It's not often that aircraft collide mid-air and live to tell the tale, but that's what happened on April 22nd 1996 during a US Navy Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program sortie.
Three F-18's were playing the role of MiG-29's against two F-14's escorting an EA-6B Prowler. The F-14's quickly 'killed' their enemies with two simulated missiles from eight miles out. After the successful engagement, the three F-18's flew in formation to a merge point where aileron rolls were performed by the 'killed' aircraft to show which of them were hit and who was still active. This is where things went very wrong.
On the second roll the F-18's collided. The nose of one Hornet tore through the others left wing and then smashed off half the vertical tail. The impacted nose cone was ripped off, along with the drop tank and canopy, and one engine was damaged. Amazingly both F-18's kept flying once their pilots regained control, but they still needed to get back on the ground.
The lost nose cone meant no airspeed or altitude indicators and the wind noise with no canopy made radio communication difficult. The F-18 with wing and tail parts missing went into a dangerous left hand roll if the airspeed dropped below 200 knots. An arrestor cable with a long runway were needed for the best chance of landing at this speed. The engagement speed limit for arresting gear is 175 knots and over 182 knots the hook could be ripped off, hence the need for a long runway.
The F-18's made their way to NAS Oceana, Virginia Beach where an emergency crew awaited their arrival. Following consultation with McDonnell Douglas it was decided the wing damaged F-18 should land without lowering the flaps and it landed at 200 knots without any arrestor gear failure. The missing nose cone F-18 successfully followed, landing with the exposed nose wires flapping madly along the fuselage.
Look how much wing is missing!
After two months off flying and lots of debriefing and lessons learnt, the two very lucky pilots went on to fly again - unfortunately the damaged Hornets didn't.
Would you like to try taking on a MiG-29 from an F-18 Hornet? You can at The Aviator Experience, even if you're not a real Fighter Pilot! Ask us how.