U. S. Marine Corps pilots constitute one of three groups of military pilots designated as naval aviators, the other two of which are the pilots of the U. S. Navy and the U. S. Coast Guard. All three groups of pilots undergo their initial aviation training under the auspices of the U. S. Navy, beginning their schooling at the Naval Aviation Schools Command in Pensacola, Florida.
U. S. Marine Corps pilots train to fly transports, fighters, attack aircraft, observation aircraft, and helicopters. Their principal mission is to support U. S. Marine Corps infantry, artillery, and other components in combat operations. Marine amphibious forces include all the equipment necessary to exercise command and control of such operations independently of the other military forces, if necessary. Marine pilots are trained to conduct operations from aircraft carriers and from special naval amphibious ships designed to accommodate helicopters during ship-to-shore landing operations.
Career Marine Corps pilots also serve with ground units one or more times in their careers, typically for periods of about two years. When serving with ground units, Marine pilots often fill the role of forward air controllers (FACs), taking responsibility for guiding Marine and Navy attack aircraft during combat operations. Pilots also serve as advisors to commanders of Marine battalions and regiments and to the commanding generals of Marine divisions and amphibious task forces.
The Making of a Marine Aviator
The close link between Marine pilots and their colleagues on the ground forms early in their careers. Although there are many ways to become a Marine officer, all Marines begin in the same officer procurement programs. Some come from the U. S. Naval Academy; others take what is called the “Marine option” in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Program (NROTC) conducted at many universities. The U. S. Marine Corps also operates several officer procurement programs of its own, including a ten-week, post-baccalaureate Officer Candidate School (OCS) and another program called the Platoon Leaders Class (PLC) that requires two six-week training periods during college summers. Both programs are conducted by the Officer Candidate School at the Marine Corps Development and Education Command near Quantico, Virginia. However future Marine pilots obtain their commission, they must also complete the Officer’s Basic Course at Quantico. All officers must complete this rigorous six-month program before reporting for flight training in Pensacola.
During World War II (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), the Marine Corps took pilots from the enlisted ranks. They were known unofficially as “flying master sergeants.” Most of those who stayed on active duty eventually received commissions. During the early 1960’s, when the airlines exchanged propeller-driven aircraft for the first passenger jets, many civilian pilots lost their jobs. Some of these pilots who belonged to the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve returned to active duty but gave up their lieutenant and captain ranks to become flying warrant officers.
The Organization of Marine Aviation
The U. S. Marine Corps is the only military service with a completely integrated aviation component capable of deploying with its ground combat units. The aircraft flown by Marine Corps pilots include a fixed-wing fighter-attack aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet, and the multiengine transport and in-flight-refueling aircraft, the KC-130 Hercules. Marine pilots also fly the vertical-takeoff attack aircraft the AV-8B Harrier. In addition, Marine Corps pilots fly several types of helicopters, including the AH-1W Super Cobra, the UH-1N Huey, the CH-46E Sea Knight, and the CH- 53E Super Stallion.
Marine Corps aviation is organized into three active duty aircraft wings and one reserve wing. Each wing is subdivided into air groups, which are, in turn, the parent units of the various squadrons. Each wing is organized to support a corresponding division. The active-duty wings are the First, Second, and Third Marine Aircraft Wings; the reserve wing is the Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing.
When Marine ground units are deployed, they normally travel aboard and are landed from naval amphibious ships. An infantry battalion deploys along with an aircraft squadron as a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Larger forces include a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), organized around an infantry regiment and an air group, and a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), organized around a division and an aircraft wing. These combination air-and-ground- operational units are collectively referred to as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs).
Famous Marine Corps Pilots
Several Marine Corps pilots have become famous for their exploits in the air. One of them, World War II fighter ace Joseph J. Foss, went on to become governor of South Dakota in 1954. After serving two terms in that office, he became the first commissioner of the American Football League in 1966.
During World War II, Foss shot down twenty-six enemy aircraft and was the number-two Marine Corps ace in that war. He was also one of five Marine pilots to receive the Medal of Honor for bravery during the campaign for the island of Guadalcanal. He was shot down once by enemy aircraft.
After the war, Foss took a commission in the South Dakota Air National Guard, which he helped organize, and served in the Korean War as a U. S. Air Force colonel. He retired from the Air National Guard as a brigadier general.
The top Marine Corps ace of World War II, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, is credited with destroying forty enemy aircraft. Boyington was, for a time, commanding officer of Squadron 214, the famous Black Sheep Squadron.
Both Foss and Boyington served on Guadalcanal in what Marine pilots called the Cactus Air Force, a name derived from the fact that the call sign for the island was “cactus.” The Cactus Air Force was commanded by another famous Marine Corps aviator, Brigadier General Roy Geiger, who had served in France in World War I.
Geiger’s principal legacy, however, centers on the fact that just before his death, he urged the commandant of the Marine Corps to examine the concept of vertical envelopment in conjunction with the nuclear threat. Geiger, who had retired as a lieutenant general, thus hastened the now standard tactics for modern Marine Corps amphibious operations, tactics in which all Marine pilots play an essential role.
Bibliography Alexander, Joseph H. A Fellowship of Valor: The Battle History of the United States Marines. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Excellently illustrated in color and arranged in chronological order, the book describes all the wars and battles in which the Marine Corps has participated and includes descriptions of the roles played by aircraft. De St. Jorre, John. The Marines. New York: Doubleday, 1989. A book that focuses on how the contemporary Marine Corps trains individuals to perform their duties. Section 2 includes discussions on Marine pilots and aircraft. Halberstadt, Hans. U. S. Marine Corps. Osceola, Wis.: Motor Books International, 1993. A beautifully illustrated 128-page paperback. Marine aviation is covered in Chapter 5