Marine pilots, U.S. Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Aviators among the officer ranks of the United States Marine Corps.

Naval Aviators

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).

Early History of Marine Corps Aviation

May 22, 1912, is considered the birthday of U.S. Marine Corps aviation. It was on that date that a young Marine Corps first lieutenant, Alfred A. Cunningham, reported to the superintendent of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, for “duty in connection with aviation.” It was the custom of the day for aircraft manufacturers to provide flight instruction, so shortly after arriving in Annapolis, Lieutenant Cunningham was sent to the Burgess Corporation for flight instruction. He was designated Naval Aviator Number 5 on March 4, 1913.

On becoming the Corps’ first aviator, Cunningham joined several other Marine officers to campaign for continued development of Marine Corps aviation. Finally, in February of 1913, he received orders to organize the Corps’ first aviation unit, which was called the Marine Corps Aeronautical Company. This unit, organized at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, had seven officers and forty-three ground personnel.

After World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Cunningham visited France, where he met the American pilots in the famous squadron known as the Lafayette Escadrille. He also participated in combat flights with French pilots.

After returning from France, Cunningham presented a report of his findings to the commandant of the Marine Corps, helping to further expand Marine aviation. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Cunningham was directed to organize the First Marine Aviation Force for duty in France. This force was the first Marine aviation unit to ever fly in combat.

Development of Close Air Support

Another date of great historical importance to Marine Corps pilots is July 15, 1927. In what is known as the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, Marines were deployed in Nicaragua to protect American interests during civil strife in that country. On July 15, some Marines came under fire, and, in response, Marine pilots conducted the first of a type of air attack that would come to be called close air support (CAS). From that day forward, the close support of ground combatants would become a governing philosophy of Marine aviation. In the years following the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, Marine pilots worked to perfect the delivery of ordnance close to their counterparts on the ground.

Later Developments in Close Air Support

Precision bombing by aircraft underwent refinement during World War II and the Korean War, and it saw service in the war in Vietnam (1961-1975) and in Operation Desert Storm (1991). During the Korean War, another major philosophical principle emerged in Marine Corps aviation, as the helicopter assumed a large role in medical evacuation, aerial observation, and the delivery of matériel to front-line troops.

From that experience, the Marine Corps, together with the Navy, developed the concept of “vertical envelopment.” They converted some World War II-vintage aircraft carriers to helicopter carriers called LPHs, a term often mistaken to mean “Landing Platform, Helicopter.” The Navy designates amphibious ships with the letter “L” and ships that carry personnel with the letter “P.” Thus, the term “LPH” really means “Amphibious Ship, Personnel, Helicopter.” Today, larger and more efficient naval helicopter carriers support the Marine Corps amphibious forces.

Part of the impetus for developing the concept of vertical envelopment was based on the looming of the atomic age. The naval services, both the Navy and Marine Corps, sought strategies to avoid concentrating in a small beach area troops that could be annihilated with just one nuclear weapon. In the exercise of vertical envelopment, Marine pilots flying helicopters deliver troops from amphibious ships deep into enemy territory, while other Marines land over beaches in more traditional landing craft.

Moreover, Marine pilots in such attack aircraft and helicopters as the AV-8B Harrier and the AH-1W Super Cobra provide troops on the ground with close air support. This mission is additionally important in the landing of Marine forces when the threat of mechanized counterattack exists. Marine mechanized and antimechanized units may not land early in an amphibious operation, and Marine infantry depend on aircraft to play this role in the opening phase of an assault.

Finally, Marine pilots in fighter aircraft can conduct operations to protect the beachhead and landing zones from attack by enemy aircraft. In fact, the main mission of the KC-130 aircraft that some Marine pilots fly is to refuel such fighter aircraft for sustained operations or for moving long distances.

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.

  • 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.

Black Sheep Squadron

Fighter pilots

Harrier jets


Korean War

Military flight

Navy pilots, U.S.

World War I

World War II

Categories: History