Though it lost to the YF-16 in the USAF’s Lightweight Fighter competition, the YF-17 proved itself to be a very good design, and with few modifications became what is the US Navy’s primary carrier based fighter, as well as the main aircraft of numerous foreign air arms, the F/A-18 Hornet. The Hornet, or Bug as it’s often called, was the world’s first true multi-role fighter, which can shift missions from air to air, to a ground attack role with the flip of a switch, hence the F/A (Fighter/Attack) designation. Since the early days, the Hornet’s mission has evolved and expanded to include roles ranging from Fleet Defense to Attack to SEAD/DEAD, and more recently Electronic Warfare/Jamming and Refueling.
One of the Hornet’s biggest problems in the early day was its limited range. With two thirsty afterburning engines aboard, the early Hornets had a very low combat radius, even with external tanks, especially when carrying large, heavy and high drag load outs. After nearly twenty years of service and many major model (C/D) and Avionics block upgrades, it was time to refine the Bug. This refinement created the larger and superior E/F models, known as Super Hornets. The F/A-18E is the single seat version of the Super Hornet, and is the larger version of the C model.
To the casual observer they appear to be the same aircraft, but the E model is approximately 30% larger and carries a lot more internal fuel. The easiest way to tell them apart is looking at the shape of the LEX strakes, which are more round on the Super Hornets, or the elevators, which have squared off edges on the E/F models. Another surefire way to determine if you’re looking at a Legacy Hornet as opposed to a Superbug is the round air intakes for the big F414 engines. In an effort to decrease radar cross section, the Superbug features diamond shaped intakes, as well as many jagged edges on landing gear doors and supplemental flight control surfaces.
The Super Hornet has already gone a long way to standardize the Navy’s fleet of aircraft, taking over the roles once held by the A-6, A-7, EA-6B, some retired F/A-18A’s, as well as the legendary F-14. VRS’s FS2004 version won high praise among the sim community, introducing not only high degrees of systems programming, but also introducing weapons! After a long wait, a completely new model has finally been introduced for FSX, and after some early glitches with the fly by wire system, has come of age as one of, if not the finest fighter aircraft created for FS.
Installation, Setup, and Documentation
Installation came courtesy of a standard auto installer, which was followed by an activation utility. VRS’s activation provides a few different options, but is self explanatory and well laid out in the manual.
Speaking of the manual it is a beast to say the least. The PDF file is well over 200 pages long, and has to rival at least some of the material handed out to real F/A-18E pilots. In fact, I know that some of it is the exact same, as the NATOPS manual was studied extensively to not only create the Superbug’s flight model, but to also create all the systems to ensure accuracy. As much as I generally like to ignore manuals, this one is a mandatory read, not only to understand the acronym laden language of the Superbug’s cockpit, but to also properly set up the plane and sim settings, which need to be just right to get in the air.
In addition to an incredibly detailed and thorough manual, a special tab in the ACM (Aircraft Configuration Manager) also contains a full checklist that is a bit less detailed than the manual, but is easier to go through in a flight setting. Once again VRS does an excellent job, not only covering procedures ranging from startup to shutdown, but also contains information for formation takeoff procedures, carrier procedures, emergency procedures, and many more.
The navigation for these complicated documents could not be simpler however, as VRS created a table of contents type graphic based off the real NATOPS pocket checklist with easy access tabs for all sections of the procedure book. Additionally, full conversion charts for TACAN frequencies are covered (in the reference page), as well as an easy access guide to all the keyboard shortcuts the Superbug uses to help keep your head up in the (virtual) cockpit instead of looking down to click buttons and hotspots in the heat of simulated combat.
ACM also contains literally hundreds of options for adjusting the Superhornet, with everything from failures of just about every component possible, to visual model adjustments targeted at helping relieve the immense amount of burden put on your computer. One of the most useful settings is the VC Level of Detail slider, which allows you to adjust the polygon count from a basic (but still visually stunning) representation of the E model Hornet right up to a seemingly perfect replica, with even the smallest details (such as the notch in the head of a flathead screw) rendered in stunning 3D.
Other options include checkboxes for features such as “Lite” avionics (basically a simplified version of the full product that is easier for new pilots to grasp), other visual modifications (such as VC glass reflections), realism/ease of flying options such as deleting the HUD camera (making it easier to see the lower part of the pitch ladder), as well as a cold and dark option for those simmers who are daring enough to try a full startup procedure in a frontline naval fighter.
ACM also is your source for options such as fully custom load outs (with literally thousands of combinations of stores possible), fuel loading, setting waypoints/ DMPI points, and many more flight and configuration options.
All in all, between the massive manual, ACM resources, and the in sim documentation (on the kneeboard), even a novice could figure out how to get the Superbug up and running with plenty of patience. Every conceivable thing is covered from the design and history of both the real and virtual Bugs, up to the key commands required to set the radar to AACQ ACM mode.
With this much detail just in the documentation, you can only imagine the kind of detail that was put into the aircraft itself, I’ll give you a hint, most computers cannot run the Superbug at more than 10 FPS on the highest detail settings.
After seeing the attention to detail paid on the manuals and checklists for the Superbug, I was (to say the least) eagerly anticipating selecting and loading up an F/A-18E to take it up for a spin. For my first flight, I left most of the settings towards the upper end of the sliders, and still managed reasonable frame rates (between 15 and 20). That is 15-20 renderings per second of the most detailed object I’ve ever seen in FS. I was simply amazed from the second the loading bar went away with the amount of effort and modeling put into this virtual cockpit, from the beautiful and faithful replication of the HOTAS controls (and that includes the small buttons too, not just the stick and throttles themselves), to the subtle reflection in the MFDs, everything seemed perfect.
Now I haven’t had the privilege of getting into a real Superbug cockpit (yet), but based on viewing dozens of pictures I can not pick up any differences between the real McCoy and the VRS version, save for the position of some screws (the point of rotation, not the actual location of the screws). This VC has literally hundreds of switches, knobs, dials, and buttons, nearly all of which are not only animated, but functional to the utmost ability provided by FSX’s programming code. In addition, five complex avionic screens are provided (HUD, three MFDs, and the touch screen up front control), all very much configurable to the pilot’s tastes, much like the real Hornets.
Besides being seemingly 100% accurate, the VC is great for flying too, with all aspects easy to see and easy to interpret. Just like the real thing, all information critical to flying and the mission is available to the pilot front and center on the HUD, and all other information and data (such as frequencies) are easy to see on the up front control directly below the HUD. This can be credited as much to Boeing/McDonnell Douglas as VRS, but the implementation in the simulator is flawless, so credit is given to both.
The cockpit of the Hornet is pretty much standard for a 4th/4.5th generation fighter, with multiple (three in this case) MFDs, with an up front control just below a large Heads Up Display. As far as I can tell, and as much as Jon and the VRS crew could determine from the declassified portions of the F/A-18E manual, the MFDs are accurate to their real world counterparts, with the data such as an HSI/Localizer, moving map, stores displays, and radar, displayed in a full screen format with menu button options overlaid around the edge (controlled by bezel mounted soft keys). A feature that I never knew of before was the fact that there’s a full CAS (crew advisory system) that overlays all sorts of caution and error messages, though unlike the CAS on many newer civilian jets, this CAS still uses the acronyms adopted from the days of the caution light (idiot light) advisory panel, which are often difficult to decipher without the manual close by.
One of the cooler things VRS did that I had not previously seen in the simulator was the inclusion of some simulator related CAS messages, which warn the user if the flight controls haven’t been properly initialized (through swiping the controls in all axis to set up the Fly By Wire programming), or if the realism settings are not correct (the general realism slider must be at maximum for the FBW flight computer logic to properly interpret the control inputs).
I know I’m getting away from the simple modeling/texture aspect of the VC, but I feel that it is important to go off on little digressions here and there with this review, because even more so than most aircraft, everything is interconnection and related in some way.
Speaking of textures, the ones in the Superbug’s VC are to die for. They are without question some of the sharpest and most detailed textures I’ve ever seen, starting with the pilot’s reflection in the three rearview dog fighting mirrors and canopy, right down to the chipped/worn paint on the floor near the rudder pedals. While most Superhornets are pretty new, the nature of the flying is very high energy and strenuous, and the cockpits show their age. It’s not to an excessive degree, but there are definite signs of weathering, with paint missing in some more high traffic areas.
I guess I have to come up with at least one bad thing, and it’s going to be a tough one to call and very minor, but I feel that to match some of the weathering in other areas, maybe some of the paint near some switches could have been rubbed off or thinner, but that may create issues in knowing what switch it is, and with a few hundred to remember in this particular model that could be problematic, so no real issue there.
Overall this VC is absolutely top notch, with the only possible complaints being too detailed (as in it can hurt frame rates) and not enough weathering in some areas, though in fairness that could hinder identification of switches, not to mention military aircraft as a general rule are very well kept.
Exterior Model and Textures
After inspecting my new virtual office, the exterior of the Superbug was begging for a brief pan-around (the simulated substitute for a walk around preflight) inspection. For my first flight, I took what is probably an uncommon approach for VRS Bug pilots, choosing to forgo weapons and other stores in favor of a clean bird in the perfectly represented VFA-106 Gladiators textures for an attempt at impersonating the Super Hornet Tactical Demonstration, flown by instructors at the two fleet replacement squadrons (VFA-106 in the east, and VFA-122 in the west), both of which I have had the pleasure of seeing at shows on multiple occasions. I’ll leave the report from my virtual air shows for later, focusing entirely on the stunning visual model that VRS has assembled and provided for us to fly.
In short, I could find only a single flaw in the modeling of this aircraft, and that is that the turbine blades in the front section of the F414 engines do not appear to turn when under power, though one has to look pretty hard to notice this. Aside from this apparent flaw, everything else is in order from the tip of the nose cone to the rear of the tailplanes/stabilators and turkey feathers (exhaust petals).
Unlike some other aircraft, and very much like the Aerosoft F-16, the VRS Superbug features almost none of the ground clutter type eye candy that often accompanies higher end add-ons, instead with all available polygon resources on making the most faithful 3D representation possible. I found just a few exceptions to this, with the only “ground clutter” on this aircraft being the catapult shuttle and holdback bar that appear when in position and ready to go on the catapult, as well as intake/nozzle covers, as well as a few other remove before flight objects including chocks. The latter only appears once the aircraft is fully powered down after a mission.
The F/A-18E is a very unique aircraft, with beautiful lines inherited from its F/A-18 roots. While it may not have the same level of fame and popularity as its swing wing predecessor, the F-14, the Hornet is a very popular aircraft. As already discussed, the E model shares many common features with the Legacy Hornets, and many of the parts that are not shared are essentially just enlarged versions of the original. The outward canted tails of the early Hornets are not only kept on the E/F models, but are enlarged, as are the leading edge extension strakes.
Moving back to the wings and strakes, I have always liked the way the Hornet looks, and VRS definitely captured that essence. The larger strakes definitely make for a different look, and the larger wing is an important part of what makes the F/A-18E as strong a fighter as it is. Though not quite as maneuverable as the original Hornet, the E model features larger leading edge devices, which are some kind of cross between a flap that changes the shape of the wing, and a leading edge slat that you would find on an airliner. To save space on the decks of aircraft carriers and crowded ramps, the wings fold up to vertical a little over halfway down the span, necessitating a fairing to cover the hinges and hydraulics.
Not only is the external aspect of this modeled, but the internal hinges and inner workings of the wing fold are modeled too. The trailing edge of the wings feature some fairly large flaps, which, in combination with the larger wing and leading edge devices help to lower the stalling speed of the Super Hornet to a more acceptable level for carrier operations, and short/improvised field operations for those countries who utilize F/A-18s but lack the sophisticated super carriers that the US has to base their dual role jets off of. The trailing edge flaps on the E/F model Hornets are a more sophisticated two panel arrangement then the simpler and slightly smaller arrangement on the legacy hornets. When viewed from the back in a dirty configuration, the wing looks much larger than you would expect, and in many ways reminds me of the flap arrangements on some of Boeing’s other products, such as the 737. It appears that a modified slotted flap design is used, and certainly helps maintain airflow over the flap panels at low speeds and higher angles of attack.
While we’re talking about the wing, it’s notable to mention that when viewed from head on, the external stores (weapons, fuel tanks, pylons, etc) are angled roughly 4 degrees outward from the aircraft’s centerline. This is not an error in modeling however, rather how the real F/A-18E is equipped, as there were issues with stores colliding after release in some cases when the aircraft was originally tested with the straight pylons from the Legacy Hornets.
The tail section of the Hornet is just as well done as the rest of the plane, and contains probably the most important piece of equipment on this aircraft, and a great source of pride to the men and women who fly her, the tail hook. In addition to the arrester hook that makes the carrier landings possible, the exhaust and afterburners for the twin afterburning turbines are located here, and modeled beautifully, the APU intakes and exhaust are present as well, and once again is an apparently perfect representation of the real McCoy.
Now a stunning visual model is important, however without a great set of skins the plane just doesn’t take on its full character. VRS includes literally dozens (42) of beautiful textures for the F/A-18E for FSX, representing a full compliment of Super Hornets, from the flight test paint jobs with reference markings, to regular line jets for numerous line (VFA) and flight test/evaluation (VX) squadrons, and of course a few beautiful Commander and CAG schemes for some of the included squadrons, plus a fictional set of textures for Blue Angels 1-6.
Each and every livery matches its real world counterpart very well, with the biggest differences I saw being in the level of cleanliness of the aircraft (the real world planes are washed from time to time, a luxury not easy to re-create in FSX). That said, the amount of weathering/staining/dirt/grease present on each and every aircraft is not only believable, but accurate. Given the age of the Super Hornet fleet, the majority of the planes aren’t exactly dirty, but being working aircraft still have some staining, especially around actuators, fill ports, and inspection panels.
All the markings on the aircraft are crisp and legible, and the tail flashes, especially on the CAG birds are as sharp as they come. The textures on all other areas such as under the speed brake panels on the strakes and the hinges of the wings are also very sharp, and provide a believable view of the “inside” of the wing of the Bug. The only place where the textures aren’t as sharp and crisp as the real deal are on some of the weapons (mainly the AGM-88 HARM, and AIM-9M/X Sidewinder), with some areas that just don’t look quite as perfect as everything else on the Super Hornet, though one has to really be looking closely to see this extremely minor issue.
This is a new section of the review for me, as I have never had a plane with such in-depth features before, and they need to be addressed separately. The first special feature and one that I would have to assume is new to FSX is the fly by wire control logic employed by VRS to mimic the real world bug. Now admittedly I have absolutely no practical programming/code experience, so I am no more qualified to tell you how this is employed then I am to explain specs on the compression in the F414 engines, but here’s the basic idea.
Instead of directly passing along joystick/yoke inputs to the controls, the VRS Hornet’s CAS (Control Augmentation System) processes what you WANT the plane to do, and then adjusts the control surfaces to achieve that motion. This is used for everything from maintaining stability at high angles of attack right down to the amount of travel in the nose wheel steering system. To quote the manual “We took control away from Flight Simulator and use our own”. The use of their own software to control the aircraft also helps to enhance realism not only in flying but in looks as well, with the control surfaces making seemingly random uncommanded movements to keep the aircraft tracking how the pilot desires.
A further benefit of the CAS/FBW controls comes with one of the Super Hornet’s biggest achievements, firing/dropping ordinance. In many standalone simulators, you can drop a 2000 pound MK84 off the left wing of the Hornet with absolutely no change in the handling of the aircraft. In the real world, the loss of not only that much weight, but also the drag creates a lifting and yaw away from the release. If a pilot is not ahead of the aircraft, the release of a heavy load will change your bank angle a noticeable amount. The loss of that weight (or dropping the external tanks if challenged by a SAM or enemy fighter) not only lessens drag, but also enhances maneuverability, allowing the aircraft to pull more g’s and turn a tighter circle to avoid the threat.
Speaking of SAMs, ground threats are modeled in this simulation, and are activated through the ACM. Threats include surface to air missiles and guns, and are placed in the simulator at or near navigational waypoints and navaids (VORs). These hostile zones can be combated through the use of ECM gear, chaff, flares, maneuvering, and HARM missiles, just like the real world! When hit, the extensive failure system of the VRS Bug comes into play disabling/damaging components as determined by the severity and location of the hit.
One of the few things I have “real” world experience in is weapons employment and AAM avoidance thanks to time spent in an A-10C Full Mission Trainer, and as far as I can tell, the same tactics I used/was taught/refined in that sim with an instructor worked like a charm in FSX as well. ACM also has options for failing components manually much like the default FSX failure mode, though like everything else improves on default by a HUGE margin.
While we’re talking about fancy firecrackers, I guess this would be a good time to discuss armament on the Superbug. Now as of right now it CANNOT destroy any sim objects as far as I know, you can still fire/release ordinance and judge the effects for yourself. Anything and everything that you can load up on the F/A-18E can be dropped or fired, ranging from AIM-9 Sidewinders (and other AAMs such as the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-120 AMRAAM) to AGMs like the Maverick, SLAMMER, HARM, and JSOW, to bombs of all types from dumb 500 MK-82s right up to and including 2000 pound precision guided munitions such as JDAM and Paveway series weapons. Other load out options include external fuel tanks, buddy refueling pods, a FLIR system, empty pylons, and empty stations (no pylon or weapon).
Another improvement that VRS made to FSX is the inclusion of air to air refueling! Unlike default FSX where the only aerial refueling you can get is from a 737 in a carrier landing mission, the ACM provides a utility to set parameters for tanker aircraft as well as some included ones for commonly used real world tankers (A330 MRTT, S-3 Viking, F/A-18E with buddy pods, parameters for the default A321, etc).
X, Y, and Z coordinates for the center of the drogue (basket) are either provided or entered, as well as tolerances for breakaway once connected. Not only do the tankers gas up the Superbug, but they also provide a TACAN frequency to help pilots find a gas station in the sky.
The last section I’ll put in here is the effects included with the Super Hornet. First and foremost (and my favorite) is the included vapor effects, which form vapor trails on the wingtips, as well as over the wings and LEX areas when pulling high g’s. Additionally, a mach shockwave vapor cone is included, forming the famous vapor cone around the middle and tail of the plain intermittently in the transonic region.
The afterburner effects are also incredible, with cones of blue/purple and orange plasma exploding out of the rear of the aircraft when the plane is in full blower. Other effects included range from the launch of weapons (and their associated flame/vapor trails for rockets/missiles) to a working ejection system (you are placed back in the plane after roughly 10-15 seconds, during that time the plane is uncontrollable).
Finally, a version of the A2A shockwave lights (VRS Xenon) are included as standard equipment with the package, a nice touch, though I don’t suggest using them while landing on a carrier in a warzone.
While I have been fortunate enough to see the Superbug perform Tactical Demos at numerous air shows, I have never been one of the lucky souls who get to ride or fly one. That said, the sound from outside the Hornet not only seems accurate, but I think it’s nearly perfect. Full conical sounds are included, meaning the engines sound different depending on what part of the plane you are spot/tower viewing from, and mimic what I remember about the real F414 sounds perfectly. The roar of the afterburners is especially accurate, with the deep roar of the raw fuel igniting in the tail cones begging for surround sound speakers turned up to the max.
On the inside the Bug is considerably quieter, as if VRS was able to record the sound one would hear if they were indeed wearing a current issue HGU-68 helmet with the MBU-20 oxygen mask and earplugs. The engine noise is present and pleasing, but not overpowering as I have experienced with other add-ons. All sorts of warning bells and whistles chirp any time the aircraft has any sort of caution, as well as a full Bitching Betty system to audibly announce any configuration sins committed by the pilot.
A sound aspect I had never written about before is the release of weapons. Once again, I have never had the privilege of pickling off a JDAM or calling “Fox One” as I fire an AMRAAM, however VRS had me believing that I just had with some interesting sound effects. A mechanical clunk comes with any bomb release, and a higher pitched “whoosh” (Yes that IS the technical term) fills my headphones/speakers as a missile flies off the rail. While I cannot confirm accuracy, I cannot stress enough how right/appropriate it sounds.
Flying the Bug
To fully explain how the Super Hornet handles I would be required to re-write the NATOPS manual, as it was used extensively by VRS to ensure accuracy. That said, I will put in my usual disclaimer of having never flown the real F/A-18E, and all discussion here is subject to being incorrect. My general impression of flying the Hornet was one of what I have to assume is not only accuracy, but also a challenging and fun flight model enabled by the CAS/Fly By Wire logic.
Perhaps the best indication of accuracy was the fact that, using a real world airshow performer’s diagram of the 2009 Selfridge Airshow (which featured a performance by the West Coast Super Hornet Demo Team of VFA-122), I was able to make a reasonable effort at mimicking the maneuvers flown by the F model Hornet from the show from the low transition takeoff to the high alpha pass, to the pitch rate demo, all using the checkpoints outlined on the diagram.
While I have no real world Superbug time, from seeing airshow demos, videos, and having what I believe is a decent understanding of the four fundamental forces of flight, I can say with confidence that the VRS Bug just feels right. It is very maneuverable at all speeds and angles of attack with predictable flying qualities, and plenty of power to spare. The Hornet has one of the widest flight envelopes known to man, with speeds ranging from around 100 knots to over Mach 2, and g-limits up to 9 all being well within the E model’s operating limits. In the 300-500 knot range, the Bug turns on a dime, and putting the throttles full foreword and engaging the afterburners produces some incredible acceleration (or maintaining speed in an 8-g minimum radius turn).
The Hornet, like all fighter aircraft, is designed to be flown with a stick, preferably a HOTAS stick. Unfortunately I was unable to get my hands on a HOTAS system (I am awaiting the HOTAS Warthog’s release) for this review. I think this is important to mention because, while I had some trouble keeping rolling maneuvers crisp (especially at higher speeds), I also had the advantage of keeping lower speed maneuvers (especially around the carrier) looking good because of larger physical movements required to fly with a yoke. Despite this part time handicap, I found the Hornet’s flight model to be top notch, doing everything I expected the aircraft to do and then some.
Even with a yoke, I could not only mimic the Super Hornet’s Tactical Demonstrations, but I could also perform surface operations on the boat and on shore with relative ease (after some getting used to the handling and fly by wire differences), as well as employing all weapons provided in the pack (flying proper delivery and release profiles), and avoiding nearly all of what the ACM’s surface to air threats could throw at me. In some of the more violent three axis maneuvers, differing angles of attack of the wings got so high as to activate a spin recovery mode, where the MFDs tell you the inputs necessary to recover from your current predicament.
Beyond this, I am unsure of what to say without becoming redundant in saying that everything seems to fly as it should. Further information regarding the flight characteristics of the Hornet is best obtained from either the VRS manual, or the NATOPS manual.
Summary / Closing Remarks
As a real world civilian student pilot, flying the VRS Super Hornet left me with an even larger amount of respect for what the members of the armed forces do every day to allow me to spend my time prowling the real and virtual skies. The amount of systems modeling and programming put into this aircraft is second to none, and deserves the highest praise I could possibly give, an Avsim Gold Star Award.
From the full startup procedure (and clearing the RIG caution) to banging down on the deck of the Nimitz I was fully engrossed in not only flying the aircraft, but also dealing with offensive and defensive threats, in depth failures, and trying to memorize dozens of key combinations. The VRS team paid such attention to detail that I feel that this model could probably be used as a desktop level simulator for procedures training for real world Hornet pilots.
All in all I had a ton of fun flying and testing this aircraft, everything about it is top notch and goes above and beyond what is expected in FS add-ons, and will forever change my idea of what a high quality fully programmed aircraft really is. Due to the complexity of this package, there is no way I could have possibly covered every possible system and function, for that you can consult the manual.
I did my best to provide a brief (though I would hardly consider a 5000+ word review brief) overview of some of the Bug’s functions and features, while providing extra detail and space where I thought appropriate. If you have any questions about the review or the aircraft feel free to visit the VRS website/forums or post in the review feedback section. I’ll do my best to get back with you ASAP!
What I Like About F/A-18E Super Hornet
What I Don't Like About F/A-18E Super Hornet
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