75 Years of History Observed at MCAS Cherry Point

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Over the last weekend in April 2016, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, located in the town of Havelock, North Carolina, offered their 75th Anniversary Air Show. Three quarters of a century is a long time, especially since powered flight was initiated fewer than four decades earlier than the base’s beginnings. There were quite a number of historic planes displayed at the show, and other more modern aircraft wore special colors that commemorated more events that occurred while MCAS Cherry Point has been in operation. The local area has a number of restored jets on display that have flown from Cherry Point’s runways too. Here’s a review of many of the interesting sights and sounds seen during the three day event. A new flying base was authorized by Congress in 1941, one of many that were planned just prior to the U.S.’s entry into World War II. In fact, construction began some four months before the Pearl Harbor attack, but after the conflict in Europe began. On May 20, 1942, the facility was commissioned as Cunningham Field, after the Marine Corps’ first aviator, Lieutenant Alfred Cunningham. The base was soon renamed. The main missions for the base included training and anti-submarine tasks during World War II. According to a popular story, MCAS Cherry Point got its name from the wild cherry trees that grow along the nearby Neuse River, possibly from a Post Office with the same name. Later years saw aviation training, both for airborne and ground crew, still the base’s focus. Pilots and aircraft maintenance personnel were trained in assorted subjects before going off to fight in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

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Besides training, regular squadrons of Marine combat and logistics aircraft called Cherry Point home too. The Air Force, during the late 1950s and 1960s, established a radar unit at the field that fed into the national air defense networks, including the SAGE system, but this is a primary Marine base. During the Vietnam War years through the first Gulf War, squadrons of McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, Grumman A-6 Intruders and EA-6 Prowlers, and Lockheed C-130 Hercules were home-based here. During the 1970s, the British Aerospace AV-8A and –C Harriers were introduced at Cherry Point, and Skyhawks were slowly retired, although the OA-4M Forward Air Control versions would not leave the base until 1990. By the mid-1980s, the novelty of the Harrier had worn off and the design proven. A newer redesign became the AV-8B Harrier II, and replaced the earlier versions during the late 1980s. Today, the Cherry Point-based VMAT-203 squadron still trains all Marine AV-8B pilots in several versions of the V/STOL jet.

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At the air show, a group of warbirds represented some of the different time periods from the base’s inception up through recent history. The Military Aviation Museum, from nearby Virginia Beach, Virginia (a 35-minute hop for these planes to Havelock), presented a Navy SNJ-2 trainer and World War II vintage fighters in the forms of a FM-2 Wildcat, a P-40E Kittyhawk and a FG-1D Corsair – the latter type served during the Korean War as well. The Commemorative Air Force’s Red Tail Squadron travelling exhibit opened the doors to their Rise Above trailer, telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Triple Tree Airdrome’s F-51D Mustang accompanied the exhibit too. Curtiss C-46 Tinker Belle, B-25 Panchito, and a 1960’s vintage Focke-Wulf FW-149D liaison/training aircraft rounded out the static warbird aircraft on display.

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Randy Ball flew his Vietnam-era MiG-17F jet fighter three times during the show, showing off ultra-low level flying, with high speed afterburner and graceful turning passes in front of the crowd. Dr. Joe Masessa performed a trio of flying shows in his Vietnam-era Grumman OV-1D Mohawk; the aircraft is emblazoned with 1,636 names of men and women who are still unaccounted for, and still missing in action from the Vietnam War. A pair of six-ship prop-driven civilian flying teams - the GEICO Skytypers in their SNJ-2s and the Trojan Horsemen in their T-28s filled the sky with smoke and thunder from their radial engines. Gary Rower’s Stearman aerobatics routine was flown in a modified PT-17 too.

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A Marine EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare squadron, VMAQT-1, had a disestablishment ceremony during the Friday evening air show. A long and storied history was read as their colors were shown for the last time; the squadron had roots back to Marine Composite Squadron One (VMC-1) that began operations during the Korean War in the 1950s. Speaking about the 1950s, a Coast Guard Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawk on static display wore a yellow color scheme commemorating a 1950's rescue helicopter's scheme - this year is the 100th anniversary of Coast Guard Aviation too.

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A pair of visitors from Canada also gave a historic look back at the early Cherry Point years, but through a slightly different point of view. This year’s Canadian Forces CF-18 Hornet demonstration aircraft wears commemorative British Commonwealth Air Training Program yellow and red colours, and the pilot, Captain Ryan Kean, showed them off dazzlingly. A companion aircraft, a Beechcraft C-90 King Air used for Canadian military multi-engine training, wore the nose art of “Pistol Packin’ Mama”, a World War II RCAF heavy bomber.

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With lots of history to take in over the weekend, one could fill a book with the information that we heard and saw. The ClassicWarbirds.net crew spoke with pilots, crew chiefs, maintainers, and historians as well as saw some very educational displays on the ground and in the air. This benchmark of the base’s 75 years in service to the country was a great event that allowed for learning some interesting history made in eastern North Carolina, through those people present, and through their aircraft on display. Without the assistance of the MCAS Cherry Point Public Affairs Office, much of the information and photos seen here couldn't have been collected - thank you to all of the dedicated Marines we met during this past weekend!
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