The Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet is a formidable fighter jet that has been around since 1999. You’ve likely seen its impressive capabilities while attending a U.S. Navy Blue Angels event or recruiting commercials from the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps.

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Alex Dietrich served in the Navy for 13 years, with over six years flying the F/A-18 Super Hornet and other fixed-wing aircraft. Dietrich was baptized by fire as one of the first females to fly the Super Hornet in a male-dominated strike fighter squadron. 

“I felt a very heavy responsibility, like, ‘Hey, I need to do right by this.’ I need to do my part and be a good steward of this piece of equipment, this aircraft that I’m responsible for,” Dietrich said. “I need to execute this mission that I’ve been asked to go do in a professional way, without any mishaps because people are counting on me.” 

She’s had interesting experiences ranging from tracking UFOs, combat sorties, fighting the “gremlins in the system,” and so much more. Dietrich’s career has spanned much of the history of the Super Hornet. 

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Inside the F/A-18 cockpit

Dietrich was commissioned through George Washington University’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps in May 2001. During a simulator checkoff early into training, she had to demonstrate competence with startup procedures. 

She found a hard-to-reach switch under the canopy rail with an abbreviated label and asked what it meant. Her flight instructor said it was the nuclear enable switch. It struck Dietrich like a ton of bricks. 

“I had a little mini, like, panic attack,” Dietrich said. “It was the first time that I had come to terms with the magnitude of what I might be asked to go do.”

Her first flight was on 9/11. She initially sought a career in the Navy in pursuit of adventure, but now felt the gravity of her training as war loomed on the horizon. 

“It was about me and my experience. Then, the events of 9/11 just a few months after I commissioned, I went, ‘holy shit. It’s not about me and my adventure.’ I’m part of something bigger than myself,” Dietrich said. “This isn’t about having fun, pulling G’s, or flying upside down. I need to learn this checklist. To understand these systems. I need to understand these maneuvers and tactics.”

But flying supersonic fighter jets has its perks. Dietrich remained determined to learn more and improve every day of her career. Dietrich said the cockpit checklist became fun, and she is proud to be in the first wave to fly the Super Hornet, breaking down gender barriers. 

Alex Dietrich standing in front of her F/A-18 Super Hornet.
Alex Dietrich loved her job as a pilot and was one of the first females to fly the Super Hornet. Photo courtesy of Alex Dietrich.

The Super Hornet culture

In the summer of 2004, Dietrich arrived as a newly minted Super Hornet pilot at her squadron. Her squadron was the first to transition from Tomcats to the two-seater F/A-18 (Identified with an ‘E’). The Tomcat was replaced by the Super Hornet, retired after 17 years of service.

“Our squadron had the pilots and the weapons systems officers. It was the first two-seat squadron to transition from Tomcats,” Dietrich said. “So, that had its own baggage and its own legacy of, really, this sort of machismo masculine energy.”

Dietrich said the squadron t-shirts, the fighter jet paint jobs, and the murals on the walls were intense and explicit. But, she was a part of the latest wave of change in the squadrons, bringing diversity and new technology to the strike fighter squadron.

“There was always an underlying tension between the way things are and the sense that things are changing,” Dietrich said. “Whether it’s through policy or the demographic shift of who is volunteering for service, going through this training, and showing up to do this job. You could sense that there was this sort of underlying friction that’s between the old school and this sort of new generation.”

Reflecting on her career, she said it is obvious the tenured pilots were “grieving” the loss of their beloved Tomcat. Change can be challenging, especially if it’s decades-old policies people got used to or outright swapping of aircraft that the pilots had spent almost two decades flying. 

The changing of the ‘old guard’ became evident during her first flight with her squadron. Her commander hopped in as the weapons systems officer, and it was his first time in the Super Hornet. As Dietrich went through the start-up sequence, her commander was “really quiet.” 

Then, they had a brief conversation. 

“You have no idea,” her commander said. 

“I’m sorry, sir. What do you mean?” she replied.

‘You are a spoiled brat. You have no idea how lucky you are. You graduated from flight school and came into these aircraft that still have the new car smell.’

He was right about the aircraft. The new Super Hornets had a half dozen hours on them. Nothing was broken, leaking, or glitching. 

Though Dietrich and her fresh wave of pilots brought change to the squadrons, they also learned from the older pilots. Dietrich gave an example of the Automatic Carrier Landing System that helps a pilot land their jet on the aircraft carrier. Her squadron commander forbade the junior officers from using it, forcing them to use traditional methods to land. 

“Of course, we all gnashed our teeth, whined, and complained, ‘Why do we have these multimillion dollar systems if we can’t use them?” Dietrich said. “Now that I have hindsight and maturity, I go, man, thank God that he instilled that and had that sort of strategic level thinking of how to reduce risk and make sure the pilots are proficient and maintaining that proficiency.” 

Alex Dietrich geared up for flight.
Alex Dietrich geared up. Photo courtesy of Alex Dietrich.

UFOs and solar flares

Only three months into her first assignment, the ‘tic-tac’ UFO encounter took place. The video of Dietrich and her commander’s encounter with the UFO didn’t become public knowledge until it was declassified in 2020

Dietrich and retired Navy Cmdr. David Fravor were both flying during a carrier strike group military exercise off the coast of San Diego in November 2020. The USS Nimitz’s radar dishes detected what the federal government calls Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP). Whatever it was, it dropped 80,000 feet of elevation in less than a second. 

But in the moment they were sharing the same airspace, Dietrich’s mind wasn’t focused on aliens. She was more worried about the aircraft that didn’t have a transponder, wasn’t responding to radio calls, had never before seen aerial capabilities, and was flying in a military training airspace close to a heavily populated city. 

“In the moment, it was a great big question mark. Like, what is that? What’s going on? What am I looking at? How is it moving that way? What should I do about it?” Dietrich said. “Overall, it was a relatively brief encounter, from being vectored to disappearing from our vicinity. So, it’s not like I had a lot of time to reflect.” 

When they returned to the USS Nimitz, the squadron talked with the rest of the carrier strike group leadership. They questioned whether the weird aircraft was some sort of new technology from an adversary, or maybe it was an attempt to spy on the exercise — among many other scenarios they considered. 

“For me, UFO is not a euphemism for flying saucers, Little Green Men, or extraterrestrial nonhuman intelligence,” Dietrich said. “When people ask me, like, what was it? I’m like, well, it was a UFO in the literal sense of unidentified.”

As new updates to software became available and pilots put more hours on their jets, they started to notice glitches here and there. Dietrich said it was common to troubleshoot glitches, something she called fighting the “gremlins in the system.” But other items can mess with the system, like lightning and solar flares — though the effects of solar flares on the aircraft aren’t fully understood. 

Combat sorties and ground convoys

Dietrich has 1,250 flight hours logged, 375 carrier-arrested landings, and has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. She later enrolled in the Defense Language Institute and served with a civil-military stability operations team in southeastern Afghanistan. 

“I knew that I would go in harm’s way. I knew that I would be asked to do things that would maybe be morally appalling,” Dietrich said. “Putting ordnance on target and all of that.”

That reality came true during her deployments. She executed over 200 combat missions, raining hellfire from above to keep troops on the ground safe and denying the enemy of any battlefield wins. 

But, after flying for the VFA-41 “Black Aces,” she went to ground for two deployments, to Iraq and Afghanistan. She was just as adept on terra firma, executing 57 mounted combat patrols and ground assault convoy missions. She was then selected to establish the civil-military stability operations team in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. 

But nothing compared to the sensation of what it’s like to be in the cockpit of an F/A-18 Super Hornet.

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