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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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In October, the 1st Marine Division faced the problem of getting a reconnaissance company to the top of a roadless mountain. Estimating a 15-hour trudge for a rifle company to make it to the mountaintop, officers called in the helicopters. In four hours, HMR-161 transported 224 fully equipped Marines and 17,772 pounds of cargo to the post, performing the first helicopter troop transport in combat.

AV-8B Harrier: Hang Time
It’s the very embodiment of menace, with its enormous air intakes, downward-canted tail, and drooping swept wings decked with rocket pods and Sidewinder missiles. But what makes the AV-8B Harrier so threatening is its ability to take off from an improvised airstrip or forward operating base and deliver more than 13,000 pounds of ordnance.

“I can take an AV-8B and put the same bomb load on it that you can put on an F-16, and I can carry it just as far, and drop it just as accurately as an F-16 can,” said Lieutenant General Thomas Miller—the visionary who procured the Harrier from British Aerospace for the Marines—in a 1982 oral history conducted at the Marine Corps Historical Center. “And I can come back and land on a postage stamp. Even on takeoff I don’t need a 5,000-foot runway; I can take off in 200 feet with that load.”

The highly maneuverable Harrier entered the Marine Corps inventory in 1971, too late to see action in Vietnam, but it has since become a significant part of the Marine Corps air-ground team. It was the only tactical jet able to operate from Afghanistan’s Bagram and Kandahar airbases before improvements enabled other aircraft to use the runways.

The muscular attack aircraft has seen extensive action: during the Gulf War, in Kosovo, in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and, most recently, in Operation Odyssey Dawn, where the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit helped enforce the United Nations’ no-fly zone over Libya.

Boeing-Vertol CH-46: Phrogs Phorever
If there’s a single helicopter that represents the U.S. Marine Corps, this is it. “The Army has the Huey,” says Ben Kristy, the aviation curator at the U.S. Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia. “We have the Phrog. That has been our standard assault helicopter since the mid-sixties.” The Phrog, so named because to its pilots and passengers, that’s what it looked like, is the tandem-rotor Sea Knight, and it was built to be shot at. It has dual, or redundant, hydraulic systems, dual stability augmentation systems, dual electrical systems, dual General Electric T-58 turbines, and dual pilots. Both engines and pilots are protected by armor plate.

Fielded first in Vietnam, the Phrog was also designed to shoot back. On each side of the cabin, it had gun mounts that could accommodate either M-60 or .50 caliber machine guns. One of the jobs of the CH-46 pilot in Vietnam was to insert five-person Marine recon teams where they could patrol for enemy soldiers and report back to the base on enemy movements.

Lieutenant General Charles H. Pitman, deputy chief of staff for aviation at Marine Corps Headquarters from 1987 to 1990, flew the Phrog with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265, beginning in 1966. “The tempo had picked up,” Pitman said, remembering the hectic pace of missions in an oral history recorded at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. “You’d go from one to another to another to another,” he said. “I remember the events, but I couldn’t have told you what recon team that was, because I might service six recon teams a day.”

In the following excerpt from his oral history, he described what Vietnam was like for a Phrog pilot:

Pitman: And then my first flight out there, we were putting in a recon team and, as they came off the ramp, they blew the head off the first guy.

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