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Hornets pull a flanker

F/A18 or Su27?"Bugs" in Europe – again! Tom McGhee looks at the recent deployment of VFA-106 and VFC-12's F/A18 Hornets to Laage in Germany. All pictures by Mike Kerr, f4 Aviation unless stated.

In these post Cold War days the threat that NATO has to face is less focussed and can come from many diverse areas. In recent years conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans have shown the different arenas and scenarios that have to be contended with, as opposed to the Cold War 'Defence of Western Europe' scenarios which were regularly practised with the Priory, Reforger, and Coronet series of exercises. For NATO, the main serious air-to-air threat most likely to be encountered is the MiG-29 "Fulcrum". This superbly manoeuvrable Russian built fighter is in service in considerable numbers with many potential enemies, and whilst it still retains the traditional Soviet flaws of high maintenance hours per flying hour, and also of relatively short endurance, it remains a rugged and dependable aircraft, and does pose a significant threat when flown well.

In order to practice and develop tactics to counter the Fulcrum, what better way than to fly against the aircraft itself - however there is not exactly a vast pool of friendly Fulcrum units with which to fly against. Following German KC10s provided tanker supportre-unification in 1990, the former East German Air Force MiG-29s became the only tactical aircraft type integrated into the German Luftwaffe. These MiG-29Gs form 731 Staffel of JG-73 at Laage in Eastern Germany, and operate one of NATO's best dog fighting mounts around due to the superb manoeuvrability and helmet mounted sight.

So these days Laage often plays host to visiting NATO fighter units who try to hone their tactics against what could be prospective enemies in other theatres. October 2000 saw the arrival yet again of USN F/A-18s to Laage to try their hand against the visually similar Fulcrums. This time VFA-106 "Gladiators" and VFC-12 "Fighting Omars" deployed across the Atlantic with F/A-18As, Cs, and Ds from their home base at NAS Oceana, Virginia.

The 'C' model Hornets are new-build aircraft, the differences over the original 'A' version comprising mainly a new avionics package and upgraded engines. The original 'A' version spent a surprisingly short time in front-line service with the US Navy before being superseded by the 'C' model. These upgrades, though welcome, did little to overcome the "Bug's" inherent weakness, which was range. Tanker support is required on almost all main missions and it took a major airframe redesign in the 'E' version to alleviate this flaw to some extent. The new Super Hornet is a significantly larger aircraft than its predecessors and the US Navy are putting a lot of faith in this model for the future.

The Hornets taxi out to Mildenhall's runway 29 for departureClickThe Hornet has proved itself as dual role fighter in combat, being first blooded during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. During the first daylight raids, a strike package including US Navy F/A-18Cs from VFA-81 "Sunliners" on board USS Saratoga was heading for H-3 airfield in Iraq, loaded with four 2000lb bombs each. Whilst en-route to the target a pair of Iraqi Air Force MiG-21s engaged two of the Hornets, and after a brief skirmish the fully laden F/A-18s despatched both of the "Fishbeds" with Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles, before continuing on to the target.

So back to 2000, and as a courtesy to the US Navy headquarters in Europe, the deployed Hornets staged back through RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk on their way home. The VFA-106 F/A-18Cs and Ds wore "AD" tail codes and generally wore the normal low-vis grey scheme. The F/A-18As from VFC-12 had "AF" tail codes and wore blue "Flanker" style camouflage schemes as befits the unit whose role includes "aggressor" training. Tanker support was by KC10A.

Was 2000 the year of the Hornet? With earlier swarms at Leuchars, Waddington, and Cottesmore during the year, we think so – long may it continue!

VFA-106 badgeVFC-12 badgeAircraft deployed to Laage during October 2000:

VFA-106 "Gladiators", NAS Oceana, Va. - F/A-18Cs 163461/AD-324, 163430/AD-325, 164243/AD-330, 164234/AD-336 & 164246/AD-337. F/A-18Ds 164198/AD-432, 164014/AD-434 & 164690/AD-436.

VFC-12 "Fighting Omars", NAS Oceana, Va. - F/A-18As 162472/AF-01 & 162394/AF-07.


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