Friday, September 8, 2000

Workload makes Hornet jets
candidates for refurbishing

By Chuck Vinch
Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — The high operations tempo of recent years has pushed hundreds of the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet attack jets toward the end of their service life faster than anticipated and has sparked a 12-year, $878 million program to keep the workhorse tactical aircraft flying.

A total of 355 older F-A/18 C and D models, roughly half the Navy’s current Hornet inventory, are scheduled to be refurbished by fiscal 2013 as part of a "service life extension program," or SLEP, Lt. Cmdr. Dawn Cutler, a Navy spokeswoman in the Pentagon, said Thursday.

But the service has earmarked funding for repairs on only 57 planes over its current five-year budget plan.

"That means we still have 298 planes to be done, and funding has not yet been identified for those," Cutler said. "But the Navy is very confident it will receive funding to continue the SLEP through 2013."

One two-seat Hornet D already has been refurbished, and work on another is scheduled in the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. But the first single-seat Hornet Cs are not scheduled to hit repair depots until fiscal 2004, Cutler said.

Navy officials emphasized that the aircraft is no inherent structural defect with the aircraft. "It’s not that the aircraft themselves are wearing out faster than we expected, it’s just that we’re using them much more than we originally planned when they were built," Cutler said.

The Hornet, which was heavily used during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and other Middle East operations, as well as NATO’s airstrikes on Yugoslavia last year, is designed to last 6,000 flying hours and 2,000 catapult launches and arrested landings on aircraft carriers.

The planes targeted for refurbishing are among the first Hornets purchased by the Navy and will average more than 14 years old by the time the SLEP gets into gear, Cutler said.

The aircraft are showing the greatest fatigue in the center fuselage section, which will be replaced. That action also will address about 70 percent of the fatigue issues associated with the Hornet’s arresting gear, but a separate three-year assessment program will have to determine what needs to be done to address the other 30 percent of that issue, Cutler said.

The SLEP is expected to extend the life of each Hornet by about seven years, which should accommodate about 700 additional carrier takeoffs and landings.

"We haven’t placed any restrictions at this time" on how the planes are flown, Cutler said, adding that the repairs are to be carried out well before any of their aircraft reach the end of their service lifespan.

The Hornet is the Navy’s workhorse tactical aircraft, able to engage targets both in the air and on the ground. The service recently signed a five-year contract with Boeing Corp. worth almost $9 billion to purchase 222 Super Hornet F-A/18 E and F models, a larger, more advanced version of the plane.

The Navy also is joining the Air Force and Marine Corps in development of the new Joint Strike Fighter.

Along with the SLEP, service officials are considering swapping up to 20 of the Navy’s sea-based F-A/18s for a like number of Marine Corps Hornets. Most of the Corps’ Hornets fly from shore bases and have not been stressed by repeated carrier takeoffs and landings.

That move would extend the service life of the planes by more than 12 years. "It’s just an idea being kicked around," Cutler said.

No programs are being cut directly because of the Hornet refurbishment program, but Cutler acknowledged that a recent broader reduction in Navy funding has stretched out the purchase of the Super Hornet and some other programs.