USMC’s first F-35C unit declares IOC

The US Marine Corps (USMC) revealed on December 1 that Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 (VMFA-314) has become the first Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II unit to declare initial operational capability (IOC).

This declaration marks a significant milestone for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) and VMFA-314 ‘Black Knights’, enabling it to deploy the F-35C on aircraft carriers to support combat operations across the world. To receive the qualification, VMFA-314 had to meet the USMC headquarters’ requirements, which defined the minimum number of trained marines, pilots and mission-ready aircraft to achieve IOC.

VMFA-314 F-35C [USMC/Cpl Leilani Cervantes]
On December 1, the USMC announced that its first Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II unit - Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 (VMFA-314) 'Black Knights' - had achieved initial operational capability (IOC). USMC/Cpl Leilani Cervantes

Lt Col Duncan French, VMFA-314’s executive officer, said: “VMFA-314’s declaration of IOC is a significant milestone, not only for [the] 3rd MAW, but also the marine corps. VMFA-314 is the first F-35C squadron in the marine corps. The F-35C’s unique capabilities, compared to the F-35B and legacy aircraft, provide the marine corps with a complementary increase in combat projection and the ability to operate from the US Navy’s aircraft carriers.

“Our maintenance department was critical to the success of IOC. In addition to accepting and inspecting the multiple aircraft that arrived throughout the year, the marines maintained a high level of aircraft readiness. Those mission capable aircraft allowed the pilots to train in the appropriate missions required of IOC, as well as contributed towards the readiness metrics of IOC,” he added.

This accomplishment comes just nine months after the ‘Black Knights’ received its safe for flight operations certification (SFFOC) in March 2020. The milestone also marked the unit’s successful transition from the Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornet to the F-35C, which is the carrier variant of the fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter family. To achieve SFFOC, VMFA-314 operated under the oversight of Strike Fighter Squadron 125 (VFA-125) ‘Rough Raiders’ – the US Navy’s F-35C fleet replacement unit.

VMFA-314 F-35C [USMC/Lance Cpl Juan Anaya]
The 'Black Knights' operates under the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) from Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar in California. In the future, the unit will be integrated into US Navy Carrier Air Wings (CVWs) and will operate from aircraft carriers alongside its naval counterparts. USMC/Lance Cpl Juan Anaya

Lt Col Brendan Walsh, VMFA-314’s commanding officer, added: “The successful transition of the ‘Black Knights’ to the F-35C culminating in this IOC declaration is a testament to the squadron’s distinguished legacy of pioneering new aircraft.”

The F-35C combines advanced stealth capabilities with integrated avionics and a powerful sensor and data fusion package. The USMC states that the platform gives it “an unparalleled ability to maintain air superiority in dynamic unpredictable and competitive environments.”

The USMC already has a history with the Lightning II, having employed the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL)-capable F-35B operationally since July 31, 2015. Unlike the ‘B’ model, the ‘C’ variant has been designed to operate conventionally from land bases and aircraft carriers. VMFA-314’s F-35Cs will be integrated into the US Navy’s Carrier Air Wings (CVWs), where they will fly from aircraft carriers alongside their naval counterparts.