Next week will mark the 106th birthday of Marine Corps aviation, an integral piece of the Navy and Marine Corps team’s combat capability. Since 1912, the Marines and the Navy have worked together to support a host of combat and humanitarian aid/disaster relief missions using a variety of platforms.
Most recently, the Navy and Marine Corps team implemented the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, a fifth generation fighter jet with significantly enhanced capabilities, aboard USS Wasp (LHD 1) and USS Essex (LHD 2). The new aircraft replaces the legacy AV-8B Harrier II, which have been deploying on U.S. Navy amphibious ships for more than three decades.
The deployment of the F-35B Lighting II is new, with both Essex and Wasp only months into the integration process with the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Challenges leading up to their introduction in the Fleet included updating the logistics supply chain for the new aircraft, as well as physically altering the structure of the flight deck to support the additional weight of the F-35B and the increased exhaust temperature they produce.
With stealth capabilities, an increased weapons envelope, increased on station time, longer range, and more accurate weapons delivery, the F-35B is an impactful enhancement to the Marine aviation toolbox. In nearly all ways, the F-35B heralds a new age of aviation capabilities for the Navy and Marine Corps team to launch power ashore from the sea.
In honor of Marine Corps aviation’s history and 106th birthday, let’s take a look at some of the aircraft and pioneering servicemembers that played a major role in developing the Marine Corps aviation element into what it is today.
The Marines’ first pilots began their training in Annapolis, Maryland; 1st Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to the aviation camp on May 22, 1912, which is regarded as the birthday of Marine Corps aviation. After just two hours and 40 minutes of instruction on the Curtiss seaplane, he completed a solo flight and was designated Marine Aviator No. 1 (and with that, he also became Naval Aviator No. 5).
Five years later, Cunningham established the Marine Corps Aviation Company onboard the Philadelphia Navy Yard as part of the Advanced Base Force (ABF), which had been established in 1910 as a training command for the Marines. The ABF’s aviation company became the first permanent aviation element in the Marine Corps.
The new Marine pilots, which then included 1st Lieutenant Bernard L. Smith, 2nd Lieutenant William M. McIlvain, 1st Lieutenant Francis T. Evans, and 1st Lieutenant Roy S. Geiger, were the foundation on which Marine aviation was built. Decades later during WWI, Marine Corps aviation found itself split between two missions: anti-submarine patrols in support of the Navy, denying enemy submarines ready access to maritime convoy routes; and reconnaissance and artillery spotting for ground troops in France. These were the pioneering years of what was to become close air support.
In the years between WWI and WWII, Marine aviation grew under the administration of Major General Commandant Lejeune, in both squadron size and aircraft development. During this period of operations, in flight tactics were developed, including dive bombing. In the mid-1920s, Marine squadrons qualified aboard fleet carriers and in 1931, the Pacific Fleet received two scouting squadrons assigned to operate as component units.
By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack (December 1941), Marine aviation had transitioned from the biplane to modern aircraft and included 13 squadrons consisting of 204 aircraft. In training, the Marine pilots grew to become an integral part of amphibious exercises. Marines flew in defense of Navy ships during the Battle of Wake Island, Battle of Midway, and many others thereafter. The Solomons campaign saw Marine Aviation assume the role of overall aviation command, augmented by the Army Air Corps and allied squadrons from Australia and New Zealand, as well as Navy pilots.
Marine aircraft continued to operate with Navy ships during Korean War and Vietnam War, deploying from aircraft carriers and destroyers to conduct both fixed-wing and rotary-wing operations. The F-4U Corsairs of Marine Corps Fighter Squadron 214, flown from USS Sicily (CVE-118), flew the first Marine aviation mission at Pusan during the raid against North Korean installations, and were joined by Marine Fighter Squadron 323, flying from USS Badoeng Strait (CVE-116).
In 1962, the F-4 Phantom entered the Marine Corps, becoming the fastest, highest-flying, longest-range fighter in the U.S. military. The F-4 saw combat in both the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. And then in 1985, the Marine Corps welcomed the AV-8B Harrier II to its ranks. The Harrier is still used today, although it’s expected to be replaced entirely by the F-35B in coming years.
Through the years the role of Marine aviation has expanded to include humanitarian assistance and disaster response relief efforts, as well as international efforts to enhance interoperability with allied nations, called theater security cooperation.
From its humble beginnings more than a century ago in the Curtiss seaplane to the latest marvel of modern aviation, one thing has remained constant: the collaboration of the Navy and Marine Corps to create a cohesive team that accomplishes a critical warfighting mission at sea, in the air, and on land.
Happy Birthday, Marine Corps Aviation!