Military Aviation


To become a designated Marine Corps F/A-18 aviator almost four years of training are required

Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101 “Sharpshooters,” is the largest F/A-18 Hornet squadron in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC).

The unit is part of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW) and is based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar, California.

As explained by Lance Cpl. Liah Kitchen in the article Fighter Attack Starts Here: ‘Sharpshooters’ make Marine aviators, with over 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,” explained 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.”

“Fighter Attack Starts Here” hangs on the side of Hanger 3, home of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101 “, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.

The year-long course takes basic fixed-wing aviators and transforms them into fully qualified F/A-18 pilots and weapons systems officers (WSOs).

“During my training with 101, I’ve been experiencing what it really means to be a part of Marine Corps aviation,” pointed out 1st Lt. Ray Rickenbach, VMFAT-101 WSO student. “Our main mission is to support the Marines on the ground by conducting flight operations.”

According to Meredith, to become a designated Marine Corps F/A-18 aviator almost four years of training are required. Officers must commission in the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant and graduate from The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. Aviation officers are then sent to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola to attend Aviation Pre-Flight Indoctrination (API) school for six weeks.

Then officers head to either NAS Whiting Field, Florida, or NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, for primary flight training. Officers select the platform of aircraft they will fly operationally in the fleet Marine force based on class-rank and availability at the end of primary flight training.

If selected to work with jets, officers go to NAS Meridian, Mississippi, where they attend an Advanced Training course to “earn their wings.” They arrive at VMFAT-101 to become fully qualified F/A-18 fighter pilots as part of an F/A-18 aviator’s final training.

“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.

At VMFAT-101, Marines and Sailors who are critical to maintain the aircraft for the students to participate in flight operations have a unique experience advantage over Marines stationed with a deployable F/A-18 squadron.

On Nov. 2, 2012 VMFAT-101 unveiled a specially painted F/A-18 Hornet with the names of Medal of Honor recipients, Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, a Scio, N.Y., native, Sgt. Dakota Meyer, a Greensburg, Ken., native, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor, a Long Beach, Calif., native and Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy, a Smithtown, N.Y., native.

“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 Sgt. Elizabeth Coble, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the communication and navigation section of VMFAT-101. “Without the knowledge to fix the aircraft, the students aren’t able to fly and can’t accomplish the squadron’s mission.”

VMFAT-101 became the third F/A-18 Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) on Sep. 29, 1987 at MCAS El Toro. In Oct. 1988, the Sharpshooters owned 21 F/A-18s, had trained 25 qualified instructor pilots and were ready to begin training new Hornet pilots. By May 1989 VMFAT-101 graduated 23 new F/A-18 pilots and accumulated over 11,000 mishap free Hornet flight hours. In Dec. 1989 the squadron entered its sixth year mishap/injury free.

On Jan. 10, 1990, VMFAT-101 accepted its first two seat F/A-18D Hornet and began training aircrew for the transition into the Hornet. By Jun. 1990 the Sharpshooters had graduated over 150 Hornet aircrew, amassed over 28,000 F/A-18 A, B, C and D which originated from Lot VI to Lot XII. On Aug. 27, 1990, Lt.Col. “Cajun” Tullos flew the squadrons 50,000 mishap-free flight hour. The Sharpshooters routinely deployed to MCAS Yuma Ariz., and MCAS Miramar Calif., for fighter weapons training detachments as well as every West Coast Aircraft Carrier for carrier qualifications.

Today, the Sharpshooters stand ready to meet the traditions of the past and the challenges of the future. The output of highly qualified aircrew, trained to fill the fleet squadrons, has continued for 20 years and will remain the focus for years to come.

Source: U.S. Marine Corps; Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Liah Kitchen, Cpl. Melissa Lee and Lance Cpl. Rebecca Eller / U.S. Marine Corps

Artwork courtesy of

Gabriele Barison

Gabriele Barison is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Co-Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. He has flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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