EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
A small squadron of Marines marched toward the future of military aviation, April 2.
Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, currently only 37-Marines strong, stood up as the Marine Corps’ F-35B Lightning II training squadron in a ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The squadron is the nation’s first training squadron for the new Joint Strike Fighter, making the ceremony not only a first for the Marine Corps, but for the entire Department of Defense.
"We are beginning a new chapter of Marine aviation," said Lt. Col. James B. Wellons, VMFAT-501’s commanding officer. "This is an honor and an opportunity of a lifetime."
The Joint Strike Fighter program was developed as a means to replace several Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft with a single jet. The Marine Corps’ variant, the F-35B, will be the only version with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities.
The F-35B is slated to replace the AV-8B Harrier and F/A-18 Hornet fighter and attack aircraft currently in the Corps’ inventory.
The Lightning II is also proposed to have electronic countermeasures capabilities like those of the EA-6B Prowler.
"We have held out on buying another attack aircraft for 11 years," said Maj. Shawn M. Basco, VMFAT-501’s executive officer. "We have been waiting for the F-35B to come along and provide us with an all-STOVL force. We will have the capabilities of a Harrier, some organic in a Prowler and some effects and capabilities of a Hornet in one aircraft."
Over the course of the next year, the training squadron is scheduled to receive its first of 20 F-35B Lightning II aircraft, allowing hands-on training for pilots and maintainers.
But, senior Marine leaders on hand for the ceremony said they are confident the squadron’s Marines will be up to the task.
"There are great challenges ahead, but like the introduction of a lot of other aircraft, we will get through this," said Maj. Gen. James F. Flock, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing’s commanding general. "We have hard-charging Marines who make up VMFAT-501, and they are the Marines that are going to train the future pilots and maintainers of our Joint Strike Fighter squadrons."
Though VMFAT-501 may be America’s first training squadron for the F-35 aircraft, the squadron itself is steeped in history.
The squadron’s legacy comes from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 451, which was originally formed during World War II as an F4U Corsair squadron. The squadron saw combat in Japan in 1945, and later flew F-4 Phantoms over Vietnam in the 1960s.
The "Warlords" of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 451 were retired in 1997. The squadron was reactivated at the National Museum of Naval Aviation aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., April 1, to be redesignated as VMFAT-501.
It is military tradition to redesignate retired squadrons instead of creating new ones so that history may be continued rather than lost.
"This generation of Warlords is standing on the shoulders of the ones before it," said Gen. James F. Amos, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. "They will make history in many ways by flying an aircraft most people have never seen."