'You're Only as Good as Your Last Flight': A Fighter Pilot Shares Her Journey in Marine Aviation

By 1st Lt. Fredrick Walker

If you had asked a 15 or 16-year-old Meleah Martin what she wanted to do after high school, her answer probably would have included earning a scholarship to play lacrosse at the collegiate level and a nice career outside of the military. Little did she know that just over seven years later, she would be a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet pilot.

“I was born and raised in Walkersville, Maryland, and lived on the same street my entire life through high school,” said Capt. Meleah Martin, now a pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323. “We never moved around and I’m not from a military family or anything like that.”

The only child of insurance professionals, Martin had no intentions of joining the military, let alone the Marine Corps. But, her parents instilled in her the belief that she could be anything she wanted to be. That ethic proved to be invaluable as she began the rigorous journey to earning the “wings of gold” that identify a select group of Marine officers as naval aviators.

“I didn’t know where the Naval Academy was or what it was,” she said. “But when they recruited me during my junior year as a club lacrosse athlete with the Frederick Stars, I found out more about it and realized that it was the school I wanted to attend. In fact, it was the only school I applied to and I was fortunate enough to get in. My parents supported me through all of that.”

After graduating from Walkersville High School the following year, she matriculated at the Academy where she later earned her Bachelor of Science degree. When it came to her attention that only 200-250 of the approximately 1,000 midshipmen who would graduate as part of her class could commission as Marine officers, and only around 90 of them would become pilots, Midshipman Martin knew she had found her next challenge.

“As soon as I started flying, I knew one hundred percent that’s where I wanted to be. There’s nothing like it,“ Martin said.

“Just being a competitive person, I didn’t know why I wanted to be a Marine yet. As I learned more about the Corps, I fell in love with the idea, and I fought for it. Being a pilot sounded really fun, so I fought for that too,” she said.

After talking with Marines, I found that the Corps had a family feel and I liked how it seemed. I still love it to this day and I’m very happy with my choice.

Following her graduation from the Academy in May 2013, then-2nd Lt. Martin began six months of basic officer training at The Basic School located on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. She then spent nearly two years in Pensacola, Florida, and then Kingsville, Texas, learning the fundamentals of flight and how to operate aircraft safely and effectively. Finally, after earning her aviator wings in October 2016, then-1st Lt. Martin moved on to F/A-18 Hornet-specific training with Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. There, she further honed her aviator skills and leadership abilities.

Photo credit U.S. Marines/1st Lt. Fredrick Walker

Capt. Meleah Martin, a pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 323, embarks an F/A-18C Hornet.

“While I was in flight training I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what I wanted to fly, but I knew it was very difficult to get jets,” the now-seasoned pilot said. “So naturally, I saw the competition and was like ‘that looks like fun.’ I also really enjoyed flying so I did the best I could and put my name in the hat. Fortunately, my grades and performance were good enough to be selected for jets.

“As soon as I started flying, I knew one hundred percent that’s where I wanted to be,” she said. “There’s nothing like it! When I was flying fixed wing in the T-6 trainer all I could think about was going faster and still flying in formation. Flying formation and aerobatics is really what made me fall in love with fixed wing aircraft. Out of Kingsville, I got my first choice, which was flying jets out of Miramar. I’ve been here ever since.”

Just six months after checking into her first Fleet Marine Force squadron – VMFA (All-Weather) 225 – Capt. Martin found herself headed to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan for a six-month deployment as part of the Marine Corps’ Unit Deployment Program. During that time, she flew the F/A-18D in support of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing operations.

“I learned so much from that experience,” she said, reflecting on her time overseas. “It was my first deployment and my first time away from the United States. I had a wonderful commanding officer who I hope to emulate in the future. He helped me fall in love with the Marine Corps, stay in love with Marine Corps Aviation and want to keep doing this.”

Martin knew that after her arrival back to California, she wanted to pursue the goal of returning to the sea to conduct aircraft carrier operations in the jet she fought so hard to fly: the F/A-18C Hornet. This desire had been burning within since her days of practicing carrier landings with VMFAT-101.

My dream since becoming a pilot has been to take the Hornet ‘to the boat’ as we say,” the Marine said. “I started talking with my command about wanting to go to a squadron where that could become a reality. Just as my package was approved to try out for the All Marine Rugby Team, my commanding officer approached me about the possibility of transferring to VMFA-323. Now, here I am.

As the January 2020 “sun down” of VMFA (All-Weather) 225 drew near in preparation for the squadron’s transition to the F-35B Lightning II, she got her opportunity. Since August 2019, she has been with VMFA-323, a Miramar-based F/A-18C Hornet squadron.

Known around the squadron by her “Stranger Things”-inspired call-sign “Eleven,” Capt. Martin now serves as both a section lead and the S-1 officer-in-charge (OIC) for VMFA-323. As a section lead, she is responsible for all the facets of flights she directs as it pertains to her and her wingman, from safe navigation to communication with external agencies. As the S-1 OIC, she oversees all administrative matters to include: payment, government travel, new-joins and separations.

From her time on the athletic field to the Naval Academy and her Marine officer training, Martin has gained extensive leadership experience. She has also had significant time to study leadership and learn new techniques.

You have to take care of your people and treat everybody like a human being,” she said. “What I’ve learned is Marines will do everything in their power to accomplish what you ask them to do. All they ask for in return is that you treat them like human beings. It’s not just, ‘Do what I say.’ You have to give them a reason to want to follow you. I think this applies to all facets of life.

Reflecting on her long, rigorous journey to where she is today, Martin said, “The Naval Academy and Marine Corps taught me how to fail in a positive way. After learning how to follow, I learned how to lead. I have learned to fail and thrive in every single area: academically, socially and professionally. I’ve learned to adapt to my surroundings.”

“Aviation can beat you up day in and day out,” she further explained.

But you still keep coming back for more because you love it. It’s one of the most mentally taxing and physically challenging things that I’ve ever done in my life. That’s why I love it.

Her advice to those who would follow in her footsteps is simple: stay the course.

“Stick with it and be relentless,” she said. “There have been multiple times when I’ve had a bad flight or a bad day, but you have to compartmentalize it, stick with it and be relentless because you’re only as good as your last flight; and you’ll keep going from there. The longer you keep fighting for what you want; eventually – if you work hard – it will come to you. I’ve always fought for exactly what I wanted because the worst they can tell me is ‘no.’ And I’ll still be happy with where I am because I fought for what I wanted. I’m not going to not get what I want because no one knew what I wanted.”

Photo credit U.S. Marines/1st Lt. Fredrick Walker

Capt. Meleah Martin, a pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 323, prepares an F/A-18C Hornet for flight.

Though proud of her accomplishments, “Eleven” is mostly thankful for the opportunity to serve her country as a Marine and the support system that has helped to ensure her success.

“I’m just proud to be a Marine and I’m happy to be here. I’m thankful for the opportunity. I’m thankful for the village it took to get me here. It’s in no way, shape or form a single person effort,” she said.

“I’m thankful for my parents who sacrificed a lot for me to be here. The weekends they spent and miles they drove for my athletic events ultimately led me to where I am. I’m thankful for my fiancé who sticks with me through the craziness. I’m thankful for my best friend who makes time for me despite her commitments to a professional athletic career. I’m thankful for my commanders, those who advocated for me to be here and my instructors who made this possible.”

As she looks to the future, Capt. Meleah “Eleven” Martin is preparing to make history as part of the Corps’ final aircraft carrier-based deployment of the Hornet as the service transitions completely to the F-35 Lightning II. This deployment will mark the end of one aircraft’s legacy and the beginning of a new one. The transition from the Hornet to the Lightning II will create an even more lethal and capable Marine Corps aviation combat element that is ready and relevant for current and future threats.

In light of all her accomplishments, she has no intentions of leaving the Corps just yet.

“I don’t see myself getting out because I’m enjoying it too much. I would like to transition from the F/A-18 and fly the F-35C. We’ll see where it goes from there.”

It is Marines like Capt. Martin who keep 3rd MAW ready to “Fix, Fly and Fight” as the Corps’ largest aircraft wing. They continually make selfless sacrifices for their nation and fellow service members for the sake of future generations. 3rd MAW will continue to answer the call of this nation whenever and wherever it is needed.

-This story originally appeared on marines.mil. It has been edited for USO.org.

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