The F-18 Hornet is used primarily as a safety chase and mission support aircraft at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. The formal designation of the aircraft is F/A-18, corresponding to the dual fighter-attack role of the Hornets in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. The aircraft were obtained from the U.S. Navy between 1984 and 1991. One has a two-seat cockpit while the others are single-seat aircraft. As support aircraft, the F-18's are used for safety chase, pilot proficiency, aerial photography and other mission support functions. Photography -- still, motion pictures, and videotape -- is used extensively by aeronautical engineers to monitor and verify various aspects of the research project.
The two-seat F-18 support aircraft is normally used for photo chase. It is configured to transmit live video pictures from the air back to Dryden so engineers can visually monitor the mission as it is being flown. This feature greatly enhances flight safety. As safety chase aircraft, F-18's, flown by research pilots, accompany research missions as another "set of eyes" to visually observe the research event, experiment or test to help make sure the flights are carried out safely. The "chase" pilots are in constant communication with the research pilots and mission control to report abnormalities that may be seen from the support aircraft.
The F-18 fleet is also used by Dryden research pilots for routine flight training required by all NASA pilots. The aircraft are powered by two General Electric F404 turbofan engines, each producing 17,700 pounds (8028.58 kg) of thrust. Top speed is more than Mach 1.7 (1190 mph). Wing span of the F-18 is 40 feet 4 inches (12.29 m), while the length is 56 feet (17.06 m). The aircraft were built by McDonnell Douglas, St. Louis, Mo.