It’s no secret that the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps’ fleet of ‘legacy’ Hornets have literally had their wings flown off them. Many of the aircraft are far beyond their design life, and depots can’t work fast enough at refurbishing them in hopes of getting more use out of them.
As a result, some squadron flight lines look more like junkyards due to ongoing cannibalization for parts, and low availability rates plague the fleet.
Even the Navy and Marine Corps Flight Demonstration Team, the Blue Angels, are not immune to this ‘Hornet rot’ epidemic.
Just last weekend at the Rockford Airfest in Illinois, Blue Angel #5, one of the act’s lead hard turning, fast flying solo jets, lost the outboard leading edge maneuvering slat on its left wing during the demonstration. Quite literally, the whole flight control section appears to have broken away. You can see a picture of it here from our friends at Airshowstuff.com.
The jet landed safely, and the pilot took the spare aircraft and rejoined the demonstration just minutes after the event occurred. But still, somewhere out there is a big, blade-like piece of blue Hornet laying on a rooftop or on the ground. And it could have been worse.
Just a week before the Rockford incident occurred, another one of the Blue Angel’s Hornets had shed a piece in flight while maneuvering over Rochester, New York. This time it was from one of the jet’s right wings, and it was found by a local fisherman floating in a marsh.
The issue of old, worn-out legacy Hornets has been exacerbated by a number of factors. The delays in the F-35 program have resulted in a need to structurally upgrade the Navy’s existing fighter fleet, with some F/A-18A/B/C/Ds going from a 6,000 hour lifespan to 10,000 hours or more. This will put the type in service till 2035, much longer than ever anticipated.
Additionally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have built up many more hours than were planned over the last decade or so, and a ‘fighter gap’ caused by all this continues to loom, although it has been slowly closed by small lots of additional Super Hornet purchases by the Navy alone. The USMC is another story, as they never purchased the Super Hornet, and instead put all their chips on the F-35, a move that has leeched dollars meant for upgrades out of existing platforms.
On top of all that, there’s also now a workforce gap of about 10 percent in trained aircraft artisans and engineers needed to keep the Hornet fleet in the air. And just to add a little dash of political ruin to everything, sequestration made it tougher for the services to buy spare parts for aircraft.
Meaning good jets were kept out of the air because a simple component was simply not available for replacement.
The truth is that this whole legacy Hornet debacle is as much a symptom of a largely reactive Navy and Marine Corps than a proactive one, when it comes to fleet management and coming up with real-world contingencies to foreseeable problems. Those two main problems being massive delays in the F-35 program and defense cuts via sequestration or otherwise. Readiness and things like spare parts seem to take a backseat or procurement of new gold-plated weapon systems. The F-35 program in particular has instilled total fear in those involved that if planned production numbers get cut, even my a small margin, the whole program will enter a catastrophic death spiral. These claims remain highly debatable.
There is also the issue of putting many hours on the Navy’s fast jet force for missions that could have been more cheaply and efficiently accomplished by fighter aircraft (or not fighters at all but light air support aircraft) based in country in Afghanistan. Many Navy fighter airframe hours were burned making the long transit from the Arabian Gulf to Afghanistan over the last decade and a half, even years after the initial invasion of that country was complete. The Navy would like you to believe their fleet issues were the victim of mission tasking, but in reality, the whole system was flawed, with U.S. forces using fuel hungry tactical fighters and even strategic bombers, many flown over thousands of miles, for a job that would have been better served by a fleet of commercially available turboprop light attack aircraft and fighter aircraft based in country alone.
Regardless of the services nearsightedness on the matter, throngs of legacy Hornets cannot fly forever, and it appears that their age is showing in the most visible place possible, the United States Navy and Marine Corps Flight Demonstration Team. Although flying without key control surfaces is an awesome trick, it is not part of a safe show and quite honestly, we owe our people in the cockpit more than geriatric jets that regularly shed parts in flight.
Photos credit: Tyler Rogoway/Jalopnik
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.