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Modifying an existing fighter jet to carry out a starkly different mission is in some respects tantamount to creating a entirely new aircraft.
The Navy's EA-18G Growler, a derivative of the F/A-18F Super Hornet, has made headlines in the last two years. But the genesis of the Boeing project dates back to the beginning of the new millennium.
Before the Navy green-lighted construction of the Growler, which will replace the venerable EA-6B Prowler, Boeing first tested a Super Hornet equipped with a trio of radar jamming pods and two fuel tanks. The successful flight demonstration in November 2001 paved the way for a system development and the demonstration phase.
The Growler is almost a mirror image of its F/A-18F twin. The former, however, is designed to perform full-spectrum electronic surveillance and electronic attack of enemy threat radars and communication nets.
Bob Papadakis, Boeing Company EA-18G NAS WhidbeyIntegration Lead, said the successful Super Hornet test flights were augmented by more than 450 Navy and Marine aircrew undergoing extensive training in an EA-18G simulator.
The testing demonstrated the viability and safety of cutting the number of crew members in half, from four to two.
The Navy awarded Boeing a $9.6 billion contract at the end of 2003, $8.6 billion of which would be used for the production of an additional 210 Super Hornets and $1 billion for system design and development of the EA-18G.
"We then really started looking at going from four pilots, which the Prowler uses, to a two-seater with the Growler," Papadakis said. "The Navy and Boeing worked hard together to ensure safety."
Boeing employees officially began work in October 2004 on the first Growler test aircraft. With the fuselage production underway, the technical equipment began showing up in the summer of 2005 on Boeing's doorstep in St. Louis. A sophisticated system for conducting voice communications with friendly forces while simultaneously jamming enemy communications was the first "toy" to be successfully installed and tested.
Testing, testing and more testing marked the end of 2005 as the the Growler moved up the development ladder. The Navy announced in February 2006 its approval of Boeing's test plans and processes for integrating the aircraft. The Growler would now become a wholly unique, mission-ready electronic attack jet.
Boeing reached a key milestone in June 2006 when a Super Hornet equipped with EA-18G wingtip and jamming pods - elliptical devices that visually distinguish the Growler from its fighter counterpart - passed a test flight with "flying" colors.
Boeing rolled out the first Growler two months later, unveiling the U.S. armed forces' newest airborne electronic aircraft. The jet awed spectators when it took to the air for the first time in late August of 2006.
It was with a collective smile that the Navy received at its Patuxent River, Md. test site in September the first Growler test aircraft. NAS Whidbey sailors and brass wore similar smiles when a test jet visited the base Sept. 24.
The second test Growler took flight in November and was delivered to the Navy shortly after.
Boeing already whetted the Navy's appetite with the test aircraft. The main course came in September of this year when it dropped off the first Growler to roll off the production line.
NAS Whidbey will be home to the Growler squadrons that began a phased arrival May 14, one day after the new EA-18G Growler Support Center opened for business. Boeing broke ground on the facility Halloween day.