The Tip Of The Spear And Onward: An Early History Of Marine Aviation
(August 9, 2010)
Lt. Col. Alfred Austell Cunningham, known better to Marines as A.A. Cunningham, is considered "the father of Marine aviation." He received less than three hours of instruction before flying his first solo flight as a Marine aviator. Cunningham later became the "de facto director of Marine Corps aviation," according to Navy archives., Official Department of the Navy Photo
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION NEW RIVER (MCN - 8/5/2010)
— Marine Corps aviators like to call themselves the
"point" at the tip of the spear. They are capable of
flying low-altitude troop support missions, high
altitude bombing missions and even electronic
warfare missions. Marine aviators fly aircraft
ranging from jets to helicopters and with the
arrival of the MV-22B Osprey, a combination of both.
Like their infantry counterparts, Marine aviators of
the past live on in the history of the Marine Corps.
Recruits are taught about World War II aces Gregory
"Pappy" Boyington and his Black Sheep Squadron, and
Joe Foss, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of
Honor as a Marine captain.
But perhaps the most famous flying Leatherneck is
Lt. Colonel Alfred Austell Cunningham, known better
to Marines as A.A. Cunningham, "the father of Marine
According to Navy historical records, Cunningham was
born in 1882 in Atlanta, and served in the 3rd
Georgia Volunteer Infantry during the
But it was flight that always fascinated Cunningham,
and in 1903, he went airborne for the first time in
a hot air balloon.
Cunningham spent the next decade selling real estate
and becoming more infatuated with flying. He
eventually decided the time was right to pursue his
After being commissioned a Marine second lieutenant,
Cunningham served in the Marine Guards aboard several ships,
although he still retained a strong desire to fly. |
In 1911, he joined the Aero Club of Philadelphia and flew
test flights in a rented airplane at the Philadelphia Navy
1st Lt. Cunningham arrived at Annapolis with orders in
connection with aviation on May 22, 1912, and received
flight training at the Burgess Aircraft Factory in
He received less than three hours of instruction before
flying his first solo flight as a Marine aviator.
His career was temporarily thwarted by his fianc�e, who
would not consent to marry him unless he gave up flying.
After much convincing she relented, and he earned his
designation of Naval Aviator No. 5 on Sept. 17, 1915.
Cunningham did more than fly planes. Naval aviation was in
its infancy. World War I would be the first testing grounds
for this new concept of aerial war fighting and he would be
the man to lead the Marine Corps into the fray.
Aircraft had been used since the beginning of the war, but
only as aerial observation platforms. That all changed in
1915 when a French pilot began shooting his rifle through
his propeller blades. It wasn't long before the introduction
of plane-mounted guns.
As a machine of war, newly commissioned aircraft of the day
had a tactical advantage over the foot soldier bogged down
in the trenches.
Pilots had a greater vantage point and could see the
opposing army much better than the ground troops. The
problem was, flight gave the enemy the same advantage.
Hence, aerial combat was about to arrive in full force.
Cunningham became the "de facto director of Marine Corps
aviation," according to Navy archives.
He recruited flight volunteers and began an aggressive
campaign to define exactly what the mission of ground
support Marine aviation would be.
He was sent to Europe to gather information on British and
French aviation and participated in a myriad of missions
over German lines. With these missions, his view became
broadened, and he began to plan using Marine aviation
against enemy submarines.
Out of those plans came the North Bombing Group, the first
Marine aircraft group, which consisted of four squadrons.
The bombing group was equipped and trained within five
months and arrived in Brest, France, on July 30, 1918.
The Marines participated in 43 raids with allied groups and
14 independent raids. Cunningham was awarded the Navy Cross
for organizing and training these Marines. He retired in
1935 and died in Sarasota, Fla., on May 27, 1939.
To commemorate his legacy, the Navy commissioned the USS
Alfred A. Cunningham; additionally, Marine Corps Air Station
Cherry Point was originally named MCAS Alfred A. Cunningham
in his honor.
Although he died long before most can remember, his name
lives on in the annals of Marine history, and his spirit
still flies with the dedicated and courageous men and women
who push the boundaries of Marine aviation every day.
By LCpl. Nichole R. Werling
1st Marine Logistics Group (FWD)
Marine Corps News
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