Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business

Clemson alumnus becomes first Marine fighter pilot to graduate TOPGUN in F-35


A man in a flight uniform stands in front of a wall with a plaque on it
U.S. Marine Corps Maj Derek Heinz at the “TOPGUN” fleet training school after graduating from the TOPGUN course in the F-35C fighter. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Derek Heinz)

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Derek “Shootsbe” Heinz, a 2007 Clemson University alumnus, has graduated the Navy Strike Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) course in the nation’s newest and most advanced fighter jet, the F-35C. The Navy announced Heinz became one of the first two F-35 pilots to graduate from the TOPGUN course flying the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter.

“This tremendous accomplishment is yet another step for the F-35C community as we continue to focus on delivering this game-changing aircraft to the fleet,” Joint Strike Fighter Wing commander Capt. Adan Covarrubias said in a news release.

“It was an absolute honor to be selected to attend the first-ever class including F-35 pilots,” said Heinz. “My time in the TOPGUN course was very special. We underwent many hours of academic, simulated and actual flight training. I flew with and against some of the best pilots in the world, an opportunity I wish every fighter pilot could experience. My time as a Clemson student prepared me for the rigors of this course. It requires hours of studying to be successful as a fighter pilot, a foundation that was laid during my time at Clemson.”

Maj. Heinz and Navy Lt. William Goodwin are among the latest graduates of the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor course, run at Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. Heinz is a member of the “Rough Raiders” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125, and Goodwin is currently serving as a TOPGUN instructor.

A fighter jet streaks through the blue sky, tipped sideways toward the camera
An F-35C Lightning II piloted by Maj. Derek “Shootsbe” Heinz, flies ‘low level’ around Fremont Peak near Edwards Air Force Base, California, May 7, 2019. (Photo by Darin Russell)

The “C” in F-35C stands for “carrier variant.” It has larger wings and more robust landing gear than the other variants of the F-35, making it suitable for catapult launches and fly-in arrestments aboard naval aircraft carriers. Its wingtips fold to allow for more room on the deck of the carriers while deployed.

Heinz’s brother, Benjamin, expressed immense pride on behalf of all Maj. Heinz’s family and friends.

“My brother wouldn’t ever tell you he is an awesome pilot and Marine, but he is for sure and always has been.”

Heinz graduated from Clemson with a Bachelor of Science degree in economics in December 2007. During his time at Clemson he was instrumental in standing up the Clemson Semper Fi Society, a student-lead organization of future and prior-service Marines. Many of the members were Marine Officer Candidates in the Platoon Leaders Class (PLC), a program similar to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) which does not have a Marine Corps unit at Clemson.

A group of people wearing orange Clemson shirts gather together and smile at the camera
Derek Heinz (left) with friends at a tailgate party in 2008 including two other Clemson alumni and current Marine pilots; Andy Lundskow (middle) a Cobra pilot now assigned as a pilot with HMX-1, also known as the Presidential flying unit “Marine One”, and Rusty Maben (right) who flies MV-22 Ospreys.

Former Marine Corps Maj. Trey Kennedy, a 2008 Clemson graduate, went through the PLC a year after Heinz and credits Heinz with building Clemson’s Marine presence to unprecedented levels. He noted that Heinz is not by a long shot the only Marine who graduated Clemson through the PLC program who has gone on to a distinguished career.

“Within that group from 2006-2009, just those four graduation years, we have a Marine pilot Clemson grad in every single aviation platform in the Marine Corps; F-35c, F/A-18’s, AV-8B, MV-22, AH-1, we have a UH-1Y pilot, we had a CH-53 and CH-46 pilot, a C-130 pilot  . . . all of them,” said Kennedy, adding that Heinz played a big part in his and many other Clemson Marines’ success. “Derek is a reason why a lot of us had success at Officer Candidates School (OCS). He and a few others went first and then came back and taught us. I remember sitting around together on Sunday nights, Derek giving us classes on what to expect at OCS, to make it easier on us when we went. Within those four years Marine Officer Candidates from Clemson had a 100 percent graduation rate at OCS, where attrition is typically one third. The reason why is because we got so tight helping each other out – even the prior enlisted Marines would come over and give us classes. We were bound for success, and Derek was a big part of that.”

Heinz completed The Basic School (TBS), where all newly commissioned Marine Corps Officers are taught “the basics of being an Officer,” at Camp Barrett in Quantico, Virginia, in October 2008. He was designated as a naval aviator on Jan. 21, 2011, and received orders for follow-on training in the F/A-18 Hornet

A pilot in a flight uniform and helmet gets sprayed by champagne in front of a fighter jet
Capt. Derek Heinz gets sprayed with champagne after his last flight in an F/A-18 Hornet, June 2016.

In April 2012, Heinz was assigned to the “Checkerboards” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 312 where he was the director of safety and standardization and earned many qualifications to include division lead, post maintenance check flight pilot and air wing landing signal officer. He deployed with Carrier Air Wing Three aboard the USS Harry S Truman during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Heinz also deployed in support of the Unit Deployment Program (UDP). During his four-year tour he held various collateral duties, including schedules writer, logistics officer and aviation safety officer.

In June 2016, Heinz was selected to attend Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS), a 41-week resident school providing career-level, professional military education and training to company grade Marine officers and selected officers from other services and countries to prepare them mentally, morally and physically for increased leadership responsibility.

In May 2017, Heinz was selected to transition to fly the F-35C. He reported to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida for initial training. Following completion of initial training Heinz reported to Lemoore, California, to stand up the Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125 “Rough Raiders” which would serve as the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) tasked with training pilots to fly the F-35C for the Navy and Marine Corps.

A man holds a toddler standing next to his wife, in front of a fighter jet
Maj. Derek Heinz with his wife, Sarah, and son, William, in front of an F-35C Lightning II at the 2019 NAS Lemoore Air Show.

“I could not have succeeded during this course without the support from a number of people, including my mentors [leaders in his previous squadrons] who laid the foundations and invested in me as a young fighter pilot, my squadron members past and present, my family, and my wife and son,” said Heinz. “Additionally, I received incredible support from the maintenance departments of VFA-147 and VFA-125. The sailors and marines from these units left their families for the 13-week course to make sure I had a safe and combat-ready aircraft to train in during the course.”

Marines are known for being humble, so a lot of their accomplishments go unnoticed by the public (Heinz’s brother Benjamin was the one who approached Clemson to do this story), but Kennedy hopes Heinz’s accomplishment can shed a little light on all the incredible things Marines who’ve been commissioning at Clemson have been doing over the years.

“Looking back – does it surprise me that he’s the first grad of TOPGUN on the F-35 platform? No,” said Kennedy. “The mentality of the future Marines in that group was we were all looking to crush anything we attempted. We did, and Derek is a great example that we’re still doing it.”

Heinz has received orders to join the “Black Knights” of VMFA-314 in Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, to be a pilot training officer. VMFA-314 will serve as the Marine Corps’ first F-35C squadron. It will be attached to Carrier Air Wing 9 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

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