A21 F/A-18 Hornet
Australia reduced its shortlist for the Mirage replacement to only two candidates in November 1979. To fill the Tactical Fighter Force (TFF) requirement, the RAAF selected between the General Dynamics F-16 and the McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. On 20 October 1981, the Hornet was selected.
The F/A-18 was a descendant of the Northrop YF-17, which had been the loser of the United States Air Force (USAF) light-weight fighter competition. On 2 May 1975, the US Navy announced the selection of McDonnell-Douglas-Northrop project, which became the F/A-18 Hornet, as a multi-mission aircraft with the 'F/A' designation signifying both fighter and attack roles. The Hornet resembled a YF-17, scaled up 12 per cent. The YF-18 prototype first flew on 18 November 1978.
The Australian Government contracted to buy 75 Hornets for the RAAF in November 1981. This order was for 57 single-seat F/A-18As (serialled A21-1 to A21-57) and 18 two-seat F/A-18Bs (A21-101 to A21-118). The Hornet gave the Tactical Fighter Group several firsts, including a pulse-doppler look-down radar with a shoot-down capability, an inertial navigation system and a head-up display.
The Australian Hornet program was for the first two aircraft to be entirely assembled by McDonnell-Douglas (McAir) in the USA with the remaining 73 to be assembled by the Government Aircraft Factories (GAF) in Victoria.
The first RAAF Hornet, A21-101, made its first public appearance at the McAir plant at St Louis on 29 October 1984. Two aircraft, A21-101 and A21-102, were then ferried in a non-stop record-breaking trans-Pacific 15-hour flight on 17 May 1985. The 6672 nm (12,360 km) flight from US Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, to RAAF Williamtown, made possible by inflight refuelling from US Air Force (USAF) KC-10 tankers, was led by No 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU) Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Brian Robinson.
However, these were not the first RAAF Hornets to arrive in Australia. A21-103 and A21-104 had been flown inside a USAF C-5 Galaxy from St Louis, Missouri, arriving at Avalon, Victoria, on 6 June 1984. These were in a knocked-down state for Australian assembly and, on 16 November, A21-103 was rolled out by GAF at Avalon. Concurrently, at the main Tactical Fighter Group base at Williamtown, Mirage A3-3 (the first Australian-assembled Mirage) was flying a sortie to celebrate its 21st anniversary. It had first flown on 16 November 1963.
A21-103 made its first flight at Avalon on 26 February 1985 in the hands of McAir test pilot, Rudi Haug. On this flight, A21-103 reached a speed of Mach 1.6 at an altitude of 40,000 ft. This aircraft was accepted by the RAAF on 30 April 1985, formally handed over on 4 May, and then delivered to 2OCU at Williamtown on 17 May. The first 14 aircraft (A21-1 to A21-7, A21-101 to A21-107) were all allocated to 2OCU to enable the commencement of Hornet instructor training. 2OCU's Hornets were marked with a yellow and black tail flash, to which the unit's tiger head insignia was later added.
2OCU began the first RAAF Hornet conversion course at Williamtown on 19 August 1985. The F/A-18 simulator was installed later that year, and on 25 November the first single-seater (A21-1) was accepted.
The first operational RAAF Hornet unit was No 3 Squadron, reformed at Williamtown. The first two aircraft, A21-8 and A21-9, were collected from GAF at Avalon and delivered to Williamtown on 29 August 1986. These aircraft were in low-visibility squadron markings with the Southern Cross on the fins and the Fleur-de-Lis (from No 3 Squadron's heritage in France during World War I) and flash on the fuselage spine. This marking was later changed to the No 3 Squadron winged-bomb badge. No 3 Squadron celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1991 and one aircraft, A21-57, was adorned with special fin markings for the occasion.
The next unit to re-equip was No 77 Squadron at Williamtown in May 1987. No 77 Squadron's Korean lion marking, known as "grumpy monkey", was applied with a flash on the spine and a black arrow on the fins.
The final RAAF Hornet unit was No 75 Squadron. This unit had relinquished its Mirages, the last operational in the RAAF, at RAAF Darwin in September 1988. Meanwhile, crews were already undergoing Hornet conversion at Williamtown and the first aircraft, A21-26, had been painted in the black diamond markings of No 75 Squadron and flown in April 1988. A further unit marking was No 75 Squadron's magpie, with a flash on the spine. No 75 Squadron commenced operations at RAAF Tindal with Hornets in September 1988.
On 15 December 1988, the last RAAF dual-seat Hornet, A21-118, was delivered. Each squadron is allocated one or two dual-seaters, the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) operate one, and the remainder equip 2OCU for their primary role of type conversion.
The last RAAF Hornet, single-seater A21-57, was handed over on 12 May 1990 and delivered by ARDU test pilot Squadron Leader Ron Haack to Williamtown on 14 May. Two days later, the Officer Commanding No 81 Wing, Group Captain Ray Conroy, displayed this aircraft at RAAF Fairbairn for its official handover, five years after the first aircraft had been delivered across the Pacific.
In 1991 the RAAF commenced forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) pod operations with the Hornet. This pod enables the pilot to navigate and acquire the target at night by the passive use of FLIR, which is displayed on the head-up display. The target can then be designated with a laser spot tracker for the guidance of laser-guided munitions.
RAAF Hornets from Air Combat Group maintain a presence for the five-power Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) at Butterworth, Malaysia and Singapore, with deployments several times a year. In addition, Hornets have exercised in the Philippines, Thailand and United States. Since 2001, RAAF F/A-18 Hornets have also been deployed to Diego Garcia and the Middle East Area of Operations as a part of the RAAF's commitment to the International Coalition Against Terrorism, and have also flown aerial patrols within Australia as a security force during the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.