The U.S. Marine Corps occupies a special niche in the annals of aviation history. Known for their seamless integration of air and ground assets, the Marines require specialized aircraft, often capable of vertical or short takeoff and landing, to accomplish their missions. Their close air support and vertical envelopment tactics have been honed in far-flung conflicts that underscore the service’s expeditionary nature.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the humble beginnings of Marine Corps aviation. As Walter Knapp recounts in “The Marines Take Wing” in the May 2012 issue, a handful of young leathernecks pioneered the Corps’ air arm just before World War I, flying spindly Curtiss Golden Flyers purchased by the U.S. Navy. Led by Marine aviator number one Alfred Cunningham, they went on to form the 1st Aviation Force and serve in Europe toward the end of the war. One of their missions from the outset, just as today, was close air support, though back then it was in Liberty-engine de Havilland biplanes.
Almost four decades after Cunningham reported for duty at Annapolis, the first Marine transport helicopter squadron, HMR-161, deployed to Korea. Flying Sikorsky HRS-1s, the squadron introduced and tested the concept of vertical envelopment—the rapid mass insertion of troops and supplies to combat areas, usually behind or on the flanks of enemy lines. HMR-161 proved the tactic worked, but its service in Korea was not without incident. In “Marine Chopper Salvage”, Craig Thorson describes how the squadron used ingenuity and Marine muscle to recover parts from two crashed Sikorskys, and then resurrected one of the choppers.
Today the twin concepts of vertical envelopment and close air support remain essential to Marine Corps objectives. The only difference is in the technology employed, with tilt-rotor V-22 Ospreys and short-takeoff/vertical-landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighters soon to fulfill those missions.
Lest we forget the cost of the Marines’ up-close-and-personal approach to warfighting, look no further than current newspaper headlines. On January 19, 2012, six Marine members of Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 (which had also served in Korea as HMR-363) were killed when their Sikorsky CH-53D Sea Stallion crashed in southern Afghanistan during a combat operation. The Department of Defense identified the Hawaii-based Marines as Captain Daniel B. Bartle, 27, of Ferndale, Wash.; Captain Nathan R. McHone, 29, of Crystal Lake, Ill.; Master Sgt. Travis W. Riddick, 40, of Centerville, Iowa; Corporal Jesse W. Stites, 23, of North Beach, Md.; Corporal Kevin J. Reinhard, 25, of Colonia, N.J.; and Corporal Joseph D. Logan, 22, of Willis, Texas.
Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement of condolence that said in part: “It is a reminder of what we ask of those few proud souls who answer our nation’s call. Those we lost displayed great courage and honor in serving our country, and have made the ultimate sacrifice for their commitment.” Another Hawaii representative, Mazie K. Hirono, echoed the sentiment, adding, “We owe them and all of our brave servicemen and women a debt of gratitude for their dedication to our country.”
Indeed we do.
For more on the Marine Corps aviation centennial, including a listing of anniversary events planned for this year, visit marines.mil/unit/aviation/centennial.