Jumping Ship – A USAF Pilot Joins the Navy Reserve

BogiDope was founded by Air Force pilots and much of our work is Air Force-centric. We’re here to help pilots from all branches though, and this article is for anyone who’s ever considered becoming a pilot in the Navy Reserve.

This article is based on an interview with former-USAF Major and now Navy Commander-select Albert “Pone Star” Rampone.

CDR-select Albert “Pone Star” Rampone doing what he does best.

Table of Contents

  1. Intro
  2. The Job – USAF vs USN
  3. The Aircraft – T-6A vs T-6B
  4. Career Progression
  5. Getting Hired
  6. Having a Day Job

Intro

Pone started as a “late rated” officer in the USAF with four years of service before he became a pilot. He flew the E-3A Sentry (aka AWACS) before taking an assignment as a T-6B Instructor Pilot at Naval Air Station Whiting Field. This is an Active Duty Air Force assignment open to just a few pilots at any given time. While assigned to Whiting, Pone did a deployment flying the E-11A BACN, which is where he and I met. (Look for a full post about the BACN deployment on BogiDope in the near future.)

That deployment was Pone’s last hurrah in the Air Force, and he returned home about the time his 10-year pilot training commitment was expiring. He’d been hired by FedEx, but wanted to continue his service as a military aviator. In considering his options, he realized that he had a shot at joining the reserve unit at Whiting Field, doing the same T-6B IP job he’d been enjoying for several years. Yes, he landed two dream jobs in one fell swoop. (Next time I go to Vegas, I’m going to bring Pone with me and stake him at the craps table because he’s one of the luckiest people I know.)

Let’s get some boring stuff out of the way: If you are a member of one military branch and want to switch to another branch, you have to do what’s called an inter-service transfer. As you might expect, this process is a bureaucratic nightmare. You have to go through all the regular out-processing stuff from your own branch, to the extent that you even get a DD-214, and then you have to go through the hiring/gaining process in the new branch.

This isn’t something you undertake lightly or without cause. Pone mentioned that doing the inter-service transfer was something that you don’t start until you’ve been officially hired by your new unit in your new branch. The process took about 10 months for Pone, so it’s something to plan ahead for. You don’t do this on a whim after you’ve already started the separation process from your current service. You need to start looking for jobs so you can get hired and start the transfer paperwork earlier than you would even give notice that you plan to separate or retire. More on this later.

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The Job – USAF vs USN

I was hoping that Pone’s unique career path would yield great insight to the differences between teaching pilot training as a T-6 Instructor Pilot (IP) in the USAF versus the Navy. Fortunately for Pone (though maybe not for us) his Active Duty assignment teaching in the T-6 at Whiting was about the least Air Force experience a pilot could have.

Pone worked on a Navy base, flew Navy aircraft, and gave Navy-style instruction under the Navy syllabus. He went nearly 4 years without checking his USAF email account. It’s considered a pretty choice USAF assignment, and the fiefdom at Air Force Personnel Center that has power over this assignment guards it closely for the “right” people. If you want it, you need to be good at what you do and start asking your commanders for it early in your career.

Luckily, I taught in the T-6, so I’ve been able to interpolate here for the sake of comparison.

In the Air Force, students are organized into classes of about 30 pilots, divided into two “flights,”  and the whole class progresses together on a very set schedule. A training day starts with a morning brief and “stand-up” emergency procedures. (More about those another day.) The flight and simulator schedule is broken up into three periods. Each student could be assigned to training events in any of those periods and otherwise sits around a flight room all day studying.

As an IP, you show up for morning brief and can expect to fly twice during the day. Two training sorties equates to a total of not more than 3.5 hours, but you’re almost guaranteed to be there for at least 12 hours every day, 5 days a week, on Active Duty. (I’ve mentioned that I averaged 6 hours of non-flying work for every hour I got to spend in an aircraft during my career.) USAF Reserve T-6 IPs get things a little easier. They tend to fly two flights each day but have far fewer other ground duties. Once they’re done for the day, they leave the office and relax. Reserve IPs tend to fly for 5-6 days straight and attend one drill weekend per month. Commuters make sure the drill weekend falls immediately before or immediately after their week of flying.

Pone noted that Navy pilot training is much more laid back in many ways. The Navy tends to graduate a “class” of students at the same time, but it’s rare that a given group of students all start and graduate at the same time. They just aren’t as efficient with scheduling.

Pone and I noted that the Air Force does a very good (or bad?) job of telling students exactly what to be studying and when. In the Navy, there’s very little hand-holding. They just expect you to show up prepared for your next event. (It’s not that the Air Force doesn’t, it just feels more relaxed overall.)

Another difference in Navy vs AF flying is that most USAF pilot training bases only have one auxiliary airfield where T-6s can practice pattern work. The Navy has at least a half-dozen Outlying Fields (OLFs) and there is a very complex set of “course rules” defining how to get from base to each one and back. Learning these course rules was challenging for Pone as an experienced USAF pilot, and it can be brutal for students.

The end result is that this training can take twice as long as it does with the Air Force, but Pone feels like it may produce a better overall pilot in the process. (Hold your horses and put away your petty tribalism. We have enough of that in our country right now. Pone is a big fan of the Air Force and dedicated flight instructor. I’ll trust his opinion on this one, especially if it helps make my point that the USAF’s current efforts to cut as much as possible from pilot training are a very bad idea.)

For Pone, life as a Reservist is pretty great. His unit is very willing to work with its pilots on scheduling to maximize the benefit for both parties. Unlike the USAF which has an entire regulation about training and currency requirements for pilots (AFI 11-2T-6 Vol 2), the Navy’s currency requirements are defined in the T-6 NATOPS (the aircraft manual). At the most basic level, a pilot has to get 100 flight hours per year and meet a few other requirements. These help make scheduling a lot easier. By contrast, USAF Reservists have to accrue a laundry list of currency beans every six months or they go on a naughty pilot list. If you have a life and/or job outside the military, it can actually be challenging to accomplish all of the currency items you need in the USAFR.

The Navy does require a lot of check rides for it’s T-6B IPs. There are annual check rides for instrument flying, teaching instruments to students, basic aircraft qualification (the NATOPS check ride), and teaching contact to students. It sounded like a lot of pain to me as an Air Force pilot, but Pone gave me the impression that Navy pilots don’t get so worked up over these events. (If you’re following the rules and keeping your skills up, then a check ride should never be anything to fear…says the former check pilot who still hates check rides.)

Pone lives in Memphis and drives to NAS Whiting Field, near Pensacola, for a few days at a time. He spends his first day catching up on email and completing his travel voucher in DTS, then double turns (flies twice a day) for the next two days. On this schedule, he has no problem meeting his currency requirements and feeling like he’s proficient in the aircraft.

I’ve noticed that USAF Reserve squadrons at pilot training bases are very close. Every single time I went out for a night on the town, I’d run into most of the Reservists I knew all hanging out together. Since they have a great job, they tend to stick around for a long time and they get to know each other. Pone feels like his squadron has a similar closeness. When he gets into town for reserve duty, he usually starts things out with an ongoing group text: “Hey dudes, I just got in. Who else is here?” You may not see the entire unit out in force every night, but he always gets several replies right away. He has also been known to crash family dinners at a friend’s house and is always welcomed with open arms.

This isn’t special treatment offered only to Pone because he’s uniquely handsome. (In fact, I’m surprised he isn’t turned away from dinner at the front door when he shows up during Mustache March.) It’s common for all of the local members of his unit to host commuters for dinner, drinks, or just hanging out on a regular basis. Pone loves this about his squadron and believes that it reflects an overall state of awesome unit cohesion.

Another interesting part of flying with the Navy is the variety of cultures your fellow instructors come from. In the Air Force there’s plenty of variety between pilots of different backgrounds…fighters, bombers, tankers, transport, spec ops, helos, etc. The Navy takes this to the next level. Many of the Navy IPs come from helicopters, though there are also P-3/P-8, fighter, and other types of pilots. However, NAS Whiting Field also supports the US Marine Corps and the US Coast Guard. This adds to the types of aircraft IPs have flow, but also adds another layer of cultural difference.

In the Air Force flying squadron, an O-3 can probably call an O-4 by his or her first name or callsign. In most cases, if that O-3 were to address the O-4 by rank or use “Sir/Ma’am” the O-3 would get laughed at. While some parts of the Navy may be like this, it’s guaranteed that a Marine Corps O-3 will address a Navy (or Air Force) O-4 as Sir or Ma’am, and stand up straight when doing so. This endearing…quirk?…seems to be a Marine Corps quality and doesn’t reflect the overall mentality of Pone’s squadron or wing. We don’t single-out the Marines here to say their mentality is good or bad…it’s just different. Within the squadron, the Coast Guard pilots are about as opposite the Marine Corps mentality as it gets and may feel a lot more “normal” to an Air Force pilot.

I asked Pone about deployments because they’re a specter that haunts Air Force pilots. The USAF has even been deploying FAIPs (First Assignment Instructor Pilots who have never even been combat mission ready) for the last few years. Pone mentioned that CNATRA (Chief of Naval Air Training…the Navy’s equivalent of Air Education and Training Command [AETC]) was deploying a lot of people to supplement other forces (even Army ground units) in the 2012-2014 timeframe. So many people started quitting the Navy that CNATRA stopped the deployments. Although things are still good for now, Pone warned that all it takes is one bad day for deployments to pick right back up again. Don’t run there assuming you’ll never deploy again.

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The Aircraft – T-6A vs T-6B

It’s not all that common knowledge that the Navy flies two flavors of T-6. They use the same T-6A that the USAF uses to teach NFO training at NAS Sherman Field in Pensacola. (NFO stands for Naval Flight Officer. This roughly equates to Combat Systems Officer (CSO) or Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) in Air Force-speak. See also: Goose, may he rest in peace.) Since the T-6 was procured as the “Joint Primary Aircraft Training System” (JPATS) the training academics and systems information was very similar to that in the USAF. Even the T-6 aircraft manual (“NATOPS” in the Navy or “Dash-1” in the Air Force) was based on the USAF version. With that said, the Navy’s flight training aircraft has some important differences.

The Navy uses the T-6B for its pilot trainees. This variant has a very different avionics setup and a Heads Up Display (HUD). This setup is basically the same as what Raytheon (uh, Beachcraft, uh Textron) put in the AT-6, and is itself intended to feel a lot like the A-10C. The Navy version also has a lot more Hands on Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) controls, like a real fighter, than the T-6A.

The T-6B’s instrument panel and glareshield should look somewhat unfamiliar to a T-6A pilot.

The T-6B has an air-to-ground mode that will let you designate targets and practice bomb runs. It also has an air-to-air mode that will generate a simulated bogie to chase around in your HUD, or let you chase around another T-6 if you’re flying IP vs IP.

Pone noted that all these bells and whistles are fun to have, but they’re absolutely useless when your primary mission for the day is getting Ensign Snuffy to finally hold altitude +/- 100’. In that way, the job is exactly the same whether you’re flying for the Navy or the Air Force.

Close formation with the T-6B HUD in view.

The Navy’s handling of pilot qualifications also has some interesting differences, compared to the Air Force.

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Career Progression

In the Air Force, all T-6A IPs get qualified to teach contact (basic maneuvers, aerobatics, and pattern work), instruments, formation, and low-level at Pilot Instructor Training (PIT). When a T-6A IP gets to his or her instructing assignment, there will be some spin-up and supervised instruction, but he or she is essentially qualified to teach every mission set. The Navy does things a little differently.

The Navy’s version of PIT is called the Fixed-Wing Instructor Training Unit (FITU, pronounced “FIT-you”). T-6B IP training starts with about 8 rides and a NATOPS (Form 8) check ride that makes you an officially qualified T-6 pilot. Next, you learn to instruct contact flying from the back seat before moving on to teaching instrument flying.

The training you get at FITU depends on what your squadron needs. If you aren’t already formation qualified and they already have enough formation-qualified pilots then you won’t get that qualification at the FITU. (Don’t worry though, if you don’t get formation qualified initially, you can get the check-out at your regular squadron after you’ve been flying there for a while.) For a fighter pilot, T-6B formation IP qualification is easy…it can be done in 3-4 flights.

Close formation as lead.

When you get to your squadron, you’ll teach contact and instrument flying. The Navy syllabus includes day and night navigation flights, but not the types of low-level flying that the USAF teaches.

Once you’ve been in your squadron for a while, you can apply to the Qualification Board for upgrades and advanced qualifications. These include: formation IP, student checker, Functional Check Flight (FCF), Out of Control Flight (OCF…you get specially trained to teach spins, spirals, rudder swaps, etc.), and standardization pilot (the equivalent of an Air Force Flight Examiner or Evaluator Pilot). Unlike the Air Force where upgrades are bestowed by commanders, you really do just submit an application to the board for upgrades in the Navy.

This doesn’t mean approval is guaranteed. The board is owned by the Skipper (aka the commander,) and usually is staffed by the operations officer, standards officer, and any standards-coded pilots (flight examiners.) They make their recommendations to the boss and he or she has final say over all upgrades.

Career progression on the non-flying things is fairly similar to the Air Force. Most IP jobs in the Navy are O-3 billets. You can go up or down one rank without any problems, but if you promote to O-5 you’ll have to get a waiver to stay in that job.

If you promote to O-5, “Big Navy” will encourage you to go complete a staff tour or something equally egregious. However, most aviators choose to ignore that encouragement. Technically, the Navy is subject to the same Congressional up-or-out mandate. If you don’t get promoted on your first two tries, you’re in danger of getting kicked out. Thankfully, that isn’t likely to bite anybody anytime soon. There are always students and airplanes that need to fly, and the entire program tends to run perpetually behind schedule. As long as there is money for flight training, there’s a pretty good chance nobody will complain about a qualified IP staying right where he or she is.

If you do want to get promoted, there are opportunities to take career-enhancing jobs. Pone is officially assigned to a Squadron Augment Unit (SAU) of about 16 Reserve T-6B IPs. You could enhance your career with a tour commanding something like that.

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Getting Hired

Having studied the art of getting hired by an Air Force Guard or Reserve unit, I tried to get Pone to translate the process for a Navy Reserve unit. It doesn’t translate exactly, but here’s what we came up with:

Unlike the Air Force, the Navy doesn’t hire Reserve pilots right off the street and send them to pilot training. You must already be a qualified military aviator to join the Navy Reserve as a pilot.

The Navy doesn’t have as many instructor slots available, though there also tends to be fewer applicants than for an Air Force unit. The guiding principle of their hiring is: “junior most qualified.” If you want to get into a Navy Reserve unit, you’re better off trying to go as an O-3 than as an O-5.

In theory, the Navy is supposed to do quarterly hiring boards. In truth, they only do boards when they need people. Don’t be surprised if they skip a quarter.

When you apply for a Navy Reserve IP job, you’re applying to all of CNATRA. On your application, you’ll rank all possible assignments in order of preference. Your options will include: T-6B at Whiting, T-6A teaching Nav training at Sherman Field in Pensacola, T-6B IP in Corpus Christi, T-45 IP at Corpus or Kingsville, or T-44s.

I asked if it would be appropriate to “rush” a unit…to show up with a liquid-based gift and try to meet people. His response was a solid “No.”

The Navy cares about your aircraft qualifications and experience. Pone figures he got points because he was already qualified as a T-6B IP. In fact, he held just about every advanced qualification all the way up through evaluator pilot. He’d also spent time instructing at the FITU while on Active Duty. (There are T-6 FITUs at both Whiting and Corpus.) While there, he’d instructed a bunch of incoming squadron commanders. He submitted his application while they were all still on base and got glowing letters of recommendation from each one. That probably didn’t hurt either.

It turns out that although they don’t want you to rush a unit, recommendations do carry a lot of weight. The members of the Reserve unit will have a lot of say here too. They’ve usually been around the longest and have the most street cred in their aircraft. They will definitely get asked, “Hey, do you know this pilot?” when you apply. If they can endorse you, it will be a big plus. By the same token, don’t be a jerk.

I mentioned that in the Air Force, the first two things an application is likely to ask are: 1) what was your last Air Force PT test score? and 2) Have you completed your rank-appropriate Professional Military Education (PME)? He laughed so hard that he nearly hung up the phone. Once again, he emphasized that the Navy cares most about your experience and ability as an instructor.

A Navy IP has significant leeway in deciding about a student’s progress. They place a lot of trust in their instructors, requiring experience and skill. From what I could gather, there is far less micromanagement in this decision-making process than you get in an Air Force flying training squadron. If you want to complete your PME, you’re welcome to do so. However, it’s seen as going well above and beyond even on your O-5 board…because “The Navy is in the business of producing winged aviators.” Wouldn’t it be nice to work in an organization that recognized this as its primary mission?

Going by “junior most qualified,” your best bet for getting hired by the Navy Reserves is to be a Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard pilot who taught Navy pilot training while on active duty, earned a bunch of advanced qualifications, and logged lots of instructor time…and is now an O-3 or very junior O-4. Since there aren’t that many spots available for Reserve IP jobs, the competition has the potential to be pretty tough. That said, they look at the whole person and at their needs at the time. If a squadron needs formation-qualified IPs and a USAF T-6A IP with lots of fighter or other formation experience is applying, he or she could definitely be the right choice. If you’re a USAF pilot and you want that job, you need to do everything you can to fly for them while you’re on Active Duty.

Pone loves the flying and instructing he gets to do. He seemed to think that anyone with similar feelings would enjoy his job. When I pressed him on the seemingly small chances of a given pilot getting a Navy Reserve pilot training job, especially for an Air Force pilot, he admitted that it’d be an uphill battle for some people. It’s worth applying if this is your dream, but he suggested looking at all your options…Navy, Air Force, and even the Army. If someone had suggested to him five years ago that he would have joined the Navy, he wouldn’t have believed it. You never know where you’ll find an opportunity that is perfect for you.

So, if your dream is to live or commute to a reserve job in Pensacola, Kingsville, or Corpus Christi, the Navy Reserve could be a great option. As a Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard pilot, your best bet is to get an assignment doing that exact job while you’re on Active Duty. Then, apply for the Reserve job as early as possible.

For an Air Force pilot, this process gets a little more complicated. If an inter-service transfer to the Navy Reserve was my dream, here’s what I’d do:

  1. While on active duty, be the best possible pilot in my Major Weapon System (MWS). I’d fly a lot, try to earn every advanced qualification, deploy a lot, and rack up some combat hours and air medals.
  2. Beg, bribe, etc. as required to get an assignment instructing at a Navy pilot training base while on Active Duty. Fly like crazy to get every advanced qualification and as many instructor hours as possible. Be social and make as many genuine connections as possible.
  3. If that assignment wasn’t available, get a job as a USAF T-6A IP. (I feel like this would be more valuable than a job teaching in the T-1, T-38, or the new T-7A Red Hawk.) I’d still fly like crazy and get every advanced qualification possible. I’d absolutely follow that job up with an assignment teaching PIT at Randolph AFB, TX. (PIT IP is like FITU IP, another advanced qualification on your resume.)
  4. Network off-duty with Naval aviators whenever possible. I’d go directly to The Pilot Network and start there. I’d also look for exchange pilots on base or in PME programs.
  5. No later than 18-24 months before my Active Duty Service Commitment (ADSC) expired, I’d start asking contacts about openings for Navy Reserve IP jobs. Start collecting letters of recommendation.
  6. No later than 12-18 months before ADSC expiration, I’d actually apply for those jobs. If I didn’t get it the first time, I’d continue applying every quarter until they told me to stop.

I feel like this plan would give me the best possible shot at getting a Navy Reserve IP job. Once that actually happened, I’d immediately start the paperwork for an inter-service transfer. I feel like 12 months out wouldn’t be too early to at least get the ball rolling. If I had less than 6 months on my ADSC I’d feel like I was way behind the power curve.

Pone was able to optimize a few things in this process by planning ahead. Since he had the paperwork for his Navy flight physical when he did his Air Force exit physical, he was able to have the same doc sign both pieces of paper at the same visit. Planning ahead will help the process go smoothly, but there are some things that can only happen at a certain time. One of the forms you’ll have to submit is essentially a release from the USAF stating: “Joe Pilot does not have any further service obligation to the US Air Force…Active Duty, Reserve, or IRR.” Your old branch won’t even give you some of these form until you’re fully separated from service. Don’t panic when you have to sit and wait for that to happen. (Part of not panicking is realizing that you’ll need some sort of job to support your family while you wait for the paperwork to go through.)

The overall process wasn’t entirely smooth for Pone. It took roughly 10-months to get everything done, and even then none of his Air Force awards or decorations ended up in his Navy records. He ended up having to submit copies of the DD-214 from his Air Force service, listing all his awards, to his O-5 promotion board. When the board members got his promotion recommendation paperwork, at first it showed a record with only one award on it. He figures that got their attention and forced them to dig a little deeper into the supplemental materials he’d had to send in. This may have ultimately helped him achieve his promotion to O-5, though it made a lot of extra work for him in the process.

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Having a Day Job

I mentioned that Pone only does the Navy thing part-time and that he commutes from Memphis, which happens to be world headquarters for FedEx Express. While it is possible to get full-time orders for a Navy Reserve IP job, it’s less common than in the Air Force Guard or Reserve. Chances are you’re going to need a day job.

Since Pone was smart enough to live in base, he’s had a charmed career at FedEx. He only stayed in a hotel room twice during his first two years at his company. That’s part of the power of living in base! His location also made it an easy choice for him to upgrade to Captain on the B757 after just a few years at his company. This was almost unheard of at the major airlines, especially his, until recently. It’s an awesome opportunity, and Pone is one of the people who inspired me to bid for an early Captain upgrade myself.

Now, Pone bids a lot of (airline) reserve and flies local turns. (Flights that start in Memphis and end up back there either that same night or early the next morning.) He probably spends a lot more time tiling his bathrooms than he does flying. It sounds like a pretty great way to raise a couple of cute kids while raking in Captain pay.

Pone’s squadron is very airline friendly…probably because most of the pilots in the unit have similar day jobs. FedEx has also been very good about military leave. They’ve never given him any trouble over it…probably because many of the pilots at FedEx are prior-military.

When I asked, Pone confirmed that every day he spends with the Navy costs him a lot of money. He estimates that he makes about 1/3 as much by working a day for the Navy as he does for FedEx. However, that’s not why he serves.

Executing a lag maneuver over another T-6B.

He loves instructing and he loves the kinds of flying that you get to do in an aircraft like the T-6. He likes seeing young, excited kids with their futures wide open in front of them…and seeing them progress from nothing, to solo, to wings. He’s even been around Whiting Field long enough to see some of his students return as instructors. This work is fun, rewarding, and refreshing. For him, it’s worth giving up some FedEx Captain pay to make a difference in the world as a flight instructor.

I absolutely get where he’s coming from and I feel like any military Reserve IP job boils down to this. If you’re only there to punch your timecard until you reach 20 years, you probably won’t like the job. Any type of flight instruction can get monotonous. If you’re going to do this job in the Reserves, you need to be the person who feels passionate about instructing. You need to be the type of person who will wake up early and drive across Alabama to do it over a weekend. If that’s you, I think you can’t help but love a job like this.

I agree with Pone that you should consider every opportunity within reach. (Check BogiDope’s Job Listings if you run out of places to look.) However, if your ultimate goal is instructing in the Navy Reserve, I wish you luck and hope this helps!

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The photos for this post were all provided by Pone.

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