HAVELOCK, N.C. --
As the Marine Corps approaches 100 years from the day Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham reported to Greenbury Point, Md., for naval aviator training effectively initiating Marine aviation, the Corps is experiencing a major evolution in its capabilities with the arrival of the F-35B Lightning II.
The 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, headquartered at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., made history by receiving the first of the Marine Corps' new Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing aircraft Jan. 11. The aircraft was delivered to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
The Eastern Carolina Aviation Heritage Foundation commemorated the legacy of Marine aviation as the Corps reaches this milestone and recognized plans for the future by hosting their annual gala at the Havelock Tourist and Event Center in Havelock, N.C., Jan. 27.
The third annual event was an opportunity for the foundation to celebrate the marriage of aviation, the Marine Corps and the Eastern North Carolina community and included a presentation by retired Maj. Gen. Thomas A. Braaten, former commander of Marine Corps Air Bases East and commanding general of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
The event concluded with a speech by Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, deputy commandant of Marine aviation, who spoke in front of 500 Havelock and MCAS Cherry Point residents about the current state of Marine aviation and the future, which includes the Marine Corps' version of the Joint Strike Fighter – the F-35B Lightning II.
If you are going to fight a fifth-generation threat, which we have, then you need a fifth generation aircraft to do it,” he said. “In the end, we’ll have six squadrons of (Joint Strike Fighters) here at Cherry Point.”
In alignment with the President's promise to create a "leaner and meaner" military, the F-35B is slated to replace the aging F/A-18 Hornets, AV-8B Harriers and the EA-6B Prowlers with capabilities of all three included in the F-35B. Robling added MCAS Cherry Point’s Prowler squadrons would begin to deactivate beginning in 2016 through 2019.
“We took some cuts, but what I can tell you is we have the absolute best, most capable Marine Corps that the nation could afford,” Robling said speaking about recent budget cuts.
The arrival of the Lightning II will continue the Marine Corps' tradition of acting as an expeditionary force in readiness, which includes an aviation element that is ready to support the troops on the ground, said Braaten.
"Well (Marine aviation has) stayed the same because we are still supporting the ground troops and that’s why we exist," added Braaten who now serves as director of the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport in New Bern, N.C.
Braaten added the Marine Corps has changed in its technological advantages and training.
"Capabilities of air support squadrons and air control squadrons have been enhanced greatly," Braaten said. "We have better trained people now because we spend more time training Marines.”
Braaten also said although the Marine Corps is more equipped with weaponry and training it is important to look back at previous conflicts and learn from them.
"It is interesting to watch and see the situations that we were put into that, for instance, started close-air support or aerial resupply," said Braaten. "(History) has made us understand that we need command and control in order to be effective."
The event was also a celebration of the close relationship that Eastern North Carolina shares with aviation, and specifically, with Cherry Point said Dan M. Roberts III, chairman for Eastern Carolina Aviation Heritage Foundation.
"The mission of the foundation it to preserve the heritage of aviation in Eastern North Carolina and Cherry Point," said Roberts who served in the Army for 11 years, enlisting in 1967. "As long as I and many other people have been around it's always been that aviation has been first and foremost, and Cherry point has been our main focus as far as industry and the military goes."
"The Marines at Cherry Point are very much a part of our community," added Roberts. "They take part in our churches, in our baseball teams, in our schools, and they have helped in many ways." Because of the close ties MCAS Cherry Point has had with the community they share a symbiotic legacy, said Roberts.
"It goes back to 1941 when Cherry Point was built," said Roberts. "I think we have an excellent relationship, a very close relationship and it has been nourished for the past several years."