F/A-18s bank while in formation. See more military jets pictures.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Introduction to How F/A-18s Work

An F-18 Hornet is something like a power drill. If you have the right attachments, a power drill can act as an electric screwdriver, a sander, a drill of various sizes and many other tools. The basic ide­a behind the F-18 is to have a plane the military can reconfigure for different types of missions. By adjusting it and outfitting it with different components, you can specialize the aircraft for the task at hand.

As you might imagine, this adaptability makes the F-18 an invaluable addition to the U.S. arsenal. It makes it much easier for the Navy and Marine Corps to accomplish air superiority -- dominance in the air to the point that the enemy cannot mount a significant air attack.

In this article, we'll check out these remarkable machines, from cockpit to body to weaponry.


An F/A-18 sits on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

The Mission

The F-18 is designed to function as two different types of aircraft. It is both:

  • fighter jet, a plane designed to battle enemy aircraft. Fighters need to be very fast, relatively lightweight and highly maneuverable, so they can keep up with any enemy aircraft and evade counter-attack. They carry air-to-air weapons, like heat-seeking sidewinder missiles.
  • An attack jet, a plane designed to take out ground targets. Attack jets fly in low and destroy individual targets, such as tanks, rather than the larger area targets a bomber might take out from a high elevation. Attack jets tend to be bulkier than fighter jets, because of the various bombs they need to carry.

The F-18 is the first plane in the U.S. arsenal designed specifically to fill both of these roles.

The central innovation that makes this possible is a collection of stations -- storage areas on the belly and wings of the plane that can carry everything from extra fuel tanks to a tacticalnuclear bomb. By loading these stations with different components -- for example, air-to-ground GPS-guided bombs as opposed to air-to-air heat-seeking missiles -- the F-18 in effect becomes different planes.

The other major secret to the F-18's adaptability is its high performance standards. As we'll see in the next section, its impressive engineering makes it a much better all-around player than most other aircraft.

The F/A-18 can reach a speed of Mach 1.7 and fly up to 36,089 feet.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Under the Hood

Hornets at heart are like any other jet plane. They use powerful turbine engines to createthrust and two broad wings to create lift. Rear fins stabilize the plane while rudders allow it to turn. The pilot uses an air brake to slow the plane down.

Specifically, the Hornet sports two F414-GE-400 afterburning turbofan engines capable of 22,000 pounds (9,977 kg) of static thrust each. The F/A-18 can reach a speed of Mach 1.7 (563 meters per second) and fly as high as 36,089 feet (11,000 meters).

The Blue Angels streak by at an air show.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

The engine afterburners provide powerful thrust quickly to help the F/A-18 attack and escape quickly. The afterburner injects fuel into jet exhaust, igniting it. The resulting combustion adds a considerable boost to the speed