F/A-18C/D Hornets have ended their almost four-decade tenure aboard the aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy. The final carrier deployment by the “Legacy Hornet” has officially concluded after the return of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, or VMFA-323, the “Death Rattlers,” from its final cruise aboard the supercarrier USS Nimitz.
The squadron had been part of Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) embarked aboard the Nimitz during a mammoth 10-month deployment that saw the carrier operate primarily in the Middle East and Pacific regions. Ahead of the flattop’s imminent return to its homeport in Washington State, VMFA-323’s jets flew off the carrier and touched down at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California yesterday. The “Death Rattlers” are based there, assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 11, part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group had originally departed San Diego on June 8 last year, ultimately completing five dual-carrier operations in the Western Pacific with the Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Groups. It also supported Operations Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, and Octave Quartz in East Africa.
VMFA-323 was the last of the Marine Corps Hornets squadrons committed to the TACAIR Integration agreement with the Navy, which involves the Marines providing carrier-capable squadrons that are integrated within carrier air wings. VMFA-323’s commander for its final cruise was Lieutenant Colonel William J. Mitchell.
“It’s my pride and joy,” Mitchell told the San Diego Union-Tribune about the legacy Hornet. “I was the last aircraft off the deck today and my entire maintenance department, all my Marines, were lined up along the foul line and rendering a salute as I got shot down [catapult] 3 one more time. That was one of the more emotional moments. Knowing it’s the end of an era is certainly bittersweet.”
Now that the Hornet has bowed out of the TACAIR Integration initiative, its place will be taken by the F-35C, the first of 67 examples of the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter for the Marine Corps having arrived at Miramar in January last year. VMFA-314, the initial Marine F-35C squadron, is scheduled to deploy within a carrier air wing in 2022; eventually, there will be four such Marine F-35C squadrons available
It’s fitting that the “Death Rattlers” flew the flag for the final Legacy Hornet carrier deployment as the squadron had also been the first in the Marines to take the F/A-18 aboard a carrier, going to sea on USS Coral Sea in October 1985. That same Mediterranean cruise also culminated in the Hornet’s combat debut, which involved attacks on Libyan patrol boats and the Operation El Dorado Canyon raids on Libya.
At that point, VMFA-323 was flying the first iteration of the Hornet, the F/A-18A, which the squadron had begun flying in September 1982, making it one of the very first operators of the type anywhere. In fact, the Marines got their hands on Hornet before the Navy, with VMFA-314 being the very first unit to attain operational status with the type, at MCAS El Toro in California in January 1983. The U.S. Navy followed the Marines’ lead, establishing its first two frontline squadrons with these aircraft later the same year.
Before its tenure with the Hornet, the famous legacy of the “Death Rattlers” stretched back to August 1943, when it was established at Cherry Point in North Carolina. Between April 1945 and the surrender of Japanese forces in August, the squadron was credited with shooting down 124 Japanese aircraft in aerial combat without a single loss to an enemy pilot. Equally important was its provision of close air support to Marines on the ground in the final months of the war in the Pacific.
Since then, the squadron has flown the F4U Corsair, F9F-2 Panther and F9F-8 Cougar, FJ-4 Fury, F8U-1 and -2 Crusader, F-4B and N Phantom II, and the F/A-18A and C Hornet.
For its part, the U.S. Navy’s last Legacy Hornet carrier deployment was by Strike Fighter Squadron 34 (VFA-34), which returned home in April 2018 from a deployment with CVW-2 on board USS Carl Vinson. VFA-34 gave up its last F/A-18C in February 2019 and then transitioned to the F/A-18E Super Hornet. You can read about the last days of that squadron’s legacy Hornet operations here. Meanwhile, at least for now, legacy Hornets still remain in the Navy inventory for a variety of second-line roles, including with reserve and aggressor squadrons.
While we’ll never again see Legacy Hornets operating from carrier decks, VMFA-323 is also set to continue flying the type from the land. Once Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101 (VMFAT-101) is decommissioned in Fiscal Year 2023, the “Death Rattlers” will take on its training role and will continue preparing the last generations of Marine Hornet pilots to fly the type until it’s finally withdrawn for good, something that is presently scheduled to occur 2030.
Before then, however, VMFA-323 will trade its legacy Hornets for the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. According to the latest Marine Corps Aviation Plan, released in 2019, this should happen by 2028, a timeline that squadron boss Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell confirmed yesterday.
Up until the final retirement of its Legacy Hornets in 2030, the Marines will benefit from additional capabilities that are being added to these venerable jets. Around 84 Hornets have been selected for a series of upgrades that will see them out to 10,000 flight hours while introducing new technology that will enable them to bridge the gap to 2030. You can read all about these wide-ranging improvements in this previous War Zone story.
So, while it might not yet be the end for the Legacy Hornet in U.S. service, a significant chapter in naval aviation has now come to an end. But, in the form of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the EA-18G Growler, the DNA of the versatile and powerful F/A-18A-D Hornet will continue aboard Navy carriers for many years to come.
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