The current era of U. S. naval airpower could be called the age of the Super Hornet. In less than a decade after its introduction, the F/A-18E, F/A-18F, and EA-18G replaced nearly every type of aircraft on carrier decks and have taken on most of the naval air warfare missions. The Super Hornet was also the focus of our 2020 book, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in Detail & Scale Includes the EA-18G Growler (which you can find out more about, including how to order, HERE). There’s a variety of good 1:48 scale Super Hornets, including the Revell and Hasegawa families of kits. In early 2021, Meng released a 1:48 scale F/A-18E with the hopes to outdo them all. Let’s see how they did.
The origins of the F/A-18E Super Hornet extend back to a 1965 Northrop design proposing a larger and more elaborate F-5E Tiger. This was later the genesis for the Northrop YF-17 Cobra that lost the USAF Lightweight Fighter contract in 1975 to the General Dynamics YF-16. Despite this, the Navy tapped into the YF-17’s clear potential, modified extensively into the Fighter-Attack Experimental (VFAX) configuration. The resultant F/A-18A Hornet manufactured by McDonnell Douglas first flew in 1978. The F/A-18B, C, and D followed. The Hornet was a very good multi-role carrier-based aircraft, but it had a number of key limitations: a restricted quantity of ordnance, restricted maximum carrier landing weight, constraints against systems growth, and range limitations.
By the mid- to late-1980s, these deficiencies drove a number of responses, such as the development of the A-6F Intruder II, the A-12 Avenger II, and proposals of advanced strike-fighter Tomcats. None of these options worked out, partly because McDonnell Douglas engineers offered the lowest cost and least risky way to solve the Hornet’s problems. Between 1987 and 1992, various elements of their Hornet 2000 proposal came together as an entirely new airplane. By 1995, the first of the new “Super Hornets” was rolled out by McDonnell Douglas (which was later absorbed by Boeing in 1997). The F/A-18F was the two-seat variant and later became the basis for the EA-18G electronic attack aircraft. Reflecting the philosophy of risk reduction and incremental growth, the first 66 production aircraft were designated Block I airframes, sharing some of the proven hardware of the Legacy Hornet. Production of the today’s standard Block II aircraft began in FY02 and featured the Super Hornet’s AESA next-generation radar, JHMCS helmet mounted displays, and in the F/A-18F, a new rear cockpit featuring the Advanced Cockpit Station (ACS). Super Hornets use the AN/ASQ-228 ATFLIR pod as their primary electro-optical sensor, and the aircraft can carry a wide variety of air-to-air, air-to-ground, and other diverse external stores. The significantly uprated and more capable General Electric F414 engines power all Super Hornets.
The Super Hornet’s first operational deployment in 2001 became a combat cruise following the attacks of September 11th. The F/A-18E/F has ceaselessly accumulated many thousands of combat hours over 20 years across Operations ENDURING FREEDOM, IRAQI FREEDOM, and INHERENT RESOLVE. An F/A-18E scored the Navy’s first air-to-air kill since Operation DESERT STORM with the downing of a Syrian Su-22 in 2017. The Super Hornet is the foundation of modern U. S. Navy airpower, serving in such diverse roles as combat air patrol, fleet defense, precision strike, close air support, maritime attack, and fleet aerial refueling. Given such versatility and the delays with the F-35C, Super Hornets (including the forthcoming Block III upgrade) are likely to serve another two decades in frontline roles.
Meng’s 1:48 scale F/A-18E kit comes on 20 injection molded sprues with a total of 310 parts, along with 33 clear parts on five sprues. One small fret holds three photoetched metal parts. One pre-cut self-adhesive mask set for the masking of the clear parts and wheel hubs is also included. Hardware spans two large polycaps, 16 small polycaps, and 10 small pins. The instructions guide the build over 24 steps, and a multilingual write-up on the aircraft’s basic history is provided separately on three sheets of cardstock. Two Cartograf-printed decal sheets cover all external stores and markings for four aircraft:
- F/A-18E BuNo. 166776, VF-31 “Tomcatters” CO’s aircraft, flown by CAPT James McCall, USS GEORGE H. W. BUSH, 2017
- F/A-18E BuNo. 166779, VF-31 “Tomcatters,” flown by LCDR Carlisle Lustenburger, USS GEORGE H. W. BUSH, 2019
- F/A-18E BuNo. 168913, VF-87 “Golden Warriors,” flown by LCDR R.J. Prescott, USS GEORGE H. W. BUSH, 2017
- F/A-18E, “U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program,” flown by CAPT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, 2019
Strengths: Upon opening the box, it is quite clear that Meng has produced a very high-quality kit of the F/A-18E that rivals Hasegawa’s offerings (more on that below). Overall, the kit appears to be very accurate, from overall shapes to many of the finer details and minutia. Just about all the details I see appear right. Panel lines and other details are recessed, and raised details are well represented where they should be. Parts breakdown is quite logical and not over-engineered.
The kit contains a nicely detailed cockpit. The instrument panel rivals the detail of cast resin. Decals are provided for powered-up screen displays, and alternate decals are provided for cockpit side consoles. Cockpit sidewalls are nicely represented, and the throttle is a separate part. The SJU-17(V)2/A ejection seat is well done (though see below), and decals are provided for the various and prominent ejection seat warning and data placards on the sides and rear of the headbox. A seated pilot figure is provided, with optional JHMCS and standard helmet options. As a nice touch, the pilot’s flotation collar is a separate part. The fine mesh behind the ejection seat in the aft cockpit decking (which is the ceiling of an avionics compartment) comes as a very nicely made photoetched metal part.
Meng’s Super Hornet has a number of construction options. The pilot’s boarding ladder can be displayed extended or retracted. The wings can be built folded or extended and the wing fold fairing mesh surface is well represented. The way either wing position option is built involves the use of mounting plates and tabs. Parts are provided to build the leading and trailing edge wing flaps deployed or retracted (neutral). The rudders are separate and positionable parts, and the horizontal stabilators fit into a polycap assembly allowing them to move. Full length, two-piece intake trunks are provided. Something that Super Hornet fans will especially appreciate: optional parts for either the early (slit vent) and standard-style (“bard stack”) ECS exhausts are included here. These are pretty prominent features on the top of the fuselage, and they look great, including deep recessed stack pipe faces. The instructions do not distinguish between use of either the early or stack versions of the ECS vents, and just state that the builder can use one or the other. Note that any Super Hornet beginning with new build aircraft after 2003 and starting with F/A-18E BuNo. 166606 should have the stacks. The last pre-existing jet originally manufactured with the slit vent exhausts was retrofitted with the stacks in 2012.
The kit also features very nice gear wells (though see below) and the landing gear themselves are really impressive. Meng nailed the gear, and all that’s missing are hydraulic and electrical lines. The nose gear can be configured in both standard and the catapult launch configuration. Gear well door actuators are also provided. The F414 exhaust nozzles look just fine, and the afterburner flame holders are again very nicely manufactured photoetched metal parts.
The kit contains diverse and very good-looking external stores: four FPU-12/A external fuel tanks, one ATFLIR pod, two AIM-9Ms, two AIM-9Xs, three AIM-120Cs, two GBU-16s, and two GBU-24s. The various weapons pylons look quite accurate, too. Of interest here are the metal pin and polycaps that allow stores to be mounted, removed, and interchanged between the underwing pylons.
The kit decals are awesome. Design is excellent and appears quite accurate, right down to the finest airframe maintenance and weapons stencils. Cartograf did the printing, and their work is the best in the business. Colors look great, everything is in perfect register, and carrier film is thin and restrained. And of course, the fictional F/A-18E flown by Tom Cruise’s character is included, as it will appear in the upcoming film, Top Gun: Maverick. Given the popularity of the schemes from the first Top Gun, some scale modelers will surely get a kick out of these movie markings, too. The inclusion of a masking set for the windscreen, canopy, wheel hubs, and ATFLIR windows is a very nice touch, and will save a lot time while providing precise masking capability.
So how does this stack up to the Hasegawa family of F/A-18Es? As detailed in the modeler’s section of our recent Detail & Scale book on the Super Hornet and Growler, Hasegawa’s kits have reigned as the best in 1:48 scale, while Revell’s Super Hornets are a close second. There are many similarities between the Meng and Hasegawa kits. Their surface detail is nearly identical in quality. The basic approach to parts breakdown are very similar. The Meng kit is, of course, NOT a clone of the Hasegawa kit, and there’s only so many ways to engineer a 1:48 scale Super Hornet kit. However, the engineering of the Meng kit is more simplified, making it a bit easier to build. Consistent with this are early reports and internet chatter suggests the Meng kit builds a little easier. The upper wings are molded to the upper fuselage instead of being separate parts. The wing fold option in the Hasegawa kit involves cutting the wings up, but here, it’s a far less risky and labor-intensive matter of just using alternate parts. Likewise, the alternate Bard Stack ECS vents allow for out-of-the-box construction of either an early Block I or a modern Block I/II Super Hornet which the Hasegawa kit does not. There is more detail in the Meng wheel wells, too, and the Meng kit also includes air-to-ground ordnance (Hasegawa does not). Some of the surface details, and especially any mesh or grill surface, is executed with greater and more realistic detail and resolution in the Meng kit. So, at the end of the day, Meng and Hasegawa both do very good F/A-18Es, but some of the extra features and elements of kit design elevates the Meng kit somewhat above Hasegawa, at least from this “on-the-sprue” view.
Weaknesses: Overall, there are multiple positive features to the Meng F/A-18E kit and it gets a lot right. However, after living with Super Hornet minutia for over two years while working on Detail & Scale’s book on this aircraft, there are a number of smaller details that have been missed or simplified.
Beginning with the radome, the external Block II radome “crease” or “aft bulge” associated with the installation of the AN/APG-79 AESA radar is absent. An enterprising scale modeler can at least simulate this feature with a two-dimensional painting/shading effect. The windscreen is un-tinted and the canopy will also need to receive an iridescent tint or polish, but there are products on the market for this. Also note that the canopy has a prominent midline seam, and that will need to be sanded down and polished out. The ejection seat lacks harnesses and belts of any kind, likely with the intent to drive many of us to buy someone’s aftermarket parts. A little more surprising is the missing JHMCS sensor that projects above the inside of the left canopy frame, as well as missing rear view mirrors and prominent internal canopy details.
I had hopes that this kit would have the option for raised speed brakes and open ECS air inlets, but it was not to be. A few other external features are a little iffy. The RAM panels surrounding the AoA sensor on the nose look a little over-scale in their thickness, and the forward RAM extension patch seen on some later jets is absent. Detail in the gear wells is good, but still simplified, such as pretty basic treatment of the distinctive set of hydraulic accumulators in the nose gear well or some of the hydraulic lines in the main gear wells. These features are pretty easy to add.
The intake bleed air vent is quite simplified, and the small strake on the outboard surface of the inlet duct is missing. The inlets lead to the engine’s first stage compressor blades, but there’s a fixed structure called “The Device” that sits appreciably forward of the actual engine face. Frankly, this is a forgivable omission, since “The Device” is classified hardware that helps reduce the radar signature of this Generation 4.5 aircraft. The wingtip formation light (or slime lights) are of the original production design, and lack the aft extension that was retrofitted to the Super Hornet fleet to improve wingtip stability.
The AN/ALE-55 decoy fairing on the lower fuselage does not appear to be present in this kit. Also, the shape of the uppermost fairing on the right vertical stabilizer should not exactly match the one on the left. It’s not an ASPJ antenna, but a slightly stubby white position light. While it’s nice to have air-to-ground weapons here, do note that JDAMs and LJDAMs tend to be the most common types of bombs seen on Super Hornets, and that the AIM-9M was used only during the Block I Super Hornet’s earliest days.
One will note a stylized U. S. national insignia style on Maverick’s fictional Topgun bird, but at least in the trailers for film, they look like standard stars-and-bars. We will have to wait for the release of the movie to pass judgment on the screen accuracy of these fictional markings. Also, I was a little surprised as to why Markings Option C, War Party 303, as it appeared in 2017, was chosen in lieu of War Party 302. On that same cruise, the latter jet became a historic Super Hornet, downing a Syrian Su-22. This strikes me as a missed opportunity.
Meng’s new 1:48 scale F/A-18E looks to be a really great kit of either a Block I or Block II Super Hornet. Despite some shortcomings, I feel very enthusiastic about this kit’s potential to become an outstanding model of the U. S. Navy’s frontline combat aircraft. This kit will also likely stimulate release of plenty of aftermarket detail sets and decal sheets, further expanding its potential. One cannot help but “read the sprues” and note that it is highly likely that Meng plans at least an F/A-18F at some point. We look forward to that possibility. And of course, we think that you will find Detail & Scale’s 2020 publication on the Super Hornet as a very valuable reference and guide to help you create the most accurate version of the Meng F/A-18E as possible.
Sincere thanks are owed to my wallet for the review sample, which was purchased from our friends at http://www.luckymodel.com. You can find Meng on the web at http://www.meng-model.com