Transitioning from Hornets to Super Hornets

The Blue Angels will transition from the F/A-18 Hornet to low rate initial production (LRIP) Super Hornets like this F/A-18E Super Hornet belonging to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. (U.S. Navy photo by Adam Skoczylas


Early-production F/A-18E/F Super Hornets have a new mission—help the Blue Angels inspire greatness and service in others—as the next flight demonstration aircraft for the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron.

In the next few years, the Blue Angels will transition from the F/A-18 Hornet to the Super Hornet as 18 low-rate initial production (LRIP) F/A-18E/F Super Hornets are modified and then painted in the iconic blue.

“While the team is preparing for a safe and dynamic Super Hornet show in 2021, execution depends on the material condition of the allotted aircraft and modifications remaining on schedule,” said Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) Rear Adm. Gregory Harris. “Enterprise-wide effort will ensure fleet readiness priorities are met throughout the transition.”

In the meantime, the flight profile for the Super Hornet aerial demonstration is being developed by former Blue Angels pilots at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division’s Manned Flight Simulator at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.

Capt. Ryan Bernacchi, former Blue Angels Commanding Officer and flight leader, and director of CNATRA’s Blue Angels Transition Team, and Cmdr. Frank Weisser, opposing and lead solo pilot during the 2009-2010 seasons and lead solo again in the 2016-2017 seasons, discuss F/A-18 Super Hornet maneuvers at the Manned Flight Simulator at NAS Patuxent River. (U.S. Navy photo by Adam Skoczylas)


“The Hornet is a great airplane for the Navy and Marine Corps and is very well suited to the Blue Angels mission. But it is also important to plan for the future,” said Capt. Ryan Bernacchi, former Blue Angels Commanding Officer and flight leader, and director of CNATRA’s Blue Angels Transition Team during 2018. “That future will eventually be with the Navy’s premier fighter, the Super Hornet.”

Bernacchi said the bigger and more advanced Super Hornet will generate even greater interest in the Navy and Marine Corps.

“The public will be able to get up close and see the same aircraft the Navy operates from our aircraft carriers all around the world today,” he said

The Super Hornet is expected to improve safety margins, reduce aircraft fatigue and require less maintenance. Plus, the Super Hornet’s mission software will be customized to display tailored information to Blue Angels pilots as they execute their precision maneuvers. This information will reduce the cockpit task load, Bernacchi said.

Since 2015, the Navy has been analyzing how to upgrade the Blue Angels to the Super Hornet while balancing fleet readiness.

“To ensure the fleet is equipped with mission capable aircraft, the Navy has pursued giving the demo squadron early production lot aircraft which haven’t flown in years or are obsolete from a warfighting or fleet training perspective,” said Capt. Jason Denney, deputy program manager for the Super Hornet in the F/A-18 & EA-18G Program Office.

Capt. Bernacchi discusses the transition team’s goals during an interview at NAS Patuxent River. (U.S. Navy photo by Adam Skoczylas)

Transition Team

While the program office manages the aircraft inventory and modifications, CNATRA’s transition team is completing phase one: developing the Super Hornet flight profile. Phase two will begin with delivery of the first two modified Super Hornets, which will be flown by Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 test pilots and former Blue Angels pilots to validate maneuvers, Bernacchi said.

Based on the lessons learned from the squadron’s transition from the A-4F Skyhawk II to the F/A-18A/B Hornet in 1986, former Air Boss, Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, and Rear Adm. James Bynum, CNATRA at the time, authorized an in-depth study beginning in December 2017 to ensure a safe transition from the Hornet to Super Hornet.

At the same time, both Bernacchi, who served as the “Boss” during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and Cmdr. Frank Weisser, opposing and lead solo pilot during the 2009-2010 seasons and lead solo again in the 2016-2017 seasons, were available to get right to work.

They conducted an extensive study of aircraft systems and flight characteristics while creating a new demonstration tailored to the F/A-18E/F and embarked on a comprehensive risk and airframe fatigue reduction effort.

“We have developed vital knowledge here at Pax River to address the meat of the transition,” Weisser said. “We are figuring out how the Super Hornet performs the current show’s maneuvers as well as how to change the show in a meaningful way.”

Flight Profile Analysis

Bernacchi and Weisser spent several days each month in 2018 flying the Super Hornet simulator at Pax River as they thoroughly evaluated aspects of the flight profile such as airspeed, altitude, Gs and throttle settings.

“We control the variables in the simulator and then scrutinize them,” Bernacchi said.

One of the advantages of flying the simulator at Pax River is its proximity to Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) flight and airframe engineers and program experts who are able to answer their questions on the spot.

“The resident expertise here at Pax has provided a watershed of information, which has shaped our understanding of how the Super Hornet performs in the low-altitude precision aerobatics and formation arena. The collaboration has been exceptional and is the key enabler to reducing overall risk and airframe fatigue for the Blue Angels’ Super Hornet era,” Bernacchi said.

Cmdr. Weisser practices solo pilot maneuvers currently performed by the Blue Angels in F/A-18 Hornets in the F/A-18 Super Hornet simulator to understand the differences in how the two aircraft handle. The pilots control the variables in the simulator and then scrutinize the results. (U.S. Navy photos by Adam Skoczylas)


During flight analysis, they have experienced several “aha moments,” related to how the Super Hornet flies differently than the Hornet.

“While the differences may not impact the way the fleet employs the aircraft, the differences are important when it comes to designing a demonstration that’s, first and foremost, safe, but also exciting,” Bernacchi said.

“The big takeaway is that every aircraft is different,” Weisser said.

Those differences include the lift and drag, thrust-to-weight ratios and roll rates.

“Some areas are more restrictive. For example, the Hornet can fly up to 60 seconds inverted while the Super Hornet has been cleared to fly 40 seconds thus far. Using the Manned Flight Simulator, we have figured out how to reduce the inverted durations for the show while preserving the quality of the maneuvers,” Bernacchi said.

In many other ways, the Super Hornet offers improved performance—it has more thrust available, especially at low altitudes, enabling tighter turns and faster acceleration for some maneuvers, and better vertical and looping performance, Weisser said.

In addition, the Super Hornet will significantly improve reliability and efficiency as the squadron travels throughout the country—historically to about 33 cities per year. These attributes make international venues beyond North America viable as well.

Reducing Airframe Fatigue

While it’s too early to reveal how the flight demonstration will change, the show itself will likely be shortened a few minutes, which helps reduce airframe fatigue and aligns with a request from the air show industry, Bernacchi said. On a clear day, a typical show runs about 42 minutes and the version flown with lower cloud ceilings lasts about 30 minutes.

“The Blues are embracing the request and the Super Hornet show is expected to be more efficient, reduce aircraft and pilot fatigue and have more polished maneuvers,” he said.

Reducing aircraft fatigue is the key to getting the maximum utility out of each airframe converted to the Blue Angels configuration, Bernacchi said.

A multi-month collaborative study with NAVAIR engineers has allowed the transition team to understand where the current demonstration puts the most strain on the airframes and has helped them develop ways to reduce the strain while preserving the visual appeal of specific maneuvers.

The net effect has been dramatic reduction in overall “stress” put on the airframes in the six pilot positions and is expected to allow the Navy to fly each airframe up to or possibly even beyond the 6,000 flight-hour design specification, Bernacchi said.

“All of this is designed to create a safe, sustainable, efficient Super Hornet era. We expect the Super Hornet will be an incredible platform for the Blue Angels. It is going to be exciting to watch, and I expect it to significantly magnify the Blues’ mission impact all across the country and internationally as well,” Bernacchi said.

Standard Operating Procedures

To allow time for the pilots and maintainers to train and qualify on the upgraded platform, the Navy plans to shorten the end of the 2020 show season and delay the start of the 2021 season. This extra time is allotted for the squadron to complete the standard “safe-for-flight” process and inspections that all fleet squadrons undergo. The Blue Angels will conduct their normal training winter cycle in Pensacola, Florida, and El Centro, California, in preparation for the 2021 season. Safety, as always, is the number one priority.

After determining the flight profile, Bernacchi and Weisser are documenting the demonstration standardization manual in great detail for the Blue Angels.

The manual consists of integrated standard operating procedures (SOPs), which are essential for safety, turnover, training and the precision execution of Blue Angels flight demonstrations. The SOPs contain years of experience and knowledge that is passed down to members assuming their respective positions, internalized and referenced continuously throughout each season, Bernacchi said.

Blue Angels 1 through 4, known as the Diamond, each have positional SOPs in the manual. The Solos, Blue Angels 5 and 6, have a combined Solo SOP, and the support officers who encompass the ground safety and narration elements have their own specific SOP sections within the manual.

The updated Super Hornet manual will include an overall “differences chapter” contrasting the Hornet and Super Hornet handling throughout the demonstration flight envelope, and a differences discussion specific to every maneuver.

The manual will also provide detailed information on all failures modes in the demonstration context, and the background on how profiles were adjusted to mitigate risk, Bernacchi said.

“For example, the Super Hornet’s GE F414 motors produce more thrust per engine, which gives it different single-engine flight characteristics at low airspeeds or high angles of attack,” he said.

Thorough exploration has yielded different procedures and parameters to ensure the aircraft are always flown within safe margins during normal show conditions and addresses contingencies such as an engine failure.

“While it will take the first team that trains and flies a full season in the Super Hornet to fine-tune the Super Hornet demonstration, we want to position that team for success by arming them with the knowledge of how the airplanes perform differently in the demo environment and provide them with a fully vetted and risk-mitigated game plan they can take to the cockpit to safely fly each maneuver,” Bernacchi said.

Written by Andrea Watters, editor in chief of Naval Aviation News.

Blue Angels Mission: Recruit and Inspire

Blue Angels pilot Marine Corps Capt. Corrie Mays interacts with the public during Air Show Baltimore. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer Third Class Justin R. Pacheco)

Since its inception in 1946, the Blue Angels have flown for more than 450 million spectators worldwide and inspired many to serve their country.

The mission of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron is to showcase the pride and professionalism of the Navy and Marine Corps by inspiring a culture of excellence and service to country through flight demonstrations and community outreach.

“The mission is powerful—the Blue Angels represent the Navy and Marine Corps warfighters, the Sailors and Marines in harm’s way, and inspire people to do something great with their life, to reach for challenging goals or dreams,” said Capt. Ryan Bernacchi, former Blue Angels Commanding Officer and flight leader and director of Chief of Naval Air Training’s Blue Angels Transition Team.

“When the Blues come to town, they provide a tangible experience where the public can connect with the people and the planes, seeing what their Navy and Marine Corps is all about, see the teamwork, discipline, pride and skill of the whole squadron. Meeting so many people all across the country was one of the great privileges of serving with the Blue Angels,” he said.

Bernacchi was one of those kids who wanted to fly an airplane with Navy painted on it, he said.

Across the country, the team serves as ambassadors of goodwill by bringing Naval Aviation to men, women and children. At each air show city, the Blue Angels visit hospitals, schools and community functions. The team takes time to interact with students and share their experiences serving in the Navy or Marine Corps and their enthusiasm—a great way to inspire others to pursue their dreams.

While it’s difficult to measure the impact the Blue Angels have, the team performs in front of an estimated 11 million spectators per year and reaches more people through social media. In a 2017 survey of Delayed Entry Program Sailors, 26 percent of respondents said seeing the Blue Angels positively impacted their decision to seek a career in the Navy. —Andrea Watters  

Aircraft Inventory

Current Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornets undergo maintenance at Fleet Readiness Center Southeast’s F/A-18 production line at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla. (U.S. Navy photo by Victor Pitts)

The Blue Angels currently fly the oldest Hornets in the Navy’s inventory, and the service life of several will expire during the 2021 show season. The Navy cannot replace these aircraft with other Hornets without taking warfighting assets from the Marine Corps, Navy Reserve or the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC), according to Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA).

After an extensive airframe review of every Hornet in its inventory, the Navy identified 18 low-rate initial production (LRIP) F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as the most optimal to sustain the Blue Angels’ mission. These 18 were primarily used as trainers and test aircraft and were not intended or equipped for conflict and have not been deployed.

The cost associated with the Blue Angels’ transition to the Super Hornet can be broken down into non-recurring engineering (NRE) work to design and incorporate a “kit” of all the necessary components such as the smoke system into the aircraft ($24 million), kit procurement ($17 million) and the cost to modify the aircraft through the kit installation and paint ($2.7 million per aircraft).

Transitioning from the Hornet to the 18 LRIP Super Hornets will take an estimated five years. The Navy began the transition in 2016 and has already completed the NRE portion of the process. Kits were purchased in fall 2018.

With the Blue Angels’ Hornets nearing their life limits, it is expected that most will be preserved and on display around the country. The specific plan for each airframe will be determined over the next two seasons. —Andrea Watters