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How F/A-18s Work

        Science | Modern

The Mission
An F/A-18 sits on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
An F/A-18 sits on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

The F-18 is designed to function as two different types of aircraft. It is both:

  • A fighter jet, a plane designed to battle enemy aircraft. Fighters need to be very fast, relatively lightweight and highly maneuverable, so they can keep up with any enemy aircraft and evade counter-attack. They carry air-to-air weapons, like heat-seeking sidewinder missiles.
  • An attack jet, a plane designed to take out ground targets. Attack jets fly in low and destroy individual targets, such as tanks, rather than the larger area targets a bomber might take out from a high elevation. Attack jets tend to be bulkier than fighter jets, because of the various bombs they need to carry.

The F-18 is the first plane in the U.S. arsenal designed specifically to fill both of these roles.

The central innovation that makes this possible is a collection of stations -- storage areas on the belly and wings of the plane that can carry everything from extra fuel tanks to a tactical nuclear bomb. By loading these stations with different components -- for example, air-to-ground GPS-guided bombs as opposed to air-to-air heat-seeking missiles -- the F-18 in effect becomes different planes.

The other major secret to the F-18's adaptability is its high performance standards. As we'll see in the next section, its impressive engineering makes it a much better all-around player than most other aircraft.