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Does anyone know how high (above MSL) the F/A-18 ever went? Its service ceiling is 50,000 ft, but when going up steeply, is it able to surpass 100,000 ft altitude?

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    $\begingroup$ Would possibly need to be going very very fast as it hit 50,000ft because I would image the engines flaming out .. check out the air-density at 50000 vs 100000ft - it's 1 order of magnitude lower at 100kft, and its about 1/80th of the density of 5000ft - engineeringtoolbox.com/standard-atmosphere-d_604.html $\endgroup$
    – Mr R
    May 12 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ SR71 had a ~80,000ft MSL (as a comparison) [or it could be 90k - depends on the source]. $\endgroup$
    – Mr R
    May 12 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ @MrR Yes, you have to do that in steps. I'm flying my Hornet to around 40,000 ft at first, there I remain in horizontal flight until I reach ~1050 knots, then I rise again to ~50,000 ft, do the same, then to ~64,000 ft from where I slowly descend to ~60,000 ft to reach about 1050 knots (you can't gain that speed at 64,000 ft in horizontal flight anymore). When I reach a fast enough speed I sharply pitch the nose up. This is how you reach peak altitudes in the F-18. My current altitude record so far is 92,800 ft (more than 28 km) but I fly on unlimited fuel. Takes patience to reach the speeds. $\endgroup$
    – Giovanni
    May 12 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Giovanni What simulator is that? $\endgroup$
    – MD88Fan
    May 12 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure about the F/A-18, but during tests in the 1960s the F-104 went up to 103,389 feet officially, and around 120,000 feet unofficially [(Wikipedia)][1]. The Hornet has a better thrust/weight ratio than the F-104, so I'd assume that people have been above 50.000 feet with it as well. [1]: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_F-104_Starfighter#World_records $\endgroup$ May 13 at 20:33
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I can tell you my experience during my stay in Zaragoza Air Base in northeastern Spain, in 1998. After heavy maintenance work, the twin-seater was ready to fly. In order to check all work done, we did a parabolic flight in clean configuration (no loads under wings or fuselage). It was a flight test so we decided to push the limits a little and see the real capability of the General Electric F404 engine. After acceleration and trying to maintain the best angle, we were able to climb up to 63,000 ft.

It was quite difficult to fly the plane when crossing 45 or 48 thousands (I don't remember well), so we decided to connect the auto-pilot. The auto-pilot can handle the plane easily at those altitudes with such low air density.

I recall the last portion of the climb was a nice parabolic trajectory in zero-g (you cannot imagine how dirty the cockpit was, I could see a pencil and some screws from maintenance floating in front of me, among some other things) until we regained positive g's in the descent. It was an interesting flight, but as stated by others, not practical at all from the combat viewpoint.

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    $\begingroup$ Were you flying an F/A-18D? $\endgroup$
    – rclocher3
    May 17 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ @rclocher3 It was an EF-18/B (E for 'España'). After major upgrade work the aircraft was significantly modernised becoming EF-18BM. It was updated by EADS CASA. The local designation is C.15, for both the air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. $\endgroup$
    – O'Terror
    May 17 at 18:56
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There are reasons why a Hornet would NOT go above its 50,000 feet service ceiling. Has it been done in testing? Probably. Has it happened accidentally? Probably. But there’s no reason to do so. Aircraft performance is pretty bad at the service ceiling, so BFM/ACM isn’t going to go well. Turn performance and speed will be very negatively impacted. Dropping bombs isn’t a great plan either- a heavily loaded jet might not even make it that high.

Then comes the issue of the pilot. It’s unlikely that the Hornet’s life support system would work that high. Even if it could, depressurization would kill the pilot, because there's no space for a pressure suit, nor the infrastructure to support one.

Given all this, it’s just not practical to fly above the service ceiling.

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  • $\begingroup$ Evidence that the cockpit's too small for a pressure suit would make this answer a proper frame challenge. $\endgroup$ May 15 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ The Hornet, like all high-altitude jets, is a pressurized plane. I guess it creates the atmosphere from 10,000 ft altitude in its cockpit, why would that fail when going to SR-71 altitudes and higher? $\endgroup$
    – Giovanni
    May 15 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ One reason why would be to intercept the Soviet/Russian MiG-25 which was flown to altitudes more than 118,000 ft by Aleksandr Fedotov. But one should really keep the reason why to the pilot. $\endgroup$
    – Giovanni
    May 15 at 5:08
  • $\begingroup$ @CamilleGoudeseune I think most of your edits to this answer were unnecessary. Especially the first sentence you could have beleft. $\endgroup$
    – Giovanni
    May 15 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Giovanni; keep in mind that the MiG-25 never flew to 118kft on operational missions, this was only done in testing. Chances are that it was low on fuel and with no additional payload, so even if it could do so regularly it wouldn't really achieve anything.... $\endgroup$ May 15 at 14:09

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