By Lance Cpl. Liah Kitchen | 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing
Marine Corps Air Station Miramar — “Fighter Attack Starts Here,” a bold maxim that can be seen on the side of Hanger 3, which is the home to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101 “Sharpshooters,” 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
VMFAT-101 is the largest F/A-18 Hornet squadron in the Marine Corps. With more than 60 F/A-18 Hornets, the squadron requires a multitude of Marines and sailors working as pilot instructors, students, plane captains and maintainers.
“The mission at VMFAT-101 is to train unqualified replacement pilots and weapons systems officers so that they are able to enter the fleet as fully qualified,” said Capt. Jordan Meredith, a VMFAT-101 pilot instructor and the squadron adjutant. “We take unpolished aviation officers and send them to the fleet as polished F-18 pilots and weapons systems officers.
The year-long course takes basic fixed-wing aviators and transforms them into fully qualified F/A-18 pilots and weapons systems officers.
“During my training with 101, I’ve been experiencing what it really means to be a part of Marine Corps aviation,” said 1st Lt. Ray Rickenbach, a weapons system student with VMFAT-101. “Our main mission is to support the Marines on the ground by conducting flight operations.”
While students train with the squadron, they work on their personal development as Marine officers in addition to learning technical skills as F/A-18 pilots.
“Because we are a mainly Marine-centric training squadron, we focus just as much on being a Marine officer as we do on the technical skill of being a fighter pilot,” said Meredith.
Becoming a designated Marine Corps F/A-18 aviator takes almost four years of training, according to Meredith. Officers must commission in the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant and graduate from The Basic School in Quantico, Va. Aviation officers are then sent to Naval Air Station Pensacola to attend Aviation Pre-Flight Indoctrination school for six weeks.
After completing API, officers head to either NAS Whiting Field, Fla., or NAS Corpus Christi, Tex., for primary flight training. At the conclusion of primary flight training, officers select the platform of aircraft they will fly operationally in the fleet Marine force based on class-rank and availability.
If selected to work with jets, officers go to NAS Meridian, Miss., where they attend an Advanced Training course to “earn their wings.” As part of an F/A-18 aviator’s final training, they arrive at VMFAT-101 to become fully qualified F/A-18 fighter pilots.
“I look forward to finally serving the Marine Corps as a part of the aviation combat element in a Marine air-ground task force,” said Rickenbach.
Although VMFAT-101 is a training squadron, the overall mission could not be accomplished without the Marines and sailors who maintain the aircraft for the students to participate in flight operations.
“101 is different than a deployable F-18 squadron because of its size,” said Sgt. Elizabeth Coble, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the communication and navigation section of VMFAT-101. “It’s fast-paced here…we are flying constantly day in and day out.”
According to Coble, maintainers who are stationed with the squadron, have a unique experience advantage over Marines stationed with a deployable F/A-18 squadron.
“Because we have all four models of the F-18, we are able to get our hands on different discrepancies, you don’t normally face with a typical gun squadron,” said Coble.
“Without the knowledge to fix the aircraft, the students aren’t able to fly and can’t accomplish the squadron’s mission.”