This month, the United States Marine Corps hit a crucial milestone as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, nicknamed the “Black Knights,” became the first to achieve full operational capability (FOC) with the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lighting II. VMFA-314, which is based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar, California, is now fully equipped to conduct worldwide aircraft carrier and wartime operations.
Marine Corps aviators already operate the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) from the U.S. Navy’s amphibious assault ships. The first of the STOVL aircraft were deployed to USS Wasp (LHD-1) in March 2018. In addition, pilots from the VMFA-211, “Wake Island Avengers,” are currently embarked on the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Marine aviators became the first Americans to fly combat sorties from a Royal Navy carrier since World War II last month, when they joined Royal Air Force (RAF) 617 Squadron “The Dambusters,” in combat operations against ISIS positions in Iraq.
The F-35C Lightning II was designed to be operated by both Navy and Marine pilots from U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The “C” variant features longer wings and greater fuel capacity.
“VMFA-314 is the first F-35C squadron in the Marine Corps to declare FOC,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Air Wing. “They are now full up round and bring the incredible 5th generation capability to 3rd MAW. They will deploy as part of a carrier strike group next year. FOC for the Black knights is yet another step forward in achieving Force Design objectives. The Black Knights are ready- 3rd MAW is ready.”
The Marine Corps hasn’t stated which of the U.S. Navy carriers that the squadron will be deployed to, but the Nimitz-class USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) recently underwent modifications at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to support the Joint Strike Fighters. Upgrades included enhanced jet blast deflectors able to take the increased heat generated by the F-35C and the addition of the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), a new computer network that supports the unique maintenance and tactical operations functions of the advanced aircraft.
VMFA-314 received its first F-35C at Miramar in January of last year, and now has ten of the fifth-generation attack aircraft operational. According to the Marine Corps, VMFA-314 is currently continuing its preparations towards future deployments by conducting tailored ship’s training availability (TSTA), marking the first F-35C squadron to conduct TSTA in the Marine Corps. The training will reportedly consist of communication rehearsals, medical drills, flight operations, and shipboard drills conducted while underway, ensuring the squadron is prepared to deploy in support of maritime campaigns.
“Many hours were spent maintaining aircraft, launching and recovering aircraft in Miramar, at other military facilities, and aboard the ship to conduct the training required to meet these goals,” said Major Derek Heinz, VMFA-314 operations officer. “The Marines of VMFA-314 have gained confidence in fighting this aircraft and feel confident we can do so in combat if called upon.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.