How Marines prepare to become F-18 pilots at MCAS Miramar

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) — Becoming a pilot in the military is no small feat and the Marine Corps has their own training program at MCAS Miramar in San Diego to help future aviators.

KUSI News got a chance to meet students and instructors with Marine fighter attack Squadron VMFAT-101 who were training to become F-18 pilots.

They’re the future of Marine Corps aviation.  Having successfully completed flight school in smaller training jets, these Marines are moving on to the next phase to becoming fighter pilots in the fleet.

Their journey leads them to VMFAT-101 a squadron known as the “Sharpshooters” at MCAS Miramar. Here they’ll learn to fly the F-18 Hornet.  Roughly 40 thousand pounds of fire-breathing US government hardware that’s been a mainstay in Naval and Marine Corps. aviation for decades.

Newly winged aviators get their initially check-up in the F-18 and then in the span of a year, go through about 100 hours of simulators and flights, Colonel Timothy G. Burton, the squadron’s Commanding Officer said.

They’re known as Category One Aviators.

Category One is pretty much you haven’t flown the F-18 at all, so it’s the full work up to turn your into an F-18 pilot or WSO,” 1st Lt. Daniel Lahti said.

But the F-18 is much more powerful than the T-45 jets they learned in. So what is the difference?

“About one-eighth of the power you have in F-18s, so initially when you first started learning it feels like a lot of aircraft to handle, Lahti said. Eventually, we have good instructors here that teach you and you get a hold of it. It’s definitely a lot of fun.”

So what is a WSO?

“A Weapons System Operator. We sit in the back seat and we do a lot of the [communications] and operating the sensors and keeping the overall situational awareness of the entire battle space,” CPT Andrew Hugh said.

Now an instructor pilot with the Sharpshooters, Captain Jordan Meredith earned his wings of gold back in 2011.  He was the focus of a documentary called “Angle of Attack” that followed him through his Marine flight training.

“The F-18 while it is a very easy airplane to fly, the hard part comes in tactically employing the airplane with all of our weapons and sensors, and combining it while moving 8 to 10 miles a minute, that becomes hard,” Meredith said. “and that’s what we kind of have to train these new students to do.”

But the future of Marine Corps aviation is changing. For these young aviators who decide to make a career of the marines, at some point they will be transitioning from the F-18 to the F-35.

Known as a 5th generation fighter, the F35 boasts state-of-the-art stealth technology.  It’s virtually invisible to today’s enemy radar systems and it’s capabilities are unsurpassed.

“My experience with these 5th generation aircrafts is that for the most part no one ever sees them,” Burton said.

But time flying in the air means wrenches turning on the ground.  The dedicated Sharpshooter maintenance crews work diligently to make sure the squadrons jets are safe and airworthy before they leave the ground.

“If we do our job to the best of our ability, the more training pilots get certified, we can actually send them out into the fleet Marine force to conduct operations where they’re needed,” Staff SSgt Anthony Jefferis said. “Being able to insure that any time I look at an air crew — whether it’s a pilot, whether it’s a WSO — in the eye, I can effectively tell them that the aircraft is going to be safe to fly and I’ll see them when they get back.”

Categories: Local San Diego News