Marine Aviators: A Century of Service

19 Feb 2010 | 2nd MAW Public Affairs

More than one hundred years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright took turns guiding their wood and fabric Flyer over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. Just over five years later, the Navy had made the decision to acquire flying machines, and by 1912 had four aviators on its rolls.  Aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss began training these pilots who would later learn to drop bombs on ships and trenches, and to make daring carrier landings and take-offs. The operation of aircraft from Navy ships was a revolutionary step in U.S. military history which set the stage for the eventual inclusion of aviation in the combined-arms concept, the utilization of the helicopter for troop transport, and the development of an all-Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing aviation force.

Marine aviation officially began on May 22, 1912, when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to Naval Aviation Camp in Annapolis, Maryland, "for duty in connection with aviation." He soloed after only two hours and 40 minutes of instruction (in a Wright Bros. Model B-1), and became Naval Aviator No. 5.

As the number of Marine aviators grew, so did the desire to separate from Naval Aviation, a dream realized on January 6, 1914, when First Lieutenant Bernard L. Smith was directed to Culebra, Puerto Rico, to establish the Marine Section of the Navy Flying School.

Two factors have continuously set Marine Aviation apart in the history of military flight. The first is the close relationship between Marine and Naval Aviation, and the second is the unchanging objective of Marine Aviation to provide direct support to Marine ground forces in combat.

In 1915, the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a Marine Corps aviation company consisting of 10 officers and 40 enlisted men. The first official Marine flying unit arrived with the February 17, 1917, commissioning of the Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
When the United States joined World War I in 1917, the Marines Corps had just five aviators and 30 enlisted men, including Cunningham. At war’s end, Marine aviation included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men, with two Marine aviators having been awarded the Medal of Honor.

During the twenties and thirties, Marine Aviation units supported brigades in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, China and Nicaragua. The guerrilla-type warfare of the 1927 Nicaraguan deployment gave Marine aviation its first opportunity to provide a form of close air support to Marines in combat, precursors of what was to become the Marine air-ground team standard of future decades.

The sudden immersion of the United States in World War II found the Marines on the front lines, defending Wake Island against a better-equipped, more-experienced Japanese force. Marine aviators led the attack in the famous Battle of Midway, an American victory despite high losses to pilots and aircraft. Marines ended World War II with 125 aces and eight Medals of Honor. The Marines’ F4-U Corsair became famous as a symbol of Marine Corps ground support and air superiority in the Pacific.

The Marines continued their close relationship between air and ground forces in Korea, deploying jet aircraft and helicopters for the first time while still making excellent use of the legendary Corsair. The introduction of helicopters in combat increased mobility in rugged terrain and, combined with field hospitals, greatly reduced the number of combat deaths in the field.

The 1960s found Marines fighting in the swamps and jungles of Vietnam while at the same time pioneering America’s entry into space. The first U.S. combat troops in Vietnam were Marines who landed at Da Nang in 1965, supported by F-4B Phantom IIs and A-4D Skyhawks. From Hue to Chu Lai to Khe Sanh, Marines on the ground depended on their “Flying Leathernecks.” In 1962, Marine Col. John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, a voyage that lasted less than five hours, but would be remembered by Americans forever.

One of the first "new looks" of Marine Aviation in the early seventies was the AV-8A British-built Hawker-Siddeley Harrier, with its vertical take-off and landing capability. The second version, the AV-8B Harrier, became the most unique signature of Marine Corps Aviation in the mid-eighties. In the last three decades of air shows, its vertical take-off and landing capability have arguably made it the most popular military aircraft demonstration. On the battlefield, with its advanced capabilities, it opened a whole new approach to operation of higher-powered tactical aircraft from not only small ships in the amphibious force, but also from relatively unprepared and dispersed sites ashore.

In 1998, Glenn returned to space as the oldest American to do so, with 144 orbits over nine days. Major General Charles Bolden entered the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and built on the legacy of those who preceded him when in 1980 he became the first African American Marine selected by NASA to become an astronaut. Over the next 14 years, he flew four shuttle missions, including commanding both Atlantis and Discovery. On May 23, 2009, President Barack Obama announced the nomination of Bolden as NASA Administrator.

While there have been a few variations in some aspects of Marine Aviation planning, there has never been a departure from the understanding that a Marine Aviator's sole reason for existence is to support the Marine infantryman. In 1929, Capt Cunningham understood the importance of an aircraft carrier to provide air support for the Marines engaged on the ground. That concept is just as important today.

Marine fighter squadrons paid their dues onboard carriers during World War II and even developed the idea of having Marine air groups onboard CVs toward the end of the war. Since 1945, Marine Corps fixed-wing squadrons have continuously deployed on carriers to complement Navy air wings.

Today, Marine aviation is task organized to support the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), as the aviation combat element, by providing six functions: assault support, anti-aircraft warfare, offensive air support, electronic warfare, control of aircraft and missiles, and aerial reconnaissance. Marine AV-8B and helicopter air combat elements of the Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) are deployed year-round on amphibious carriers all over the globe. Their locations, along with those of the big deck carriers, are the subject of the first question asked by the President of the United States when hot spots develop around the world.

The men and women who wear Wings of Gold continue to serve all over the world. They are on ships and on land. Our air forces are strong because of the support of our service members, their families and the American public. Beginning January 2011 the Marine Corps, in concert with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Naval aviation. The celebration will extend into 2012 – the 100th anniversary year of Marine aviation. By honoring Naval Aviation, we honor our country and assure America and our allies that their security is guaranteed by a strong Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard team.

2d Marine Aircraft Wing History
The powerful presence of the Marines and Sailors of 2d Marine Aircraft Wing has been felt almost everywhere on the globe since 2d MAW’s commissioning in July 1941. From dawn to dawn, hemisphere to hemisphere, forward deployments allow the sun to always shine on the 2d MAW. Originally headquartered in San Diego, 2d MAW consisted of six squadrons, two in San Diego and four in Hawaii.

Although the Hawaii-based squadrons sustained extensive damage during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, 2d MAW retained its fighting spirit and subsequently contributed to 83 South Pacific combat operations. Marines and aircraft from 2d MAW participated in major battles and campaigns at Wake Island, Okinawa, Midway, Saipan, Guadalcanal, Tinian and Guam.

In April 1946, 2d MAW relocated to its present home at MCAS Cherry Point, N.C., one of the best and busiest all-weather jet bases in the world today. Its runway system is large enough that the air station serves as an alternate emergency landing site for the space shuttle launches out of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In the 1980’s, 2d MAW units were active participants in exercises and operations around the globe, to include those in Lebanon, Cuba, Grenada, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

The decade of the 1990’s began with Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. The millennium closed with 2d MAW squadrons prosecuting and supporting NATO air strikes in Kosovo and Serbia during Operation Allied Force, and flying support during Operation Northern Watch from Incirlik, Turkey.

In 2003, 2d MAW deployed more than 7,700 Marines and Sailors in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. More than 200 tactical combat aircraft flew in support of these missions. They supported combat and contingency operations around the globe, with greater than 70 percent of the command and control, support group and aircraft deployed simultaneously.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, 2d Marine Aircraft Wing units flew over 7,800 combat sorties, expended over 3.9 million pounds of ordnance, carried over 10,000 troops and 6.2 million pounds of cargo, built five base camps, two Expeditionary Airfields (EAFs), 10 Forward Area Arming and Refueling Points (FARPS) and three Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). 2d MAW eventually headquartered at Al Asad Airbase to serve as the aviation combat element of Multi-National Forces West for the remainder of the Iraq War.

As American forces end their missions in Iraq, 2d MAW continues to support the War on Terrorism today in Afghanistan supported by USMC fighters (F/A-18 Hornets), attack jets (AV-8B Harriers) , electronic countermeasures aircraft (EA-6B Prowlers), attack and transport helicopters (including the CH-53E Super Stallion, UH-1N Huey, AH-1W Cobra), tilt-rotor aircraft (MV-22 Osprey) which recently replaced the venerable CH-46 Sea Knight, refueling and transport aircraft (KC-130J Hercules), and unmanned aerial vehicles (the RQ-7 Shadow and ScanEagle).

In total, 2d MAW has nearly 400 aircraft including F/A-18D Hornets stationed at MCAS Beaufort, S.C., and two rotary wing groups stationed at MCAS New River, N.C.; the cradle of tilt-rotor operational aviation that holds the distinction of being the first base to house the new MV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft that combines the speed of a fixed-wing, turboprop aircraft with the vertical landing and takeoff abilities of a helicopter.

As America moves into the 21st century, newer, more modern technology will continue to move into the air. The much anticipated F-35B Lightning II Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, is a single-engine, stealthy, supersonic strike-fighter that will soon replace the AV-8B Harrier and F/A-18A/C/D Hornets in the Marine Corps. The F-35B will maintain the Marine Corps’ capability of operating from aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and austere landing sites ashore. 

As we reflect back on 100 years of extraordinary advancements in aviation technology and capabilities, one thing has remained constant for Marine Aviation, the partnership between those on the ground and those in the sky. This was the vision of the founding fathers of Marine Aviation. May it never change -- in space, or wherever else the Corps is bound.

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