: “The Government has selected, as Australia’s new tactical fighter, the F/A-18, manufactured by McDonnell Douglas Corporation of the United States of America.” The contract was for 75 Hornets – 57 single-seat A models (designated A21-1 to A21-57) and 18 two-seat B models (A21-101 to A21-118). The principle reason for its selection over the F-16 was the Hornet’s multi-role avionics, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capability, and twin-engined safety.


One of the main objectives of the NTF program was to introduce to Australian industry new technologies and capabilities to not only manufacture, but also support the new aircraft. Although it was accepted that this would come at a premium when compared to a straight out buy from the original manufacturer, many thought the longer-term benefits to industry and the RAAF would at least offset and hopefully far outweigh the initial costs.

Both the F-16 and F/A-18 bids produced favourable AIP terms, so this was not a significant factor in the final decision to go with the Hornet. Because both the bidders were of US origin, the Australian government was able to negotiate favourable terms regarding the release of technologies and workshare regardless of which aircraft was chosen.

A Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) was signed with the US Government in September 1980 for the procurement and co-production of either the F/A-18 or the F-16. Following the F/A-18’s selection, eight Letters of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) were signed with the US Navy, and Deeds of Agreement were executed with McDonnell Douglas and General Electric for the AIP program.

Kim Beazley, then Minister for Defence, opens the redeveloped facilities at RAAF Base Williamtown.

The initial project cost estimate for the RAAF F/A-18 program as calculated in August 1981 was $2.427 billion. This estimate included the cost of 75 aircraft, spare parts, support, simulators, training and test equipment, and ground support equipment (GSE). Also included was the cost of the AIP, the acquisiton of two Operational Flight Trainers (OFT), re-development of RAAF Bases Williamtown and Darwin (later changed to Tindal), and a contingency amount. Weapons and ammunition were to be funded separately.

The 1992 F/A-18 Industry Program Review gives the final cost of the project in 1992 dollars as being $4.668bn: however, allowing for massive changes in the exchange rate and inflation, the actual cost came in some $186m under the inital estimate. This was a remarkable achievement considering the complexity of the program. Major investments in plant and machinery were made at facilities at the Government Aircraft Factories (GAF) at Avalon near Geelong in Victoria where the aircraft would be assembled, and at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) at Fishermans Bend, Melbourne, where the engines would be built.


The RAAF build program was managed by the TFPO in conjunction with the US Navy, which had established a Naval Plant Representative Office (NAVPRO) in Melbourne to oversee local production of the aircraft, conduct initial test flights, and ensure quality control was maintained. Because of the complicated but cost effective Foreign Military Sales acquisition arrangement for the Australian Hornets, completed aircraft were actually delivered ‘up the chain’ from McDonnell Douglas and GAF/ASTA to the US Navy, before being handed over to the final customer, the RAAF.

One of the early logos of the Australian F/A-18.

Australian Hornets are officially designated AF/A-18A and AF/A-18B in McDonnell Douglas/Boeing literature, but in practice the standard US Navy F/A-18 designation is used. RAAF Hornets featured minor detail changes in their specification to the US Navy versions, including a nose wheel mounted landing light; an Australian Fatigue Data Analysis System (AFDAS), a HF radio; a different ejection seat harness; an ILS/VOR landing system in place of the US Navy auto-land system; and deleted the nose gear mounted catapult bar. Two of the RAAF’s aircraft, A21-101 and A21-32 were fitted with extensive flight test instrumentation for test and evaluation work.

The planned production and delivery schedule called for the first two aircraft to be delivered to the RAAF in the US in late 1984, five more in 1985, 15 aircraft in 1986, 18 aircraft in1987, 13 aircraft in 1988, 13 aircraft in 1989, and the final four in 1990. Of the 75 aircraft ordered, each unit (No.s 3, 75, 77 Squadron and No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU)) was to receive 16 aircraft for a total of 64. The remaining 11 aircraft were purchased as attrition spares, to replace the aircraft that the RAAF expected to lose by the halfway mark of the fleet’s life, then expected to be the year 2000. However this proved to be pessimistic, with only four Hornets lost in the 20 years of RAAF operation. Further, none have been lost in the 13 years since May 1992, an outstanding safety record for any fighter.

The first Australian assembled F/A-18, A21-103, pictured during its test flight program

The first two aircraft for the RAAF, A21-101 and A21-102 were solely built in St Louis, the home of McDonnell Douglas. A21-101 made its maiden flight at St Louis on 13 August 1984, and both it and -102 were handed over to the RAAF on 29 October that same year. A further two aircraft, A21-103 and A21-104, were also built in St Louis, but were then disassembled in June 1984 and flown to Avalon in the back of a United States Air Force (USAF) C-5 Galaxy. These were then re-assembled at the Government Aircraft Factories (GAF), with A21-103 rolled out at Avalon at a formal gathering on 16 November. Following a 10-week union-led demarcation delay, A21-103 made its maiden flight from Avalon on 26 February, flown by McDonnell Douglas test pilot, Rudi Haug, at Avalon. On this flight, A21-103 reached a speed of Mach 1.6 at 40,000 feet. The aircraft was formally handed over to the RAAF on 4 May 1985 at a ceremony at Avalon.

Prime Minister Bob Hawk was one of many dignitaries at the formal roll-out of A21-103, in November 1984.

On 17 May 1985, the first two Australian Hornets, A21-101 and A21-102, arrived at RAAF Base Williamtown. The pilots – WGCDR Brian Robinson, FLTLT Angus Larard, SQNLDR Laurie Evans, and FLTLT Gerry O’Brian – departed US Naval Air Station Lemoore, California for RAAF Base Williamtown, NSW at 0700 hours local time. The 12,640km flight took 15 hours and each aircraft required 13 refuels from a USAF KC-10 tanker. More than 45,540kg of fuel was used during the flight. The flight, named Operation Coronet, broke international aviation records for being the longest flight by a military compact aircraft.


Six Mirage fighters from 77 Squadron met the F/A-18s and KC-10 tanker aircraft, and escorted them on the final leg of their historic flight to Williamtown

These first aircraft were delivered to 2OCU, and in August 1985 training commenced for the first Australian trained Hornet aircrew. The operational Hornet squadrons had to wait longer to receive their first aircraft, with 3SQN the first to do so, receiving Hornets A21-8 and A21-9 on 29 August 1986 at Williamtown. 77SQN, also based at Williamtown began receiving its aircraft on 29 July 1987, with 75SQN taking delivery of its new aircraft from 15 May 1988. On 8 February 1989, the last RAAF Mirage A3-101 was flown from Edinburgh to Woomera, marking the end of an era.

Officer Commanding of 81 Wing, GPCAPT Ray Conroy (right) made the delivery flight of the last Australian Hornet to Fairbairn on 16 May 2000. Here he relaxes with Chief of the Air Staff, AIRMSHL Ray Funnell, after the official ceremony had ended.

Chief of the Air Staff, AIRMSHL Ray Funnell, signing the Certificate of Acceptance for the final Australian Hornet, A21-57, on 16 May 2000.

The final RAAF Hornet, A21-57, was handed over at a ceremony at RAAF Fairbairn in Canberra on 16 May 1990. Fittingly, Group Captain (GPCAPT) Ray Conroy, one of the two original test and evaluation pilots who had recommended the aircraft as the best choice for the RAAF, was the pilot of the aircraft during this delivery flight. In making his acceptance speech on behalf of the Government, then Minister for Defence, Senator Robert Ray, noted: “ It is indeed impressive to witness a Program which was launched nine years ago as the largest ever Peacetime Defence Acquisition being finished on time and to budget”.



Special Thanks to Andrew McLaughlin, of Australian Aviation, for permission to reuse the text from his article, "20 Years of RAAF Hornets", published in the Australian Aviation Magazine, March 2005.

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