Marine 1st Lt. Catherine Stark earned her Wings of Gold as a Marine Corps aviator with Training Air Wing 2, Naval Air Station Kingsville, Aug. 2 and is now preparing to begin training on her assigned fleet aircraft: the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
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Stark, currently attached to the “Fighting Redhawks” of Training Squadron (VT) 21, has been in training since early 2016. She completed training as Marine Corps officer aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, and reported for flight training aboard NAS Pensacola, Florida. After more than two years of flight training in the T-6B Texan II primary flight training aircraft and the T-45C Goshawk advanced jet training aircraft, she has been selected to be the first female Marine to fly the F-35’s C variant.
Stark and another classmate were the first Marines chosen for the F-35C upon completion of flight school.
The F-35 Lightning II, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, is a fifth-generation fighter designed to replace the F-18 in the Navy and Marine Corps and the F-22 in the U.S. Air Force. Of the three models, the F-35C is designed specifically to take off and land on aircraft carriers
Catherine Stark graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and was commissioned as a Marine officer in 2016. She spent about 18 months in flight school before earning her Wings of Gold — the insignia worn by naval aviators — on Friday.
Stark spent her first six months of flight school training on the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II and then advanced to the aircraft carrier-capable McDonnell Douglas T-45 Goshawk, which she flew for a year.
Pilots make two flights a day during training, which can be grueling, she said.
“You’re learning a lot and there’s so much knowledge required,” Stark said. “I can only compare it to becoming a medical doctor. You’re flying every day and getting evaluated and really intensely scrutinized.”
The F-35C will be “completely different” from flying the T-6 and T-45 training jets, which don’t require pilots to learn about weapons systems, radars or military flying tactics, Stark said.
“Looking back, something I thought would be so hard is almost a joke now compared to the new challenge,” she said.
Stark will be deployed after about a year of training.
Catherine Stark is the fourth of eight children in her family and among three in the military. Her brother, Lt. Joseph Stark, is a Naval Supply Systems Command logistics director for Seal Team 4, and Zofia Stark, who, like her sister, completed the U.S. Naval Academy in 2016, is a 1st lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
Photo Credits: U.S. Navy photos by Photo By Anne Owens