Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point in North Carolina will soon be added to the ever-growing list of operational Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II locations after Marine Attack Squadron 542 (VMA-542) ‘Flying Tigers’ formally started the transition process from the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II to the fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter.
The official start of the unit’s transition process was celebrated during a ceremony held at MCAS Cherry Point on December 1. The process of re-equipping the squadron with the F-35B is expected to be completed by Spring 2023 and will result in VMA-542 being redesignated as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 542 (VMFA-542). Following the transition, the ‘Flying Tigers’ will not only become the first F-35B operator at Cherry Point, but also the first unit to employ the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL)-configured Lightning II on the US East Coast.
This transition will leave just two AV-8B units at Cherry Point: VMA-223 ‘Bulldogs’ and VMA-231 ‘Ace of Spades’. While the ‘Flying Tigers’ are transitioning to the F-35B, both VMA-223 and VMA-231 will continue to fly the Harrier II from the North Carolina base for the foreseeable future. The last AV-8B Harrier IIs are scheduled to be retired from operational US Marine Corps (USMC) service in Fiscal Year 2027 (FY27).
Before ceasing operations with the AV-8B, a detachment of Harrier IIs assigned to VMA-542 embarked on the US Navy’s Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), as it deployed to the Baltic Sea earlier this year, following the start of the Ukraine-Russia War. During this deployment, the ‘Flying Tigers’ initially conducted exercises with allies and partner nations in Iceland and Norway, in which the unit flew the AV-8B further north than any other Harrier in USMC history (from an amphibious assault ship).
VMA-542 also joined Kearsarge as it visited Finland and also forward-deployed to Ämari Air Base, Estonia, marking the first time a Harrier had ever been deployed to the Baltic state. For the next four months, the unit carried out operations with other Baltic nations and helped provide in-theatre security as tensions grew with the ongoing Ukraine-Russia War.
Initially activated in March 1942 as Marine Night Fighter Squadron 542 and equipped with Grumman F6F-3N Hellcats, the unit saw heavy combat action in the Pacific theatre during World War Two – it also participated in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Before deploying to support allied forces during the Korean War, the unit was redesignated Marine All-Weather Fighter Squadron 542 and re-equipped with the Grumman F7F-3N/4N Tigercat in 1948. After returning to the continental US in 1951, the unit transitioned to the Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight – the first jet-powered fighter used by the ‘Flying Tigers’ – before taking on the Douglas F4D-1 Skyray in 1958.
The unit was initially rebranded as VMFA-542 when it adopted the McDonnell Douglas F-4B Phantom II in 1963. It supported combat missions across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War until January 1970, before it was deactivated on June 30, that year. In January 1972, the squadron was reactivated as the USMC’s second AV-8A Harrier squadron at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, and became known as VMA-542. The unit was relocated to MCAS Cherry Point in 1974. The ‘Flying Tigers’ completed the transition to the upgraded Harrier II in May 1986.
While operating the Harrier II in combat, VMA-542 supported a variety of US-led military campaigns, including Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (Southeast Asia); Noble Anvil (Kosovo); Iraqi Freedom (Iraq); Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan); Odyssey Dawn and Odyssey Lightning (Libya); and Inherent Resolve (Afghanistan).