F-18 Hornet and YF-17 Cobra


I believe the question you are referring to discussed exceptions to the Tri-Service System of 1962. This system was adopted to provide a uniform convention for the numbering of aircraft and missiles across the US Air Force, Navy, and Army.

In this case, I believe that you are actually confusing two different aircraft. The original YF-17 was a Northrop design that competed against the General Dynamics YF-16 for the Air Force's Light Weight Fighter (LWF) contract. Prototypes of both the YF-16 and YF-17 were built and flown in a competitive fly-off at Edwards Air Force Base. General Dynamics ultimately won that competition and went on to build the production F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Northrop YF-17 Cobra
Northrop YF-17 Cobra

About the same time, the Navy was interested in buying a new attack fighter to replace the A-7 Corsair II. Since the design requirements were similar to those the Air Force had developed in the LWF competition, Congress ordered the Navy to pick the winner of the competition to meet its needs and save development costs. Unfortunately, the Navy had little interest in the YF-16, which was deemed too small for Navy use, yet some key admirals had shown interest in the losing YF-17. Northrop, hoping to secure a Navy order, had agreed to share the project with McDonnell Douglas since MDD had previously had great success in winning Navy contracts. The plan was that Northrop would be prime contractor on any land-based versions of the plane and MDD would be prime contractor on any naval variants. In the end, the Navy did accept a Northrop/MDD proposal as a replacement for the Navy's A-7 fleet as well as for the Marine Corps F-4. Since many changes had been made to the YF-17 design in order to make it suitable for carrier usage, the new aircraft was redesignated as the F-18.

Airframe chamges between the YF-17 and F-18
Airframe chamges between the YF-17 and F-18

The original order was for an F-18 fighter model for the Navy and an A-18 attack model for the Marines. The two aircraft would be largely identical but vary in certain avionics and weapons integration details. However, it was soon decided that a single aircraft could meet both requirements, and the designation was changed to F/A-18. Today, Northrop still builds about 2/3rd of the fuselage plus the vertical tails for the latest F/A-18E/F Super Hornet at its factory in El Segundo, California, as shown below.

Visit to the Northrop F/A-18E/F assembly line
Visit to the Northrop F/A-18E/F assembly line

These airframes are shipped to the Boeing plant in St. Louis, Missouri, (formerly the headquarters of McDonnell Douglas) and mated to the forward fuselage and wings built at that location. Here, the aircraft are fitted with engines, avionics, and other systems before completion and delivery to the Navy.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 12 October 2003

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