100 Years of Marine Aviation

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

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)
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Interviewer: The first Recon Marine that goes in gets his head blown off?

Pitman: Yes, and they all went down outside to try to set up a perimeter. Meanwhile, both my gunners were shot. They were down in the back and they couldn’t return fire. So we had to pull out of the zone—we were under fire, ourselves—and leave the Marines there. And we had a backup helicopter flying that was a [Sikorsky CH-34]. There’s two -34s chasing us, and they provided suppressive fire and were able to get the Marines out, no more casualties.

Interviewer: Welcome to Vietnam.

CH-46s are flying similar operations in Afghanistan today and will continue flying until MV-22 Ospreys, now in production, replace them.

MV-22 Osprey: Magic Bus
In the 1990s, when the V-22 was the most troubled development program in the Pentagon, the Marines would argue for the tilt rotor by telling the story of a failure. Today they can tell a story of success.

The failure is Operation Eagle Claw, the 1980 attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Tehran, which ended in eight fatalities in the Iranian desert. The mission had been hazardously complex because, Osprey supporters claimed, the Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions that were to transport the Army assault force had neither the range nor speed to get the Rangers from the aircraft carrier to the U.S. Embassy and back during a single night. The Osprey, they had said, could.

The Osprey is unique. Its twin rotors lift it off vertically then rotate forward to propel it as fast as 300 mph. It can take off from and land on roads, rudimentary airstrips, or assault ships, and it can carry 24 Marines a thousand miles.

The success: Two Ospreys were dispatched from the USS Kearsarge last March to rescue an F-15 pilot, who had ejected over Libya after his aircraft had suffered mechanical failure. The Ospreys returned with the pilot 90 minutes after they launched.

F/A-18 Hornet: Multi-Tasker
Any Marine aviator can tell you the story, but when Major Byron Sullivan tells it, he’s talking about his dad. In the late 1980s, the Army was pressing Congress for a dedicated tactical support aircraft so that it wouldn’t have to rely on Air Force close air support. During a hearing, as an Air Force general described a complex CAS protocol, an exasperated Congressman turned to the Marines’ representative to find out how the Marine troops got air support. General Michael Sullivan, at the time commander of the Marine 2nd Air Wing, answered, “It’s easy. Our airplanes have ‘Marines’ painted on the side.”

The quote gets a laugh from the younger Sullivan, who believes Marine air support can differ from that provided by other services. “The difference,” he says, “is that there’s a Marine flying the damn airplane.”


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