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California and the West

Navy Carrier Puts New Jet to Test

Defense: Trials begin on the Super Hornet, designed to replace the venerated F-14 Tomcat. For pilots, it may end one love affair and start another.


ABOARD THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER ABRAHAM LINCOLN — In aviation or athletics, it is never easy to replace a legend in the lineup.

Comparisons are inevitably invidious. Nostalgia and loyalty are high hurdles.

And so some sympathy might be in order for the 33 tons of metal and advanced electronics called the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

It has fallen to this much-debated, much-analyzed aircraft to supplant the vaunted F-14 Tomcat, the Navy plane that Tom Cruise immortalized in the 1986 movie "Top Gun."

After a decade of research and development, the Super Hornet, officially the E and F version of the Hornet class of fighter, is on the verge of joining the fleet on the high seas as "the pointy end of the spear" of U.S. foreign policy.

For a while at least, the Super Hornet will be an all-West Coast show: The first squadron of planes was tested at China Lake, is based at Lemoore, Calif., and is assigned to a carrier whose home port is Everett, Wash.

If all goes well with the West Coast fleet, the East Coast fleet will follow.

The first batch of pilots and weapons officers who will fly the Super Hornet on a real deployment began doing landings and takeoffs this week from the carrier Lincoln, steaming 100 miles off the Southern California coast.

There is a squadron of Navy brass hats and aerospace industry technicians aboard the Lincoln to see if the dozens of technological concerns about the Hornet can be satisfied, or at least explained away.

Like every weapon system since the slingshot, the Hornet has its critics.

In the Congress, the Pentagon and the General Accounting Office, doubters have questioned the cost, capability and strategic assumptions behind the plane. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) calls it the Superfluous Hornet.

In a couple of weeks, Feingold will have another shot at the F-18 when the Navy asks Congress for approval to go thumbs-up on full production: 548 Super Hornets at $50.1 million per plane. The main contractor is Boeing, with work also done by Northrop Grumman and Raytheon plants in Southern California.

Analysts are aboard the Lincoln to worry about payload bring-back, survivability, service ceiling, sustainability and other aviation arcana.

But there is another constituency that has to be satisfied: the aviators who will fly the plane, particularly those who have flown the Tomcat.

"The F-14 community loves its plane, but I think they're going to be convinced this is a better airplane," said Super Hornet pilot Lt. Beth Creighton. "The goal of an airplane is to shoot down bad guys and destroy their stuff. The Super Hornet will be great at that."

Naval aviators are ferociously loyal to their planes, even as they curse the quirks that have afflicted every plane since Wilbur and Orville left the bicycle shop.

For example, if you are in an elevator with aviators who once flew the A-6 Intruder, it would be best not to suggest that the Pentagon was correct in phasing out the blunt-nosed bomber in 1997. Your survivability could not be assured under such a condition.

The loyalty among Navy fliers to the F-14 is no less fervent--although it was hardly love at first sight.

When the Tomcat joined the fleet in 1974, there were engine problems, stalling problems and handling problems. There were crashes. Skeptics called it the F-14 Turkey.

Turning a term of derision into one of camaraderie, Tomcat loyalists for years held an annual Turkey Trot Ball at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.

With its problems finally fixed after years of redesign, the Tomcat became widely acknowledged as the best fighter ever built for speed, endurance and lethality (although many an F-4 Phantom pilot might disagree).

"The F-14 was unique among aircraft in that it earned more respect as it got older," said James W. Huston, former F-14 aviator turned San Diego lawyer and author whose next novel, "Flash Point," to be released next month, has an F-14 on the cover.

The F-14 shot Libyans from the sky, forced the Achille Lauro hijackers to land their getaway plane, provided air dominance during the Gulf War and led bombing raids on Kosovo.

For more than two decades, the Navy had a standing order that no carrier could deploy without two 14-plane squadrons of Tomcats to intimidate any potential adversary.

Past glories aside, the Tomcat's active-duty days are limited. Each carrier now only has one Tomcat squadron, and there are no squadrons based on the West Coast. The early model Hornets have been sharing fighter duties with the Tomcat for more than a decade.

Now, with the Super Hornet on the horizon, the F-14 has a date later this decade with the Navy's retirement home for warplanes in the Arizona desert. The plane is old and maintenance problems are mounting.

Adm. Jay Johnson, chief of naval operations, calls the Super Hornet "the cornerstone of the future of carrier aviation." That sort of description used to be reserved for the Tomcat.

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