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Afterburners aglow, an F/A-18C with the “Death Rattlers” squadron launches from a carrier deck. (U.S. Navy/Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Ryan J. Restvedt)

100 Years of Marine Aviation

A salute to 10 aircraft that carried the few and the proud into history

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To get the complete infrared coverage needed by photo interpreters, pilots and reconnaissance systems operators had to fly parallel lines at exactly the same altitude. “The RF-4 had some great systems in it that really helped you,” said Dailey. “You could fly a true ground track off the inertial navigation system that made it a lot easier than it used to be for the F-8 guys, but it still was a really hairy mission.”

Marine RF-4Bs were retired in 1990.

F-35B Lightning II: 5th-Generation Jump Jet
Alfred Cunningham began his 1920 Marine Corps Gazette article with a sentiment that will be familiar to followers of Marine aviation today: “In common with every new weapon introduced to the military service, Marine Corps aviation has travelled a rocky and uphill road. Its small size has tended to make the jolts more frequent and severe.” The most recent severe jolt was the January 2011 decision, by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to put the Marines’ short takeoff/vertical landing version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on “probation” for two years—whatever that means; the secretary did not define the status nor specify conditions for ending it. (At the time, the test program was behind schedule; it has since caught up, and the new secretary, Leon Panetta, will be the one holding the airplane’s future in his hands.) Last October, the F-35B, which is scheduled to replace the AV-8B Harrier in 2014, completed 72 takeoffs from and vertical landings on the USS Wasp, one of 11 amphibious assault ships that will act as initial forward operating bases for Marine attack aircraft.

The “Joint” in Joint Strike Fighter refers to its three-type production line: one type takes off and lands on conventional runways for the Air Force; a second, with high-lift wings and sturdier landing gear, is designed for the Navy’s aircraft carriers; and the “expeditionary” model for the Marines is intended to take off and land almost anywhere.

The Marine version is the most complex: To operate from austere or unimproved air strips or from an assault ship, the F-35B uses a lift fan, located behind the cockpit, to generate about half the 40,000 pounds of thrust the airplane needs for vertical landing or hovering. The fighter’s jet engine is equipped with a nozzle that swivels down to add the remaining downward thrust.

All versions of the F-35 are stealthy, supersonic, and, according to its Lockheed test pilot, “remarkably easy to fly.”

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