Last Friday, the Navy lost one of its 530-strong fleet of Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets. It was not lost in combat, training, or in a carrier landing. According to the Navy, it blew off the deck of USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) in heavy weather in the Mediterranean Sea.
A Navy press release acknowledged that the Super Hornet is assigned to Carrier Air Wing 1 but did not divulge which squadron the airplane was assigned to nor whether it was a single-seat F/A-18E or two-seat F/A-18F. Air Wing 1 has four Super Hornet Squadrons;
- VFA-11 Red Rippers (F/A-18F); VFA-81 Sunliners (F/A-18E); VFA- 211 Checkmates (F/A-18E); VFA-34 Blue Blasters (F/A-18E)
However, an unnamed source told Seapower magazine the airplane was an F/A-18F. That would make it a more costly two-seat variant of the Super Hornet with a price tag around $80 million. Thus far, the Navy has not announced whether it will recover the Super Hornet from the sea floor but if it is a two-set F model which carries additional sensors and weapons systems, the service may be more likely to go ahead.
A sailor was injured due to the heavy weather but is in stable condition with a full recovery expected, according to the Navy. It’s unclear whether the injury was associated with the aircraft which departed the flight deck. U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa spokesperson Cmdr. Richlyn Ivey confirmed to USNI News that no one was in the Super Hornet when it slid overboard.
Fighters and other aircraft are typically “chained down” when parked on aircraft carrier flight decks when not in operation, literally immobilized with heavy chains and tensioners which are secured to tie-down eyes in the deck. The arrangement works effectively even in high seas suggesting the probability of human error in chaining down this particular Super Hornet.
The Truman deployed from its port in Norfolk, VA last December, bound for the Middle East. However, it was ordered to remain in the Mediterranean Sea region rather than transiting the Suez Canal thanks to the rising tension with Russia before it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The carrier has remained in the Med since, supporting NATO air policing over Eastern Europe. It has also deployed some of its embarked aircraft to forward operating locations in the area. The Truman’s Air Wing took part in an exercise called “Neptune Strike 2022” in the Adriatic Sea and participated in three further carrier exercises with the Italian ITS Cavour strike groups and French carrier Charles de Gaulle’s Task Force 473.
The last time the Navy lost a carrier-borne fighter in similar fashion was in 1995 when an F-14 Tomcat aboard the USS Independence blew another Tomcat into the water with thrust from its jet engine.
As a number of observers have pointed out, the Navy has suffered a spate of aircraft losses in the past eight months including the loss of an F-35C Lightning II fighter that crashed into the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in January, before sliding off and sinking into the South China Sea. In March, the Navy recovered the F-35 from 12,000 feet of water. With an average depth of 4,900 feet, scooping the Super Hornet from the bottom of the Mediterranean may be a bit easier.
The loss cannot be viewed casually given the cost and importance of every Super Hornet. That was underlined by a GAO report to the House Armed Services Committee early in June which noted that the average mission-capable rate for the Navy’s F/A-18E/Fs has fallen from 54.9% in 2015 to 51% as of last year.
That number means that only half of the Super Hornet fleet (265 airplanes) is mission ready at any given time. Another one of that small pool of aircraft has been scratched.