United States Marine Corps Aviation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Roundel used by the Marine Corps during World War I
Roundel used by the Marine Corps during World War I

United States Marine Corps
United States Marine Corps


Secretary of the Navy

Commandant of the Marine Corps

Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps

Major Commands

Organization of the Marine Corps

I Marine Expeditionary Force

II Marine Expeditionary Force

III Marine Expeditionary Force

Marine Forces Reserve


Headquarters Marine Corps

While other nations have Marines who are aviators, only the United States Marine Corps has its own dedicated aviation arm. Marine aviation has a very different mission and operation than its ground counterpart, and thus, has many of its own histories, traditions, terms, and procedures. All Marine aviation falls under the influence of the Deputy Commandant for Aviation, whose job is to advise the Commandant of the Marine Corps in all matters relating to aviation, especially acquisition of new assets, conversions of current aircraft, maintenance, operation, and command.

The organic aviation capability of the Marine Corps is essential to its mission. The Corps operates both rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft mainly to provide transport and close air support to its ground forces. However, other aircraft types are also used in a variety of support and special-purpose roles. Today, Marine aviation is task organized to support the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, as the aviation combat element, by providing six functions: assault support, anti-air warfare, offensive air support, electronic warfare, control of aircraft and missiles, and aerial reconnaissance.


1stLt Alfred A. Cunningham, first Marine Corps aviator
1stLt Alfred A. Cunningham, first Marine Corps aviator

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.” As the number of Marine aviators grew so did the avid desire to separate from Naval aviation. It was first designated as separate from Naval aviation 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.

This was followed in 1915 when the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a “Marine Corps aviation company consisting of 10 officers and 40 enlisted men.”February 17, 1917 saw the establishment of the first official Marine flying unit with the commissioning of the Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

The first major expansion of the Marine Corps’ air component came with America’s entrance into World War I in 1917. Wartime expansion saw the Aviation Company split into the First Aeronautic Company which deployed to the Azores to hunt U-Boats in January 1918 and the First Marine Air Squadron which deployed to France as the newly renamed 1st Marine Aviation Force in July 1918 and provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy’s Day Wing, Northern Bombing Group. By the end of the war, several Marine aviators had recorded air-to-air kills, collectively they had dropped over fourteen tons of bombs and their number totals included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men operating from 8 squadrons.

F4U Corsair in WWII
F4U Corsair in WWII

The end of World War I saw Congress authorize 1,020 men for Marine aviation and the establishment of permanent air stations at Quantico, Parris Island and San Diego The United States also embraced its role of global power and the Marine Corps became the preferred force for military intervention and where the Marines went so went Marine aviation. It was during the Banana Wars, while fighting bandits and insurgents in places like Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, that Marine Aviators would begin to experiment with air-ground tactics making the support of their fellow Marines on the ground their primary mission. It was in Haiti that Marines began to develop the tactic of dive bombing and in Nicaraugua where they began to perfect it. While other nations and services had tried variations of this technique, Marine aviators were the first to embrace it and make it part of their tactical doctrine Even prior to the events in the Caribbean pioneering Marine aviators such as Alfred Cunningham had noted in 1920 that, “…the only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground to successfully carry out their missions.”

It was not until May 3, 1925 that the Marine Corps officially appeared in the Navy’s Aeronautical Organization when Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, then Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, issued a directive officially authorizing three fighting squadrons. Also taking place during the 1920’s was that Marine squadrons began qualifying on board aircraft carriers. However, in terms of mission and training, the assignment of two Marine scouting squadrons as component units of the Pacific Fleet carriers would be one of the greatest advancements for Marine aviation. Prior to this Marine squadrons were loosely controlled with regard to doctrine and training. This assignment enabled nearly 60% of active duty aviators at the time to be exposed to a disciplined training syllabus under a clearly defined mission.

The turning point for the long-term survival of Marine Air came with the structural change of the establishment of the Fleet Marine Force in 1933. This shifted Marine doctrine to focus less on expeditionary duty and more on supporting amphibious warfare by seizing advance naval bases in the event of war.This also saw the establishment of Aircraft One and Aircraft Two to replace the old Aircraft Squadron, East Coast and Aircraft Squadron, West Coast that had supported operations in the Caribbean and China as part of their expeditionary duties. This organization would remain until June 1940 when Congress authorized the Marine Corps 1,167 aircraft as part of its 10,000 plane program for the Navy. Just prior, in 1939, the Navy’s General Board published a new mission for Marine Aviation which stated,”Marine Aviation is to be equipped, organized and trained primarily for the support of the Fleet Marine Force in landing operations and in support of troop activities in the field; and secondarily as replacement for carrier based naval aircraft.” On December 7, 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Marine aviation consisted of 13 flying squadrons and 230 aircraft.

F-4 PhantomF-4 Phantom from VMFA-314 returning to Chu Lai during the Vietnam War.

World War II would see the Marine Corps’ air arm expand rapidly and extensively.They would reach their peak number of units with 5 air wings, 31 aircraft groups and 145 flying squadrons. During the war, and for the next fifty years, the Battle of Guadalcanal would become a defining point for Marine Aviation . The great takeaways were the debilitating effects of not having air superiority, the vulnerability of targets such as transport shipping and the vital importance of quickly acquiring expeditionary airfields during amphibious operations.. Because of the way the Pacific War unfolded, Marine Aviation was not able to achieve its 1939 mission of supporting the Fleet Marine Force at first. For the first two years of the war the air arm spent most of its time protecting the fleet and land based installations from attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. This began to change after the Battle of Tarawa as the air support for ground troops flown by Navy pilots left much to be desired. After the battle, General Holland Smith recommended, “Marine aviators, thoroughly schooled in the principles of direct air support,” should do the job. The Battle of New Georgia saw the first real close air support provided to Marine ground forces by Marine Air, the Battle of Bougainville and the campaign to retake the Philippines saw the establishment of air liaison parties to coordinate air support with the grunts on the ground and the Battle of Okinawa brought most of it together with the establishment of aviation command and control in the form of Landing Force Air Support Control Units.

cobra attack helicopter
Cobra attack helicopters being refueled at a MWSS-373 FARP during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Immediately following the war the strength of the Marine Corps flying arm was drastically cut as part of the post war drawdown of forces. Their active strength fell from 116,628 personnel and 103 squadrons on August 31, 1945 to 14,163 personnel and 21 squadrons on June 30, 1948. They also maintained another 30 squadrons in the Marine Air Reserve.

The post-World War II era saw the transition from propeller to jet aircraft and the development of the helicopter for use in amphibious operations. The first Marine jet squadron came in November of 1947 when VMF-122 fielded the FH Phantom and four years later VMF-311 would be the first Marine jet squadron to be used in combat providing close air support for the Marines and soldiers on the ground in December >1950 flying the F9F Panther. The first Marine helicopter squadron stood up in November 1947 with the activation of HMX-1. This was followed by the first combat use of helicopters during the Battle of Pusan Perimeter in August of 1950 with VMO-6 flying the HO3S1 helicopter. January. 1951 saw another first for Marine aviation with the activation of HMR-161, the first helicopter transport squadron in the world. The Korean and Vietnam Wars would see the size of Marine aviation rebound from its post World War II lows and emerge into the force that exists today, consisting of 4 air wings, 20 aircraft groups and 78 flying squadrons. By the end of the Vietnam War the Marine Air-Ground Task Force had grown dependent on its multi-mission inventory of fixed-wing and rotary wing aircraft that could operate from land or sea bases with the primary responsibility of supporting Marine units on the ground.

Marine aviators deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm and most recently to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. 2006 saw Marine aviation at its highest operational level since the Vietnam War flying over 120,000 combat hours in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even with the high operational tempo it is currently undergoing another major transformation. They are in the initial phases of upgrading their H-1 fleet to the AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom, have seen the successful transition of the three squadrons to the MV-22 Osprey along with that airframes’ first combat deployment and continue with the development of the Joint Strike Fighter.


The squadron insignia for the VMFA-232 Red Devils. The oldest and most decorated fighter squadron in the Marine Corps.
The squadron insignia for the VMFA-232 Red Devils. The oldest and most decorated fighter squadron in the Marine Corps.


The basic tactical and administrative unit of United States Marine Corps aviation is the squadron, which is the size/organization equivalent of a battalion. Fixed-wing aircraft squadrons (heavier than air) are denoted by the letter “V”, which comes from the French verb “Voler” (to fly). Rotary wing (helicopter) squadrons use “H.” Squadrons flying lighter than air vehicles (balloons), which were active from World War I to 1943, were indicated by the letter “Z” in naval squadron designation. Marine squadrons are always noted by the second letter “M.” Squadron numbering is not linear as some were numbered in ascending order and others took numbers from the wing or the ship to which they were assigned. From 1920 to 1941, Marine flying squadrons were identified by one digit numbers. This changed on July 1, 1941 when all existing squadrons were redesignated to a three-digit system. The first two numbers were supposed to identify the squadron’s parent group but with the rapid expansion during the war and frequent transfer of squadrons this system fell apart. The squadron is sometimes further divided into sections. Traditionally, the lead aircraft belongs to the commanding officer.


The next highest level in Marine Aviation is the Group, the aviation equivalent of a regiment. Groups can be classified as:

  • Marine Aircraft Group (MAG): air combat element, usually consisting of several fixed-wing or rotary-wing squadrons and a single Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron (MALS).
  • Marine Wing Support Group (MWSG): ground support element for a Marine Air Wing, usually consisting of four Marine Wing Support Squadrons. These hold the vast majority of motor transport, combat engineer equipment and technicians for a MAW.
  • Marine Air Control Group (MACG): command and control element for a MAW, usually consisting of air traffic control, air support, communication, anti-aircraft warfare, and UAV units.
  • Marine Aircraft Training Support Group (MATSG): training element to provide support for aviation students (though it is currently often just an administrative support unit for detachments to non-Marine bases).


Logo of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing
Logo of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing

The largest level in Marine aviation is the Marine Aircraft Wing, the equivalent of a division. Wings are usually grouped with a Marine division and a Marine Logistics Group to form a Marine Expeditionary Force. Administratively, Marine aviation is organized into three active duty MAWs and one reserve MAW. MAWs are designed to provide units in support of MAGTF or other operations. Each MAW has a unique organizational structure. The MAW may be reinforced with assets from other MAWs to provide the necessary assets to meet mission requirements. It is organized into a MAW HQ, several MAGs, a MACG and a MWSG. Each MAW is served by a Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron (MWHS) (see: MWHS-1, MWHS-2, and MWHS-3). The mission of the MAW is to conduct air operations in support of the Marine Forces to include offensive air support, antiair warfare, assault support, aerial reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and the control of aircraft and missiles. As a collateral function, the MAW may participate as an integral component of naval aviation in the execution of such other Navy functions as the Fleet Commander may direct


All Marine Corps aviation falls under the cognizance of the Deputy Commandant for Aviation at Headquarters Marine Corps, with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. There, plans for all aspects of aviation are created and managed, including acquisition of new aircraft, training, maintenance, manpower, etc. HQMCA creates Transitional Task Forces to assist units in transitioning between aircraft and aircraft versions. The current head of Marine Corps Aviation is the Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lieutenant General George Trautman.

An EA-6 Prowler from VMAQ-2 flying over MCAS Cherry Point
An EA-6 Prowler from VMAQ-2 flying over MCAS Cherry Point

Naval Aviator InsigniaNaval Aviator Insignia

Marine air stations

Due to the range and space needed to operate aircraft, each MAW spreads its groups and squadrons amongst several Marine Corps Air Stations (MCAS), as well as offering detachments/liaisons (and occasionally full units) to airports and Air Force Bases and Naval Air Stations. Each MCAS maintains its own base functions as well as air traffic control and facilities (often with a headquarters squadron of its own).


All Marine pilots and flight officers are trained and qualified as Naval Aviators or Naval Flight Officers by the Navy. Prospective aviators receive thier commissions just as other Marine officers do, then report to Marine Aviation Training Support Group 21 to attend Aviation Preflight Indoctrination at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. There they receive instruction in aerodynamics, aircraft engines and systems, meteorology, navigation, and flight rules and regulations. Following completion, they are assigned to Primary Flight Training at Marine Aviation Training Support Group 22, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas or remain in Pensacola, Florida. Upon successful completion of Primary Flight Training, they will select which type of aircraft they would like to fly, in accordance with the needs of the Corps.

After selection, student aviators are assigned to Advanced Flight Training in their particular field (jet, propeller, or rotary wing). Upon completion, students are designated as Naval Aviators and are awarded the Naval Aviator Insignia. From that point, they are trained by Marine commands. The available aircraft training squadrons:

Squadron Name   Aircraft Trained   Station  


CH-53E Super Stallion

MCAS New River, NC


AH-1W SuperCobra
UH-1N Twin Huey

MCAS Camp Pendleton, CA


CH-46 Sea Knight

MCAS Camp Pendleton, CA


MV-22 Osprey

MCAS New River, NC


AV-8B Harrier II

MCAS Cherry Point, NC


F/A-18 Hornet

MCAS Miramar, CA

All other aircraft are taught by the Navy or Air Force, or in the case of HMX-1, by the company that created the aircraft. [35] After completion, aviators are assigned to thier first squadron.

Flight Officers, after Aviation Preflight Indoctrination, continue thier own training path by staying at Pensacola and training further in navigation and avionics. After Advanced NFO training, receive thier wings and are assigned to thier first duty squadron.

Elnisted aircrew also serve on some aircraft (mostly helicopters). They are trained at NAS Pensacola and are eligible to wear the Aircrew insignia.

Marine AV-8B Harrier II on the deck of USS Nassau
Marine AV-8B Harrier II on the deck of USS Nassau

MV-22 with Marine parachutersMV-22 with Marine parachuters

Current aircraft

The Marine light attack helicopter squadrons (HMLA) are composite squadrons of AH-1W SuperCobras and UH-1N Iroquois (also known as the Huey), as the airframes have over 80% commonality. Both are slated to be replaced by the AH-1Z and the UH-1Y. These provide light-attack and light transport capabilities.[36] Marine medium helicopter (HMM) squadrons fly the CH-46E Sea Knight medium-lift transport helicopters; but are converting to the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft with superior range and speed, and are being re-named as "Marine medium tilt-rotor" (VMM) squadrons. Marine heavy helicopter (HMH) squadrons fly the CH-53D Sea Stallion and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter for heavy-lift missions. These will eventually be replaced with the upgraded CH-53K, currently under development.

Marine attack squadrons (VMA) fly the AV-8B Harrier II; while Marine Fighter-Attack (VMFA) and Marine (All Weather) Fighter-Attack (VMFA(AW)) squadrons, respectively fly both the single-seat (F/A-18C) and dual-seat (F/A-18D) versions of the F/A-18 Hornet strike-fighter aircraft. The AV-8B Harrier II is a VTOL aircraft that can operate from amphibious assault ships, land air bases and short, expeditionary airfields[38] . The F/A-18 can only be flown from land or aircraft carriers. Both are slated to be replaced by the STOVL version of the F-35 Lightning II (the F-35B).

In addition, the Corps operates its own organic electronic warfare (EW) and aerial refueling assets in the form of the EA-6B Prowler and KC-130 Hercules. In Marine transport refuelling (VMGR) squadrons, the Hercules doubles as a ground refueller and tactical-airlift transport aircraft. Serving in Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare (VMAQ) Squadrons, the Prowler is the only active tactical electronic warfare aircraft left in the U.S. inventory. It has been labeled a "national asset" and is frequently borrowed to assist in any American combat action, not just Marine operations.[40] Since the retirement of the US Air Force’s own EW aircraft, the EF-111 Raven; Marine Corps Prowlers, along with those of the US Navy, also provide electronic warfare support to US Air Force aircraft.

The Marines also operate two Marine unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadrons (VMU), with the RQ-7 Shadow UAV for tactical reconnaissance. These squadrons also fly the Boeing Scan Eagle and have recently retired the RQ-2 Pioneer.

Marine Fighter Training Squadron 401 (VMFT-401), operates F-5E, F-5F and F-5N Tiger II aircraft in support of air combat adversary (aggressor) training. Marine helicopter squadron one (HMX-1) operates the VH-3D Sea King medium-lift and VH-60N Nighthawk light-lift helicopters in the VIP transport role, soon to be replaced by the VH-71 Kestrel. A single Marine Corps C-130 Hercules aircraft "Fat Albert" is used to support the US Navy’s flight demonstration team, the "Blue Angels".

Aircraft listed

Fixed wing aircraft

  • F/A-18C/D Hornet (anticipated replacement by the F-35B Lightning II by 2012)
  • AV-8B Harrier II (anticipated replacement by the F-35B Lightning II by 2012)
  • EA-6B Prowler
  • KC-130F/J/R/T Hercules
  • VIP transports:
    • C-9 Skytrain II
    • C-12 King Air
    • C-20 Gulfstream IV
    • UC-35C/D Citation/Encore

Rotary wing aircraft

  • AH-1W/Z SuperCobra
  • UH-1N/Y Iroquois/TwinHuey
  • CH-46E Sea Knight (replacement by the MV-22 Osprey began 2007)
  • CH-53D Sea Stallion
  • CH-53E/K Super Stallion
  • Marine One
    • VH-3D Sea King
    • VH-60N Nighthawk
    • VH-71 Kestrel

Tilt rotor aircraft

  • MV-22 Osprey


  • RQ-7 Shadow
  • Scan Eagle



  • GAU-12 25 mm Gatling gun
  • GAU-16 .50 Caliber Machine gun
  • GAU-17 7.62 mm automatic gun
  • GAU-2B/A
  • GAU-4 20 mm Vulcan (M61)
  • M197 Gatling gun


  • CBU-99 Cluster Bomb
  • GBU-10 2000 lb laser guided bomb
  • GBU-12 500 lb laser guided bomb
  • GBU-16 1000 lb laser guided bomb
  • MK82 series 500 lb bomb
  • MK83 series 1000 lb bomb
  • MK84 series 2000 lb bomb


  • AGM-45 Shrike Missile
  • AGM-65 Maverick Missile
  • AGM-84 Harpoon Missile
  • AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-radiation Missile (HARM)
  • AGM-114 Hellfire (Helicopter launched fire-and-forget)
  • AGM-122 Sidearm (anti-radar) Missile
  • AIM-7 Sparrow
  • AIM-9 Sidewinder (anti-air) Missile
  • AIM-120 AMRAAM


  • Hydra 70
  • M260 70 mm Rocket Launcher


  • Shettle USMC Air Stations of WWII, p.9.
  • Marine Aviation homepage
  • MAWTS-1 hones warfighting edge. Naval Aviation News. Retrieved on 200704-01.
  • Condon, John P. (1993). U.S. Marine Corps Aviation (English). 75th Year of Naval Aviation – Volume Five of a Commemorative Collection 3. History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. Retrieved on January 29, 2007.
  • Corum & Johnson, “Small Wars”, p. 23
  • Sherrod, Robert (1952). History of Marine Corps Aviation in WWII. Washington: Combat Forces Press, 4-5. ISBN 0-933852-58-4
  • Dechant, “Devilbirds”, p. 4-5
  • World War I (English). History of Marine Corps Aviation. www.acepilots.com. Retrieved on February 12, 2007.
  • Dechant, “Devilbirds”, p. 4-5
  • Corum & Johnson, “Small Wars”, p. 23
  • USMC Aviation History (English) 1. Miramar Air Show. Retrieved on February 11, 2007.
  • ShettleUSMC Air Stations of WWII, p.9.
  • Corum & Johnson, “Small Wars”, p. 23-40.
  • Ginther, Jim (2007). “The Unexplored Frontier – Marine Aviation Records of the Gray Research Center”. Fortitudine 32 (4): 21. Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps History Division. 
  • Barrow, Jess C. (1981). WW II:Marine Fighting Squadron Nine (VF-9M). Blue Rigge Summit, PA: TAB Books Inc.. ISBN 0-83062-289-6
  • Condon Flattops and Corsairs, pgs. 1-2.
  • Saint, Patricia D. (2007). “Remembering the Pioneering Spirit and Legacy of Marine Aviation”. Fortitudine 32 (4): 5-9. Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps History Division. 
  • Swanson, Claude A. (December 7 1933). The Fleet Marine Force (English). General Order No. 241 1. United States Marine Corps history Division. Retrieved on February 10, 2007.
  • Astor Semper Fi in the Sky, p.14.
  • Tierney, Elizabeth L. (1962). A Brief History of Marine Corps Aviation (English). Marine Corps Historical Reference Series – Number 18 3. Historical Branch, Headquarters Marine Corps. Retrieved on February 12, 2007.
  • Rottman, Gordon L. (2002). U.S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle – Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War.. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31906-5
  • Astor, Gerald (2005). Semper Fi in the Sky – The Marine Air Battles of World War II. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-89141-877-6. 
  • Chapin, John C. (2000). Fire Brigade: U.S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter. Washington D.C.: Marine Corps Historical Center. 
  • Condon, John Pomeroy (1998). Corsairs and Flattops – Marine Carrier Air Warfare, 1944-45. Annapolis Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-127-0. 
  • Corum, James S. & Johnson, Wray R. (2003). Airpower in Small Wars – Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-70061-240-8. 
  • De Chant, John A. (1947). Devilbirds – The Story of United States Marine Aviation in World War II. New York: Harper & Brothers, 4-5. 
  • Dorr, Robert F. (2005). Marine Air – The History of the Flying Leathernecks in Words and Photos. Penguin Group. ISBN 0-4220-725-0. 
  • Johnson, Edward C. (1977). Marine Corps Aviation: The Early Years 1912 – 1940. United States Marine Corps.
  • Lundstrom, John B. (2005 (New edition)). First Team And the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-472-8. 
  • Mersky, Peter B. (1983). U.S. Marine Corps Aviation – 1912 to the Present. Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America. ISBN 0-933852-39-8. 
  • Rottman, Gordon L. (2002). U.S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle – Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War, 1939 – 1945.’’. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31906-5. 
  • Sherrod, Robert (1952). History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Combat Forces Press. 
  • Shettle Jr., M. L. (2001). United States Marine Corps Air Stations of World War II. Bowersville, Georgia: Schaertel Publishing Co.. ISBN 0-964-33882-3. 
  • Tillman, Barrett (2001). Corsair – The F4U in World War II and Korea. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-944-8.