The Boeing (McDonnell Douglas) F/A-18A/B/C/D “Legacy” Hornet has functioned as the primary demonstration jet of the Blue Angels since 1986. The Blues have generally flown the A/B Hornet during this period, though they’ve begun the process of transitioning from A/B to C/D Hornets since 2010. With all that in mind, their jets are still old and definitely aren’t getting any younger after each and every performance that subjects an already-aged airframe to high degrees of stress and tension. The next six to ten years will probably see the Department of the Navy starting to consider alternatives to the Legacy Hornet in Blues service, especially as the Navy begins the process of replacing its deployable C/D Hornet fleet with Lockheed Martin’s F-35C Lightning II (the carrier variant). Don’t get me wrong, though- this isn’t something that’ll happen immediately. You’ve got time to enjoy the Blues with their Legacy Hornets. But if you’re looking at their options going into the future, realistically, the Blues have a very limited set to work with.
Option One: Keep the Legacy Hornet
As the Blues have been transitioning between the F/A-18A/B to the relatively-newer C/D, they’ve essentially added on some time to the Hornet’s life as their primary display jet. However, the “new” jets that the Blues have been receiving as part of their airframe-for-airframe replacement program come directly from the fleet. This means that, though they’ve likely gone through a service-life extension program, they’re still older airframes with limited lifespans that have been worsened with years and years of constant use at both land and sea. They’re also typically the oldest jets in the fleet that have been deemed incapable of being able to carry on as frontline combat strike fighters. When the Navy begins replacing the Legacy Hornets with Lightning IIs, the Navy could potentially contract out maintenance and engineering support to a private civilian company, just to keep the Hornet in blue and gold. This isn’t an outlandishly new idea at all, though price could possibly be an inhibiting factor.
A good example of this exists just north of the border with the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds. Their Canadair CT-114 Tutors were once the standard jet trainer for Canadian pilots, phased fully out of regular service in 2000. Fifteen years later, they’re still flying them across the country and continent during airshow season. To help keep their jets flying, the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) has maintained a contract with IMP Aerospace, a civilian aviation firm, since 2012 that enables IMP’s engineers and technicians to work with Snowbird crew in preserving the airworthiness of the Tutors their pilots fly. However, it should be noted that this contract will lapse in 2020, and the DND has expressed the desire to give the Snowbirds new jets around that time. Then again, Tutors are extremely old, with the production line shut down in 1966, some 49 years ago. With all the added stress on the airframe from tight turns and aerobatic maneuvering, it makes sense that the heavily-aged Tutors will be replaced for good by then.
Should the Department of the Navy select this option, we could possibly see the Blue Angels fly the C/D Hornet for years to come.
Option Two: Switch to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
The Super Hornet is the Legacy Hornet’s younger, bigger and badder brother, designed in the late 1990s and integrated into the Navy’s carrier air wings as a more cost-effective replacement for the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Though it’s considered as an upgrade of sorts to the C/D Hornet, the E/F is actually a good deal larger in size, with an increased wing area and an improved internal fuel capacity. And even with all those enlarged dimensions, the Super Hornet is still a very maneuverable fighter. Its land-based cost per flight hour makes it fairly affordable, and visually, it retains the Hornet look Blue Angels fans have loved since the mid-1980s. If you think about it, the Blues adopting the Super Hornet wouldn’t be the most unreasonable thing to have happened.
Option Three: Switch to the F-35C Lightning II
Before you throw your laptop out the window or dunk your smartphone in your coffee after seeing this option’s title, this isn’t a heck of a bad idea at all. Test pilots from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have all gone on record to say that the F-35’s maneuverability isn’t really anything people should be concerned about, especially given its intended role as an F-16 and F/A-18 replacement. Aviation Week reported, earlier this month, that the F-35 was actually pitted against the highly-agile F-16 Fighting Falcon in basic fighter maneuvers, and though the results weren’t published, the positive nature of the commentary was very telling about the outcome. So maneuverability isn’t an issue to be be worried with; that just leaves cost. The F-35 will undoubtedly be a relatively costly aircraft to fly and maintain, given its special construction and design, as well as its extremely powerful Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan, which drinks fuel like I drink Gatorade- a lot, and fast. Its cost per flight hour hasn’t yet been solidified, though Lockheed Martin expects that with further development and powerplant improvements, it’ll likely decrease. The stealth coating wouldn’t be much of a problem for Blue Angels support crew, as it would be stripped from the surfaces and replaced with the custom dark blue and gold paint job. Compared to all the other options, however, this remains the least plausible of the bunch. In this day and age, the Navy won’t want to reallocate a squadron-sized element of its latest and greatest next-generation fighter (which also happens to be one of the costliest aircraft it has ever procured) to just a flight-demo role. So you can stop hyperventilating now.
Option Four: Switch to the T-45 Goshawk
If the Blues pursue this option, they wouldn’t be the only air demo team in the world to utilize lead-in trainers as their primary aircraft. In fact, most teams, such as the Red Arrows (who fly the BAe Hawk, an older relative of the Goshawk), the aforementioned Snowbirds, the Italian Frecce Tricolori, the Patrouille de France and many more all use lighter trainers, eschewing larger fighters which tend to be far more expensive to operate. Event the US Air Force opted to switch to the sleek T-38 Talon from their F-4 Phantom IIs in the 1970s, though this was during an oil crisis which necessitated the replacement. The T-45 would certainly be a very low-cost solution, though speaking on a superficial level, it just wouldn’t be the same after years upon years of the Blues operating the Navy’s standard fighters to demonstrate naval air power.
While some of these options aren’t necessarily very appealing to Blue Angels admirers, it could be worse.
I mean, they could select unmanned blue and gold-painted X-47Bs.