Since 1775 a particular occasion is celebrated annually in the United States on November 10th — the birthday of the United States Marine Corps. We decided to celebrate this milestone by visiting the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum to learn more about the history of Marine flight.
The first United States Marine Corps aviator was A. A. Cunningham. The day he reported for flight training at the US Naval Academy back in 22nd May 1912 is acknowledged as the start date of US Marine aviation.
The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum has many displays of combat helicopters and fighter planes. The reason the Marines have an aviation arm is because Marines in the air help support Marines on the ground to ensure mission completion. The photo above is of the Sikorsky HRS-3 (H-19), or Chickasaw. And, the photo below is of another Chickasaw.
The first significant test of the USMC’s aviation arm happened in World War I. The US entered WWI on the 6th of April 1917 with a USMC aviation contingent comprised of only 6 Marine officers designated as naval aviators, 1 warrant officer, and 45 enlisted men. Then by the close of WWI, Marine aviation had 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men. One of the highlights of Marine aviation during WWI was that they completed the first documented aerial food drop mission in history when they replenished a group of isolated French soldiers. The feat resulted in three aviators receiving the Distinguished Service Medal, and their observers received the Navy Cross as well.
The photo above from the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum is of the Vietnam War era’s Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight. Marine aircraft takes advantage of both fixed wing and rotary wing. The rise of the rotary wing in Marine aviation began in the early 1950s with the Korean War. But even before Korea the Marines had tested rotary wing in combat. Back in 1932 Marines attempted to use the Pitcairn OP-1 autogyro for missions such as medevac, but that aircraft did not meet Marine expectations. The US Army then purchased its first helo, the Vought-Sikorsky XR-4 in January 1941, followed closely by the US Navy buying four improved Sikorsky helos in 1942. Post-WWII atomic bomb testings then goaded the Marines into creating the Marine Helicopter Developmental Squadron 1 (HMX-1) in December 1947. And, when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the USMC had its four-helo squadron ready to deploy. By the time the Vietnam War raged in the 1960s, Marine use of helos had diversified, in turn transforming the image of the helicopter from a mere flying novelty to a symbol of American combat.
Here we are inside the Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. Can you imagine this helicopter work space as your office everyday? While the Army has the Huey, the Marines have the CH-46 as the iconic chopper that represents the USMC. Marines often call the CH-46 as the Phrog.
Back in 1961 the CH-46A Sea Knight won a competition design to become the choice helo for the Marines. The Sea Knight’s maiden flight took place in August 1962. Two years later the first Sea Knight for the USMC was delivered to the Few and the Proud. By 1965 the Sea Knight, or Phrog, commenced military service with action in the Vietnam War.
Here’s another view of the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum from within the CH-46 Sea Knight, or Phrog. The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum’s CH-46 is actually known as the Lady Ace 09; it was the helo that transported the last US Ambassador out of South Vietnam before Saigon fell back in April 1975.
While at the MCAS Miramar Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum, we likewise had the opportunity to sit in some Marine fighter jets. We can almost imagine what baseball legend and US marine Ted Williams felt like as a fighter pilot. Did you know that legendary astronaut John Glenn was a frequent wingman for Ted Williams when they both served together as Marines in the Pacific?
The world’s first operational fighter jet was the Nazi aircraft Messerschmidt Me 262 Schwalbe, which translates as the bird “Swallow.” The Schwalbe, or Me 262, was 120 mph faster than America’s best WWII fighter aircraft, the P-51 Mustang. According to historical records, the Me 262 entered the drawing boards around 1938 and had its maiden flight on the 8th of April 1941. But delays kept it from entering combat until the 25th of July 1944. Its late emergence in the war prevented Germany from overturning the Allied domination of the air war over Europe. By the end of WWII, the US military captured about nine examples of the Me 262 and so began the technological furor to build a new era of aircraft, the Jet Age. Interestingly enough, General Electric engineers built America’s first jet engine back in 1941, and later had a hand in the development of America’s first jet, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet aircraft which first flew in October 1942. Sadly, the US military was rather unimpressed with the P-59, so it never saw operational combat. Not until American confiscation of the Me 262 in 1945 did a more purposeful consideration for a viable jet aircraft program become a reality for the US military.
The first operational fighter jet for the US was the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star; its maiden flight took place on the 8th of January 1944. It, too, was late in entering WWII to make any substantial difference, but it began more extensive use during the Korean War as the F-80. Nonetheless, the Soviets had their fighter the MiG-15 overtaking the Korean skies. Hence, the F-80 Shooting Star was replaced in air superiority by the North American F-86 Sabre. The main takeaway is that the Korean War proved to be the setting for the first jet-versus-jet dueling dogfights. Incidentally, the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum has on display in its grounds an example of a MiG-15. The aircraft shown below with the numbers 81072 near its nose is the MiG-15.
The MiG-15 has a blunt nose. The blunt nose design reveals that the MiG-15 was a subsonic aircraft. Within the MiG-15’s blunt nose is a large intake that supplies air to the jet engine beneath the tail. However, once aircraft began flying at supersonic speeds, noses had to be redesigned simply because supersonic air travels poorly through the engine, even leading to flameouts. To prevent such a mishap, engineers opted for the shock cone in the first generation of supersonic jets. The shock cone’s purpose was to slow the air down to subsonic speeds. Also, the shock cone would move inward as the aircraft increased velocity; the inward movement of the shock cone helped move the supersonic shockwave backward to just behind the fan blades so that the air could be compressed normally. Any excess shockwave energy or pressure would be expelled through bypass doors. But the evolution of the nose cone design did not just stop there. Over time radar technology improved, and the radar dish was also housed in the nose cone, the most forward part of the aircraft. Third generation supersonic jets and afterwards thereby have less of the blunt nose. Besides, aerodynamics dictates that the faster a fighter jet goes, then the more pointed or conical its nose becomes.
At any rate, here we are on a tow tractor at the MCAS Miramar Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. The photo above shows a gray aircraft in the background with the tail code of WD — that plane is the North American SNJ-5 Harvard. It is a trainer aircraft and was used from WWII on through to the 1970s to train pilots and aviators. While the US Navy designated the aircraft as the SNJ, the British called it the Harvard. But after 1962 the US military renamed the aircraft as the T-6 Texan.
Here’s another view of the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum from our tow tractor (see above). Besides the over 30 aircraft exhibited at the museum grounds, there are also a refueler tanker trailer, an ordnance trailer, an air defense vehicle, an aircraft tug, and a launch truck on display.
In the photo below you’ll find the aircraft known as the Vought F-8 Crusader. The F-8 prototype was introduced in the late 1950s, and it saw action during the Vietnam War. What is unique about the F-8 Crusader is that its primary armament was the gun. In fact, the F-8 Crusader was the last fighter plane to have guns for primary weapons, understandably characterizing this aircraft as “The Last of the Gunfighters.” The embellishments on this particular Crusader means its unit is the VMF(AW)-312 CHECKERBOARDS.
As for this aircraft pictured below, this is the sleek Douglas F4D Skyray (later re-designated in 1962 as the F-6A). Its time in service was very brief. Neither did it ever see combat. However, this aircraft was the first fighter under the US Navy and the USMC to have exceeded Mach 1 while in level flight. Similarly, it set a record in its time for being the first carrier-launched aircraft with the highest absolute speed.
Another fascinating thing we learned about the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum is that it is one of only a handful of certified Marine Corps Command Museums. Moreover, of those certified as such, the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum is the only one in the world dedicated to preserving the history of Marine flight.
And, here’s a photo, shown below, of a McDonnell F2H-2 Banshee. The Banshee’s maiden flight took place in 1947 at Lambert Field in St. Louis, Missouri. It then began active service in 1948. It was retired from service in 1962. The F2H-2 had two additional variants: the F2H-2N or night Banshee, and the F2H-2P or reconnaissance Banshee. The F2H-2Ps proved invaluable during the Korean War, thanks to the battlefield photography they provided.
Have you ever wondered what was the first jet aircraft used by the Blue Angels, the US Navy’s exhibition flight team? The Blue Angels were founded in April 1946, thanks to then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Chester A. Nimitz issuing a directive to form the USN’s demonstration squadron. The Blue Angels perform aerobatic stunts to showcase their aerial techniques for public relation purposes as well as morale boost. The 1946 team first started demonstrations in Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats, gradually transitioning to the F8F-1 Bearcat. But as the Jet Age began to take hold of the skies, the Blue Angels moved to their first jet aircraft, the Grumman F9F-2 Panther in July 1949. The Blue Angels stayed with the Panther on through to 1954. Less than 1,400 Panthers were ever made. The photo below is of a Grumman F9F-2 Panther. The Panther performed with distinguished service during the Korean War. Panther wings fold upward, as the photo reveals, because it allowed for more aircraft to be present on a naval carrier. Did you know that astronauts John Glenn (USMC) and Neil Armstrong (USN) both flew Panthers during their time as Korean War aviators?
The aircraft pictured below features camouflaged paint because it is a night flyer. This particular aircraft is the Chance Vought F4U Corsair, which saw action during the Korean War. Corsairs first fought in WWII. In 1943, for instance, celebrated Marine fighter ace Pappy Boyington started flying the F4U Corsair. Vought manufactured over 12,500 Corsairs. Hands down, the Corsair holds the distinction of being the piston-engined fighter with the longest production run in American history, having been produced from 1942 – 1953.
This aircraft illustrated below is the torpedo bomber Avenger, or more specifically the General Motors TBM-3E. Avengers were first manufactured by Grumman and were designated TBF. The Grumman Avenger is noted for having first seen action in the pivotal Battle of Midway. Grumman Avengers played significant roles in the naval battle at the Eastern Solomons as well as at the Battle of Guadalcanal, where the Avengers sank Japan’s light carrier Ryūjō and battleship Hiei respectively. By 1943 Grumman focused more on manufacturing the F6F Hellcat, consequently General Motors stepped in to produce Avengers thereafter. Avengers in the later part of WWII are credited for downing submarines in the Pacific and for being a deterrent against U-boats in the Atlantic. Additionally, the Avenger was the torpedo bomber that helped in the sinking of Japan’s two “super battleships,” the Yamato and the Musashi. Also of interest is that actor Paul Newman was a rear gunner on an Avenger during his naval service in WWII. And, do you remember when former President George H. W. Bush was the youngest naval aviator in 1943, and how he was shot down over the Pacific near the island of Chichi Jima in 1944? The aircraft that former President George H. W. Bush was flying at the time was the TBM.
And, here we are climbing onto a two-seater kids propeller plane amidst all the fighter jets nearby.
We had an amazing time at the MCAS Miramar Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. We highly recommend it as a destination to explore the history of military flight.