Navy’s Trash Is NASA’s Treasure As Surplus F/A-18Bs Begin Arriving At Armstrong Flight Test Center

The NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center has taken delivery of the first of three F/A-18B Hornet jets it expects to receive from the U.S. Navy. This will be the largest influx of “new” aircraft the center has seen in nearly a decade and could be a major boon to its research efforts, including studies related to quieter supersonic travel and why U.S. military pilots might suffer from dangerous hypoxia-like symptoms.

The two-seat F/A-18B arrived at Armstrong, which is situated within Edwards Air Force Base in California, after flying from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland on Nov. 13, 2018. High winds forced the aircraft to make an overnight stop at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. NASA did not say what unit the aircraft had previously belonged to, but Pax River is home to the U.S. Naval Test Pilots School and various research and development squadrons.

NASA is set to get another B-model Hornet from Pax River before the end of 2018. A third example will come from Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth in Texas in 2019. The last time Armstrong took possession of three aircraft in a similarly short amount of time, was when the center took delivery of three ex-U.S. Air Force F-15D Eagles in 2010.

In March 2018, the Navy disclosed that it had approved plans to begin retiring its F/A-18A-D model Hornets, also known collectively as Legacy Hornets. The U.S. Marine Corps will receive a significant number of the F/A-18C/Ds as a result, but the F/A-18A/B types are becoming available for other uses, including by NASA. The Navy does expect to continue flying at least some of the older Hornets operationally itself through 2026 and for non-combat support missions, such as in the role of aggressors, for some time after that, as well.

“Although the aircraft Armstrong is receiving are nearing the end of their service life for the Navy, some of the aircraft could have extended use for the center,” Tim Krall, a flight operations engineer at Armstrong said in an official NASA press release. “There are fewer flight hours on research and mission support aircraft than the frequent flight rates required for the military.”

The “newish” Hornets could also have much more life left in them for these types of limited research missions as compared to the NASA’s existing three F/A-18s, which include two single-seat A models and a lone B model. Armstrong received these from the Navy between 1984 and 1991, according to an official fact sheet.

NASA personnel at the Armstrong Flight Center talk with US Navy Lieutenant Commander Mike Shelton, in the flight suit, after he brought the first of three F/A-18Bs to the facility on Nov. 13, 2018., NASA

Since then, NASA has used these jets primarily for research support, which includes flying as chase planes during tests of other aircraft and taking photos and videos during those events. In addition, its F/A-18B is configured to be able to stream full-motion video straight to engineers on the ground to further help monitor the basic safety of any test flight. The two-seat aircraft also has the benefit of a second individual to operate the various mission systems and reduce the workload in the pilot.

The Hornets have also taken part in research in their own right. In August 2018, the F/A-18s, along with Armstrong’s three F-15Ds, began supporting research into persistent reports of hypoxia-like symptoms from U.S. military pilots. This is a serious issue has dogged the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps for years and NASA is helping build a baseline dataset of what physiological effects fighter pilots can expect to endure during various flight maneuvers. This will help military researchers better identify and understand abnormal episodes.

NASA’s existing F/A-18B Hornet., NASA

The same day the former Navy F/A-18B touched down at Armstrong, NASA’s two-seat Hornet also flew a test flight in the Houston and Galveston, Texas areas during which it employed a “low-boom” or “quiet thump technique” to reduce the felt impact of sonic booms on communities down below. This is part of a broader effort to explore supersonic air travel that is nearly “boomless,” which could have a game-changing impact on both commercial and military aviation.

The “quiet” supersonic flight program is a lead up to the start of testing of the experimental X-59A Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) test plane. On Nov. 16, 2018, NASA and Lockheed Martin announced the official start of the X-59A’s construction. The aircraft will hopefully make its first flight in 2021.

NASA doesn’t appear to have decided whether it will use the jets to replace the planes it already has or add them to its existing fleet. If the organization did decide to expand its capacity, this could allow it perform more research missions in total. With additional aircraft, there would be more alternate jets available in case another one is not available for a scheduled flight due to a maintenance issue or other problem, as well. 

NASA could also take on more of the Navy’s F/A-18A/Bs as parts sources or for static research purposes. There are a number of non-flyable Hornet airframes at Armstrong already.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the F/A-18Bs NASA is getting now will actually find their way into regular service or will be airworthy enough to support its various mission requirements. At present, officials at Armstrong plan to conduct a fly-off of sorts between the first two jets and pick the best performing one to add to the active fleet as soon as possible. After taking delivery of the third aircraft in 2019, NASA then expects to make a separate decision about whether or not to fully accept one or both of the remaining jets into service, as well.

One of NASA’s F/A-18A Hornets., NASA

Before the evaluations can even begin, the Hornets will each need a months-long phase maintenance period to ensure everything is working properly. They will then need modifications in order to accept the NASA-specific mission equipment found on the aircraft it already has in inventory.

The F/A-18Bs will retain their overall gray tactical scheme until NASA formally accepts them into service, after which they would get the trademark white-with-blue cheat line paint job. Each one will receive a civil registration code, or N-number, and sport the NASA logo on their tails, though. Since arriving at Armstrong, the first Hornet from Pax River has gotten the N-number N868NA.

Armstrong hasn’t given a firm timeline for when it might make a final decision on how many ex-Navy F/A-18Bs it will add to its fleet in the near term. But given the demands of its research programs and the aging state of its present fleet, it seems very likely that we’ll see at least one new Hornet in NASA colors sooner rather than later.

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