Looking Back: The F-18 Hornet Pre-Prototypes


All photos by Bob Finch

Around the time when Northrop’s YF-17 Cobra lost the U.S. Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter competition in the early 1970s, the U.S. Navy focused on creating a lightweight fighter of its own. Under direction of Congress, the YF-17 and its lightweight fighter technologies became the steppingstone for the F-18 Hornet.

Identified to replace the LTV A-7 Corsair II, the McDonnell A-4 Skyhawk and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs in service, Northrop partnered with McDonnell Douglas to modify the YF-17 into a carrier-capable multi-mission aircraft. It was during this time that Bob Finch saw prototypes of the F-17 Cobra, acting as F/A-18 Prototypes at both NAS Patuxent River and NAS Oceana, and took these photos.



After redesign, when compared to the YF-17 prototypes, about 10,000 pounds were added to the F-18 prototype, which included strengthening the fuselage for carrier operations, adding beefier landing gear and a larger tail hook, and creating more fuel tank space for increased volume. Originally, the first production versions were the F-18A single seat fighter and TF-18A twin-seat jets. Another variant was the A-18A, which would have been a specialized attack version, but those capabilities were folded into the F/A-18A Hornet instead of a different, stand-alone version.

Northrop’s F-18L (Lightweight) version was expected to attract export orders, but in the end, Northrop and McDonnell Douglas wrestled through a series of law suits that ended with McDonnell Douglas as the principal manufacturer and Northrop receiving a financial settlement and the production of the rear part of new airframes. The “L” version didn’t attract much interest.



Nowadays, integration of the F-18 Super Hornets have allowed all but a few of the F/A-18A, B, C, and D “Legacy” Hornets to be retired, some forty-five years after the Hornet program was first launched.



This is what the original YF-17 prototypes looked like, acting as Navy Hornet prototypes. “201570” in the photo above is not a Navy Bureau Number, but actually is the Air Force serial 72-1570. 


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