RF-4B Phantom

McDonnell Douglas RF-4B Phantom II


RF – Type (Reconnaissance Fighter); 4 – (Numerical Designation); B – (Version or Variant)

The McDonnell Douglas RF-4B was the photo reconnaissance version of the versatile F-4 Phantom II. It first flew on March 12, 1965 with the first delivery going to Marine Composite Utility Squadron Three (VMCJ-3), based at MCAS El Toro, in May of 1965. The RF-4B also served with Marine Composite Squadrons VMCJ-1 and VMCJ-2, and entered combat in October 1966, equipping VMCJ-1 at Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam.

All 46 RF-4Bs produced by the McDonnell Aircraft Company went to the Marine Corps with the last RF-4B delivered on December 24, 1970. The last twelve of these RF-4Bs were built on RF-4C frames with larger tires, wheel wells and reinforced wings. Differing from the fighter version of the F-4, the RF-4B had a longer nose that housed forward and side oblique cameras, and featured photoflash cartridges for night photography. Film could also be developed in flight and film cassettes could be ejected at low altitude so that ground commanders could get aerial intelligence as rapidly as possible. The large AN/APQ-72 radar was also replaced with the much smaller AN/APQ-99 forward-looking J-band monopulse radar which was optimized for terrain avoidance and terrain-following, and could be used for ground mapping.

Initially each active duty Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) had operational squadrons that supplied separate photo reconnaissance and electronic countermeasure aircraft. In 1975, the entire photo reconnaissance mission of the Marine Corps was assigned to VMCJ-3 of Third Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW) and the squadron was soon redesignated as Marine Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Three (VMFP-3). The squadron then supplied detachments to the users, both Navy and Marine. The last RF-4B in Marine Corps service was retired in 1990, prior to Desert Storm.

The RF-4B Phantom II on display was initially accepted on 15 October 1965 and delivered to VMCJ-3 at MCAS El Toro, spending its entire service with that squadron and its predecessor, VMFP-3. It was retired on April 25, 1990 with 5,364 airframe hours and presented to the Command Museum. It is painted in the colors of Marine Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Three, (VMFP-3), while based at MCAS El Toro. This aircraft is on loan from the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

Tyrone Power Marine Aviator

Did You Know About Tyrone Power?

Legendary film and stage actor Tyrone Power was widely known as a “matinee idol” during a career that spanned more than 25 years. He starred in numerous films including The Long Grey Line, The Mark Of Zorro, The Sun Also Rises and A Yank In The RAF. Power’s performance as an accused murderer in the motion picture, Witness for the Prosecution, is considered by many cinema historians to be his finest.  Tyrone Power Marine Aviator

Most people are familiar with Tyrone Power the movie star, but did you know that he was also an accomplished pilot? Power learned to fly in 1938 during the filming of the classic western Jesse James. He was also a Marine Corps aviator and served our country during and after World War II. Indeed, flying was a major part of Power’s life.

Power, like many of his Hollywood contemporaries, was caught up in the post Pearl Harbor patriotic fever sweeping the nation by early 1942. When the call to arms came, he promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps. Power’s initial goal was to become a Marine Corps glider pilot.  However, because of his age (28 at the time) and lack of a college education, he did not qualify for the Naval aviator training program as a cadet. As such, Power enlisted as a private and attended boot camp at MCRD San Diego.[1]

After completing boot camp, Power went through Officer Candidate at Quantico, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in June 1943. Because he was a seasoned pilot already, Power was assigned to an accelerated flight training program at MCAS Corpus Christi, Texas and trained as a multiengine transport pilot. He earned his Naval Aviator wings and was promoted to First Lieutenant April 1944.

After some additional training at the Flight Instructor Instrument School, Power was assigned to VMR-352 (“Raiders”), based at Cherry Point, North Carolina. In this assignment, Lieutenant Power flew the Curtiss R5C-Commando.[2]  He remained with VMR-352 from October 1944 until mid-January 1945.

In January 1945, Lieutenant Power was assigned to VMR-353, and was shipped out to combat zones in the Pacific. The VMR-353 squadron was briefly based at Kwajalein before moving on to Saipan in March 1945. Power flew numerous missions while assigned to VMR-353. He took part in the air supply and evacuation of wounded Marines from Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and did see some combat, especially on Okinawa. Power remained with VMR-353 until hostilities with Japan ended in September 1945.

Lieutenant Power was ordered off deployment in late November 1945, and returned stateside. He was released from active duty by the Marine Corps in January 1946. Power returned to his film career and made 22 more movies after World War II ended.

Power’s personal decorations for his service during World War II include the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze stars and the World War II Victory Medal.

Although he was released from active duty and resumed his film career, Tyrone Power remained in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was promoted to Captain in May 1951. However, he was not called back to active service during the Korean War. Power remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until his death in November 1958. At the time of his passing, Tyrone Power was a Major. He was buried with full military honors, including a full Marine Corps honor guard from MCAS El Toro.

[1] At the request of 20th Century Fox, Power was allowed to finish production on the film Crash Dive before reporting for active duty. This movie was fairly typical of early World War II films that were generally geared to promoting support for the war effort on the home front.

 [2] The R5C Commando is more commonly known as the Curtiss-Wright C-46. This aircraft was used extensively in the Pacific Theatre by both Naval and Marine Corps squadrons. It was also used, to a much lesser extent, by US Army Air Forces is final days of the war in Europe.

Building a Foundation for the Next 100 Years

This is my first year with the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation, and it has already been a whirlwind of events, great people, and dedicated volunteers. Thanks to everyone for your support and advice as I ramp up our public relations and community outreach efforts.

As you well know, this year marks the Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation; all of our events this year celebrate our story from the last century, while focusing on the next 100 years of preservation and study.

Steve “Smitty” Smith, our adventurous curator and his crew, manned displays at the San Diego County Fair, the Gillespie Air Show and the Oceanside Armed Forces Day Operation Appreciation. He said during the San Diego County Fair alone, he averaged 100 to 150 visitors per day.

We had a film crew, led by a new volunteer named Herb Proske, who conducted a series of oral histories, and more will be filmed in the future. Our goal is to catalogue as many of our Marine Aviators as we can so that their stories are not lost. Airplanes are wonderful pieces of machinery, but those who fly them are the most important asset a museum can have, and we hope to record more and more of these aviator’s stories as we move into the next century.

While our museum crew was up at the San Diego Fair, the foundation hosted two very important events, the third annual Semper Fi Ride and the annual Black Tie Gala. The gala is one of the year’s most highly anticipated events, and nearly 200 guests gathered at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego to celebrate the 100-year milestone. This year, the foundation was honored to host our longtime supporters, Mr. and Mrs. T. Boone Pickens, as well as Marine Corps heroes from every conflict since World War II. We had a great turnout, and many of our guests commented that the evening was one of the best foundation events they have attended in years. The gala committee worked tirelessly to ensure the event was perfect, and it was a memorable evening of laughs and camaraderie.

During the gala, we presented the 2012 Irene Ferguson Marine Wife Recognition Award recipient, Mrs. Sasha Lightfoot. She was noted for having pulled together the families of the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469, who lost six Marines in a horrific crash in February. The unit was in Yuma, Ariz. training for an upcoming deployment. Her husband, LtCol Stephen Lightfoot, is the commanding officer and is currently in Afghanistan. The annual award is presented at the gala, and selected from a pool of applicants.

On June 16, nearly 100 riders came out to support the third annual Semper Fi Ride and post-ride “poker walk.” Both of our generous donors – the Fun Bike Center and Bangin’ Burgers – support this event, and really do all of the hard work! When the foundation staff arrived on Saturday, most of the work had already been finished, riders were out on the course, and we had a record amount of donations for the day. Many of the riders didn’t know about it, but said they planned on returning next year.

We’ve launched our new website, which is still being worked on each month to bring visitors to the site all of the events coming up during the year. We encourage blogs, articles, photos and any other material we can use to post to our blog page. If you are interested in becoming a blogger, contact me at media@flyingleathernecks.org.

So far, visitor numbers have remained about the same for the first half of the year, but donations have increased. Our mission is clear – build a world-class museum that is the only one dedicated to Marine Corps Aviation History – and with the dedication of our volunteers and staff, we can make it a reality.

Semper Fi,

Kalen Arreola

Marketing & PR


The Visionaries

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired

The wake of the World War II, with its ominous specter of nuclear weapons, forced the Marine Corps to rethink existing amphibious doctrine. The conclusion was that previous methods of ship-to-shore movement were no longer sufficient to ensure a successful landing so alternative methods had to be developed. Several options looked promising, but the only one that stood the test of time and combat was vertical envelopment—the use of helicopters to move troops and supplies.

In 1946, Commandant Alexander A. Vandegrift—at the urging of Lieutenant General Roy S. Geiger, the “Gray Eagle” of Marine aviation who had just witnessed post-war nuclear tests—formed a special board culled from Marine Corps headquarters to study existing tactics and equipment then make recommendations for restructuring the Fleet Marine Force. Assistant Commandant Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, who was arguably the Marines’ most innovative division commander in the Pacific, headed the board. Shepherd was an excellent choice because he was both a traditionalist and a visionary who would later become Commandant. Other members of the board included Major General Field Harris, the director of Marine aviation, and Brigadier General Oliver P. Smith, the head of plans and operations division. All three men would be reunited in Korea in 1950 where they would put into practice the revolutionary doctrines they set in motion; Shepherd as the commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, Harris as commanding general of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, and Smith as commanding general of the 1st Marine Division. Two colonels assigned to the board secretariat were particularly influential, Edward C. Dyer and Merrill B. Twining. Dyer, a Naval Academy graduate and decorated combat pilot, was master of all things aeronautical while Merrill Twining, a highly regarded staff officer, handled operational theory. Neither a formal member of the board nor its secretariat but keeping close tabs on what transpired was Brigadier General Gerald C. Thomas, Vandegrift’s trusted chief of staff. Dyer eventually commanded the first Marine helicopter squadron and Thomas replaced Smith as 1st Marine Division commander in Korea.

Doctrinal development for vertical assault was done at Marine Corps Schools located at Quantico, Virginia. First, a board headed by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Hogaboom laid out what was needed in a document titled “Military Requirements for Ship-to-Shore Movement of Troops and Cargo.” Even though no suitable aircraft were yet available, the thinkers at Quantico came up with new doctrine published as Amphibious Training Manual 31, “Amphibious Operations—-Employment of Helicopters (Tentative).” One of the drivers of this project was Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak, a tough former paratrooper who had been wounded in the Pacific but was also known for his high intellect and an unsurpassed ability to get things done. He was a prolific writer and a demanding taskmaster who kept his finger on the pulse of several vital projects including helicopter development.

Despite the nearly unlimited future potential of helicopters for assault and support of landing forces, there was ingrained resistance to such a revolutionary concept. Most young pilots wanted to fly sleek jets and dogfight enemy aces, not manhandle temperamental aircraft to deliver troops and supplies; experienced fliers were comfortable with aircraft they already knew well and were reluctant to give up their trusted planes; and critics claimed helicopters were too slow and vulnerable. Twining took the lead in addressing these problems when he pointed out the Marine Corps had far more pilots than planes and noted that the wishes of the individual were always subservient to the needs of the Marine Corps. He also asserted that the speed and vulnerability of helicopters should not be properly compared to fixed-wing aircraft but to surface landing craft (helicopters were both faster and more agile than boats or amphibious tractors).

All early helicopter advocates were highly motivated and dedicated men. Their achievements and foresight kept the Marine Corps’ reputation for innovation alive despite severe budgetary constraints and concurrent inter-Service unification battles. In fact, many of the men also played key roles in the “Chowder Society,” whose behind-the-scenes work successfully protected Marine Corps interests during the bitter “unification battles” after the World War II.

Marine Helicopter Squadron 1

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired

Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 (HMX-1) is unique in the Marine Corps because it has several distinct missions and at least three different chains-of-command providing guidance and tasking.

HMX-1 was the first Marine rotary-wing squadron. It “stood up” at Marine Corps Airfield Quantico in Virginia on 1 December 1947 and has been located there ever since. Its activation was the first operational move that started a revolution in Marine aviation and tactical doctrine.

The squadron, initially manned by seven officers and three enlisted men, quickly grew and mustered 18 pilots and 81 enlisted men when the first helicopters, Sikorsky HO3S-1s, arrived. These first primitive machines carried only the pilot and up to three lightly armed troops, but they formed the basis for testing helicopter doctrine described in Marine Corps Schools operational manual Phib-31. Eventually, HMX-1 received a mix of early model helicopters with the addition of Piasecki HRP transports and Bell HTL trainers to test doctrine before the Korean War.

On 8 May 1948, HMX-1 pilots flew from Quantico to Norfolk, Virginia, to board the escort carrier Palau (CVE 122). The fly-on operation was described by HMX-1commanding officer Colonel Edward C. Dyer as a “complete shambles [with] sailors running all over the place in mortal danger of walking into tail rotors, and the Marines were totally disorganized as well. It was complete bedlam, there was no organization and no real system [in place].” By the next day, however, the Navy and Marine Corps were using the same basic ship-board flight operations procedures practiced today—circular lines delineated danger areas as well as personnel staging areas and approach lanes. Five days later, the HO3S-1s delivered 66 men and several tons of equipment to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina’s Onslow Beach during command post exercise Packard II.

The following year a similar exercise employed eight HRPs, three HO3Ss, and a single HTL. During Exercise Packard III, the HRP “Flying Banana” troop transports were carrier borne, the HTL was loaded on an LST for command and control, and the HO3Ss stayed ashore as rescue aircraft. The HRPs brought 230 troops and 14,000 pounds of cargo ashore even though choppy seas swamped several landing craft and seriously disrupted operational maneuvers. Many consider this superb performance to be the key factor in the acceptance of the helicopter as a viable ship-to-shore method, thus paving the way for the integration of rotary-wing aircraft into Marine aviation.

In 1957, HMX-1 acquired an unexpected mission— transporting the President of the United States. Helicopters were only considered for emergency situations until President Dwight D. Eisenhower used an HMX-1 Sikorsky HUS Sea Horse helicopter for transportation from his summer home on Narragansett Bay. After that, Marine helicopters were routinely used to move the President from the White House lawn to Andrews Air Force Base, the home of presidential plane “Air Force One.” That transport mission became a permanent tasking in 1976 and continues to this day.

Currently mustering more than 700 personnel, HMX-1 is the largest Marine Corps helicopter squadron. It is divided into two sections. The “White” side flies two unique helicopters—both specially configured Sikorsky executive transports, the VH-3D Sea King and the VH-60N Seahawk. The “Green” side provides basic helicopter indoctrination training for ground troops, tests new concepts and equipment, and assists the Marine air weapons and tactics squadron. Unlike any other Marine squadron, HMX-1 answers to three distinct chains-of-command: the Marine Corps deputy chief of staff for air at Headquarters Marine Corps; the White House military office; and the operational test and evaluation force commander at Norfolk. Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 was not only the first such Marine unit, it also currently holds a unique place in naval aviation.


Sikorsky HO3S-1

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired


The Sikorsky HO3S-1 was the first helicopter assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps. The HO3S was the naval variant of Sikorky’s model S-51 commercial helicopter. Despite its observation designation, the HO3S was actually a utility aircraft used for a variety of roles. Among the 46 conceptual uses initially listed by Marine Corps Schools were the ones most used in Korea: search and rescue; aerial reconnaissance; medical evacuation; and liaison. The U.S. Air Force flew the  same aircraft as a search and rescue helicopter designated H-5F.

The HO3S was the lineal descendent of earlier Sikorsky designs, the initial HNS trainer and the first designated military observation helicopter (alternately known as the HO2S in naval service and the R-5A to the Army). The HO3S featured a more powerful engine that gave it added lift and an increased payload. During the immediate pre-war period, the HO3S proved to be an outstanding rescue craft that often utilized its winch to pull downed pilots out of the water. Likewise, the HO3S was an excellent observation platform for artillery spotting.

In Korea, its primary uses were as a liaison aircraft and as an aerial ambulance. A first-rate liaison aircraft with good range, the HO3S had a dependable engine, and was rugged enough that it required relatively little maintenance when compared to other rotary-wing aircraft of the day.

Even though the HO3S performed yeoman service at the Pusan Perimeter, it had significant shortfalls as a combat aircraft. The tricycle landing gear and its high center of gravity made the HO3S unstable on all but flat solid terrain; the aircraft could not accommodate interior stretcher loads; its lack of back-lit instrumentation precluded extended night and bad weather operations; and the high engine location made aircraft maintenance difficult. Another major drawback was that it required a great deal of strength and endurance to handle such a heavy aircraft for an extended period without servo-controls. In addition, the single main rotor and long tail assembly combined with a centrally located engine mount often required field expedient ballast adjustments to maintain in-flight stability, so it was not unusual for pilots to keep several sandbags or a sea-bag filled with rocks in the cabin.


Aircraft Data

Manufacturer: Sikorsky Division of United Aircraft


Power Plant: Pratt and Whitney R-985 AN-7 Wasp Jr., 9

cylinder, 450 horsepower, radial engine

Dimensions: Length, 57’ 1/2”; height, 12’ 11”; rotor, 48’

composite construction blade

Performance: Cruising speed, 85 mph; range, 260 miles

Lift: Pilot plus two passengers or about 500 pounds of

cargo (excluding fuel)

Pitcarin First Marine Helicopter

Pitcarin OP-1 Autogiro

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired


The first rotary-winged aircraft used by naval aviation was not a helicopter. It was an autogiro, an airplane propelled by a normal front-mounted aircraft engine but kept aloft by rotating overhead wings, a phenomenon known as “autorotation.” Although rather ungainly looking due their stubby upturned wings, large tails, and drooping rotors, autogiros took well to the air. Their ability to “land on a dime” made them favorites at air shows and an aggressive publicity campaign touted them as “flying autos, the transportation of the future.” Autogiros, however, turned out to be neither a military nor a commercial success.

The aircraft itself was an odd compilation of a normal front-mounted aircraft engine used to generate thrust and three overhead free-spinning blades attached to a center-mounted tripod to provide lift. The fuselage included a pair of stubby wings that supported the landing gear and had a semi-standard elongated tail assembly. Typical of the day, it had an open cockpit.

Although a rotary-winged aircraft, the OP-1 was not a helicopter. The engine was used to start the rotors moving but was then disengaged and connected to the propeller to deliver thrust. A speed of about 30 miles per hour was needed to generate lift and maintained for controlled flight. The OP-1 could not hover, it required conventional engine power to take off and move forward in the air; the plane could, however, make a vertical landing. This unique feature made the OP-1 attractive to the military.

The specific autogiro model first tested by the Marine Corps was the OP-1 built by Harold F. Pitcarin, who would later found Eastern Airways. His company was a licensed subsidiary of a Spanish firm. All American autogiros were based upon designs formulated by Spanish nobleman Juan de la Cierva. His first successful flight was made near Madrid in 1923. More than 500 autogiros flew worldwide during the next decade. Although his airplanes never lived up to his high expectations, de la Cierva did develop rotor technology and recorded aerodynamic data later applied by helicopter designers Igor Sikorsky and Frank Piasecki.

The Navy purchased three Pitcarin autogiros for extensive field-testing and evaluation in 1931. The only carrier tests were conducted on 23 September of that year, but the OP-1’s performance was virtually identical to that of carrier-borne biplanes then in use. The Marines took one OP-1 to Nicaragua to test it under combat conditions. Again, its performance was disappointing. The pilots of VJ-6M noted it lacked both payload and range. The only practical use they found was evaluation of potential landing areas. This was not enough reason to incorporate the OP-1 into the Marine inventory. Overall, the OP-1 was described as “an exasperating contraption,” not fit for military use. Further trials of a wingless autogiro in 1935 revealed no improvement, so director of aviation Major Roy S. Geiger recommended against adoption of that aircraft type.

In the barnstorming days between the World Wars, autogiros proved to be the ultimate novelty attraction. Aviator Charles A. Lindbergh often put on demonstrations, aviatrix Amelia Earhart set an altitude record in one, and Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams flew in an autogiro to join President Herbert C. Hoover at an isolated fishing camp in Virginia. The Royal Air Force actually used autogiros for convoy escort and observation during World War II, and the Soviet Union developed its own autogiro.

Although the OP-1 never became a mainstream Marine aircraft and was not a true helicopter, some aviation enthusiasts assert that the technology and data developed by de la Cierva was crucial for rotary-winged flight. They, therefore, make the case that the OP-1 should be considered the progenitor of today’s helicopters.

Early Naval Helicopters

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired

The first U.S. Navy experience with rotary-wing aircraft was not a good one. The Pitcarin OP-1 autogiro, an airplane not a true helicopter, had been tested and found wanting during the era between the World Wars. It was not until Igor Sikorsky introduced his VS-316 model helicopter on 13 January 1942 that vertical takeoff and landing aircraft became feasible. Sikorsky had earlier flown the first practical American helicopter, the VS-300, but that machine was only a test bed. The follow-on VS-316, designated the XR-4 by the U.S. Army, had a two-seat side-by-side enclosed cabin. A 200 horsepower Warner R-550-3 engine that ran a single overhead main rotor and a smaller anti-torque rotor on the tail powered the aircraft. The XR-4 prototype could hit a top speed of around 85 miles per hour, cruised at about 70 miles per hour, and had a range of about 130. In July 1942, the Navy tested its first one; an R-4 transferred from the Army and then promptly re-designated HNS-1 by the Bureau of Aeronautics. Two more were requisitioned from Army stocks in March 1943. The new helicopter was a success, and 22 more were procured for use as trainers beginning on 16 October 1943. The HNS-1 served as the primary naval aviation helicopter trainer until the Bell HTL-series replaced it.

Several other early helicopters (the Platt LePage R-1 and the Kellet R-2 and R-3) produced by other manufacturers were considered but not selected. All was not lost, however, because a bright young Kellet engineer, Frank Piasecki, would later develop tandem-rotor helicopters that would become a mainstay of naval aviation. The Bell Aircraft Company was too busy turning out jets to enter the initial helicopter competition, but that corporation’s mathematician and engineer Arthur M. Young would soon revolutionize light helicopter design.

Sikorsky Aircraft produced 133 HNS helicopters; the Navy accepted 23, the Army kept 58, and the British Royal Air Force got 52. The first shipboard helicopter trials were conducted by America’s first certified military helicopter pilot, Army Captain Hollingworth “Frank” Gregory. He put his HNS through its paces by repeatedly landing and taking off from the tanker Bunker Hill operating in Long Island Sound on 7 May 1943. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Frank A. Erickson flew the initial naval service helicopter mercy mission when he delivered two cases of blood plasma to a hospital at Sandy Hook on the New Jersey shore. Doctors credited Erickson’s timely arrival with saving several lives. Other rescue missions aiding both civilian and military personnel in the New York area soon followed. The U.S. Army and the Office of Strategic Services both used helicopters for special combat missions in Asia during World War II.

The Navy was satisfied enough with the HNS to order an additional 150 helicopters from Sikorsky, 100 HOS-1s (designated R-6A by the USAAF) and 50 HO2S-1s (Army designation R-5A) before the end of the war. The HOS-1 was more compact, more powerful, and more maneuverable than its HNS predecessor. It mounted a single overhead main rotor, and was powered by a 240 hp Franklin O-405-9 engine. Three XHOS-1s were requested for testing from Army R-6A stocks in late 1942 and were accepted by the U.S. Coast Guard, which was by then running Navy helicopter training at New York’s Floyd Bennett Field in March 1944. After the war a second batch of 36 HOS-1s were assigned to the Navy helicopter development squadron (VX-3) after passing acceptance tests. The Navy also took two HO2S-1 (Army R-5A) test models in December 1945, but opted to place an order for slightly modified S-51 commercial models (designated HO3S-1) which became the standard Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard light utility helicopters in 1947.

When the Coast Guard returned to the Treasury Department from the Navy Department on 28 December 1945, the U.S. Navy took over helicopter training and development. Marine helicopter pilots learned their trade with VX-3 before moving on to HMX-1 at Quantico, Virginia, prior to the Korean War.

First Marine Helicopter Pilot

Who was the First Marine Helicopter Pilot?

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired


Marine Corps Historical Center Photo Collection LtCol Armond H. DeLalio, recipient of the Navy Cross for heroism as a pilot with Marine Scout-Bomber Squadron 241 during the battle of Midway and a Marine Corps helicopter pioneer, was honored in 1965 when an elementary school at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was dedicated in his name.

There is some dispute about who the first Marine Corps helicopter pilot actually was. According to Marine lore that honor goes to fighter ace and famed test pilot Marion E. Carl, but the official records of the naval service identify Major Armond H. DeLalio as Marine helicopter pilot number one, and Marion Carl himself proclaimed that Desmond E. Canavan was probably the first Marine to fly a helicopter.

According to the Marine Corps’ official history, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973, “Major General Marion E. Carl is generally credited with being the first Marine to learn how to fly a helicopter in July 1945 [but] it was not until some years later that he was officially designated [as such].” In his autobiography, Pushing The Envelope (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), Carl relates that he learned how to fly a Sikorsky HNS (R-4) while a test pilot stationed at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland. He was given about three hours of instruction before he soloed. In that same memoir, however, he states that fellow Marine Desmond Canavan was flying helicopters in late 1944. Carl’s claim that he was helicopter pilot number one rests upon the fact that he was the first Marine to log the 40 hours required for certification even though he never applied for such certification. Neither Carl nor Canovan appear on the naval service helicopter pilot certification list prior to June 1950.

Marine Corps Historian Lynn Montross, the recognized authority on early Marine helicopter operations, lists Navy Cross holder Armond DeLalio as having flown U.S. Navy helicopters at New York’s Floyd Bennett Field then under the auspices of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1944. He is officially recognized as the first Marine certified as a helicopter pilot, achieving that honor on 8 August 1946. DeLalio was the operations officer for Navy helicopter squadron VX-3 at that time. He was killed during a test flight in 1952 when a rocket-assisted takeoff pod malfunctioned causing his HRS helicopter to catch fire and then crash.

The Navy register of early helicopter pilots lists 250 qualifiers prior to the onset of the Korean War in June 1950; 33 are Marines, including three enlisted naval aviation pilots (the famous “Flying Sergeants” of the Marine Corps).

While who should be recognized as the true “Gray Eagle” of Marine helicopter aviation remains murky, there is little doubt about the specific incident that started the Marine Corps helicopter program. That event occurred at Quantico, Virginia, in 1946 and was described by helicopter pioneer Edward C. Dyer:

One day Marion Carl, a test pilot at Patuxent, flew a helicopter to Marine Corps Schools to demonstrate it to the students. . . . He hoisted [Lieutenant Colonel Victor H.] Brute Krulak . . . about 15 feet [off the ground] and pulled him into the cockpit. [Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B.] Twining and I were standing by the window and watching and I said ‘Bill, let’s . . . quit fooling around.’ He said ‘OK! . . . He wrote the theory . . . principles . . . background . . . reasoning . . . and I wrote [an implementation] program.”

Marion Carl recalled that he specifically selected Lieutenant Colonel Krulak because his small stature and lightweight could be accommodated by the limited room and lift capability of his HOS-1 helicopter. Krulak thereafter became a helicopter devotee.

U.S. Naval Aviation Designations

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired

During the Korean conflict, the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics used designation systems that conveyed a lot of information about its squadrons and aircraft in a concise manner.

Squadron Designations:

The Bureau recognized three aircraft squadron types: lighter than air (Z); heavier than air (V); and helicopter (H). In addition, Marine aircraft squadrons were identified by the insertion of the letter “M” between the aircraft type and the squadron function. In general, a three letter prefix followed by up to three numbers was used to identify individual Marine aircraft squadrons. The first letter (a “V” or “H”) identified the primary aircraft type used by the squadron, the second letter (“M”) identified it as a Marine aviation unit, and the third (“O” indicating observation and “R” for transportation) identified the squadron’s primary mission; the numbers in the suffix sometimes identified the squadron’s unit affiliation and always noted its precedence order.

Thus, VMO-6 was the sixth heavier-than-air Marine observation squadron formed. The single digit indicated that the squadron was not specifically affiliated with a particular aircraft wing (observation squadrons were attached to ground units). On the other hand, HMR-161 was the first Marine helicopter transport squadron assigned to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (the first “1” indicating initial assignment to the wing, numbers above “6” were used for non-fixed wing aircraft, and the last “1” signifying it was the first squadron formed).

Aircraft Designations:

Individual aircraft designations used a similar identification system. The Bureau of Aeronautics gave each naval aircraft a mixed letter and number designation. Except for experimental or prototype helicopters, the first letter was an “H” indicating rotary-wing status; the second letter indicated its primary purpose (“O” for observation, “R” for transport, or “T” for trainer); a number (except in the case of the first model) indicated the manufacturer’s sequence for producing that specific aircraft type; the next letter identified the manufacturer (“L” for Bell, “P” for Piasecki, or “S” for Sikorsky); and the number following a dash indicated a sequential modification of that aircraft model.

Thus, the HO3S-1 was Sikorsky Aircraft’s third model observation helicopter with one modification; the HRP was Piasecki’s first transport helicopter; the HTL-4 was the fourth modification to Bell Aircraft’s original trainer helicopter; the HO5S was Sikorsky’s fifth observation model; and the HRS-1 was Sikorsky’s first transport helicopter.

The Bureau’s system was a good one that remained in use for four decades, but there were a few problems. First, aircraft were often used for roles other than those assigned. For example, the HO3S-1 was actually a utility aircraft that during field service performed many tasks other than observation, a task that actually became a seldom-used secondary mission in Korea. Second, the proliferation of missions and manufacturers as time passed led to confusing duplication of letters (“T” was variously used to indicated torpedo, trainer, and transport aircraft). Third, lack of inter-Service consistency produced confusion (the Navy HO3S-1 was an H-5F to the Air Force and Army). The naval aircraft designation system was replaced by a joint aircraft designation system in 1962, but the Bureau’s squadron designation system remains in effect.