Getting In the Door: Commissioning Sources
If you want to fly for the Navy or Marine Corps, your best bet is to get a commission. While non-commissioned (typically warrant officer) pilots are not unknown in the history of the USN or USMC, those programs have come and gone and never provided anything like the numbers of aircrew that officer commissions provide. Let’s get into where these commissions come from.
- The United States Naval Academy (USNA). The largest-single institutional source of commissioned officers for the Sea Services, the “Boat School,” in Annapolis, MD, produces close to a thousand officers every year. Four years aboard and you’ll leave with a college degree and a commission.
- Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC): On the campuses of some universities, ROTC unit can be found. These units typically offer scholarships of various sorts and, upon graduation with your college degree, you’ll also get a commission.
- Officer Candidate School (OCS): If you already have a college degree in-hand, you can check with your local recruiter and try to find yourself a spot in OCS. Upon graduation of this 90-day course, you’ll earn a commission.
- Accession from Enlisted: The Navy has various programs to put commissions on Sailors that are already enlisted. They typically (but not always) require the college degree. Commonly called “Seaman to Admiral,” they may provide a Navy-funded college education enroute. Some programs for enlisted, most famously the Navy’s Nuclear Power school, are also well-known backdoors for enlisted sailors to obtain appointments to the Naval Academy as well.
A Quick Note on Officer Transitions
I would advise some caution on the thought process of, “Well, I’ll just get into the Navy and figure out a way to fly from there.” From the officer perspective, if you get offered a spot that isn’t an aviation spot, it is difficult (though not impossible) to move from one community to another. For example, if the Navy sinks a bunch of money and time into you to learn how to drive subs, they’re not going to be super interested in throwing that away by letting you go fly jets—they’re looking for a return on their
Additionally, transitioning after a few years of commissioned service thoroughly muddles your career timelines and, thus, you many not be competitive to advance very far in the new community—something which the Navy might care about more than you do. However, it’s not an absolute “no.” It depends on the needs of the Navy and the graciousness of your superior officers when you attempt to apply. If you can’t score a better deal, show up as a “Surface Warfare Officer” (SWO), go get your pin (earn your commission), and work from there. But be warned: this is a hard road without much certainty.
The same note generally applies once you’ve selected for a particular community. The Navy or Marines may, or may not, be interested in you switching from a Naval Flight Officer to a pilot or from a helicopter pilot to a fixed-wing pilot. It just depends on the numbers, which vary widely from year to year. In short – don’t count on it.
Table of Contents
- Which One is Right for You?
- Goods and Others
- Commissioning from the Enlisted Ranks
Which One is Right for You?
If you’ve already got a college degree in-hand, you are likely uninterested in doing it again. Call the local recruiter and see about a spot in OCS with an aviation contract. Realize that the recruiter is a salesman of a sort, with quotas to meet. The recruiter may know exactly how to get you just what you want and will lay it out for you. They also might be super-keen to fill a spot for some obscure job that isn’t flying airplanes. Make sure you know what you want and spell it out. OCS may or may not be offering up spots you’re interested in at any given time. A phone call to the local recruiting district to speak to an officer recruiter is the way to start this process and get the latest data.
If you’re fresh out of high school, or have only a little college time complete, look into ROTC or USNA. They both come with their own strengths and weaknesses, though they get you to roughly the same place. When you are a college junior, you will begin the process of requesting a community, and you’ll find out where you are headed during your senior year. Does this mean you could end up driving ships, even if you really want to fly? Well. . . yes, it does. Naval Aviation has a community culture of excellence, and they’ll pull from the top. You’ll earn your spot by doing well at whatever you do. This does result in a little mantra I learned during my time at USNA that I’ll share with you: “Polisci—wanna fly?” You will be judged by your GPA. The wannabe Maverick that pulls a 3.0 on the notoriously easy-on-the-report-card Political Science major is in a far better spot than his uber-motivated twin who scores a 2.5 in Aerospace Engineering.
Let’s break it down the way aviators often do: Goods…and Others.
Goods and Others
- The price is right. Just show up. They don’t even charge to apply. They even pay you (albeit not much…) while you’re there.
- There are a lot of aviation spots out of USNA each year (~300) and many people go to USNA and, astonishingly, don’t even want to be pilots! Finish in the top-half of your class and you’ll likely be in good shape.
- You will graduate with a huge network of classmates that will have military careers. This will come in handy if you stick around in the military a long time.
- It’s a highly-respected institution and may enable access to things on the civilian side, like graduate schools and employment-related networking opportunities.
- You might be one of those sorts that gets motivated by marching in parades with fixed bayonets while listening to a band blasting out John Philips Sousa.
- The school is just flat hard to get into. You need a complete resume (good grades, sports accomplishments, extracurricular activities) to be competitive. Teaser… BogiDope knows some people that know some things about getting into USNA.
- If you have some college already in the bank, you may not be excited about starting over and doing a full four-years. Having lots of college or AP credit in the bank won’t even ease your college workload very much in the event you do get in.
- It’s a serious academic institution that is stacked with people that did well in high school. If book learning isn’t your thing, you may struggle to get what you need to get an aviation slot. They’ll make you take loads of subjects you may be keen to avoid.
- Your freshman year is not going to be pleasant. It will be interesting, for sure, but not pleasant. “Plebes” at the Naval Academy have numerous, ah, ‘extracurricular’ requirements for their time that have little to do with becoming Navy or Marine pilots.
- You may not be one of those sorts that envisions spending their Friday nights ironing uniforms to get ready to march in parades while listening to a band blasting out John Philips Sousa. You might envision your Friday night spent in your dorm room with a cold, tasty beverage and perhaps even closing the door while a member of the opposite sex is in the same room. Such morally hazardous activity is, of course, not permitted at USNA.
- You get to pick your school. If it’s got a Navy ROTC program, you’re set.
- Often have very pleasant (though not always totally all-inclusive) scholarship packages, including living stipends.
- You graduate with the same commission, but do a lot less marching in the process.
- The strain on your time from your ROTC military commitments is way less than at USNA, freeing up time for studying, socializing, or even getting six or more hours of sleep every night, if you so desire.
- Competitiveness for an aviation slot varies somewhat. Ask your prospective schools how many people competed for how many spots and if they got what they wanted. In general, like USNA, people tend to get what they ask for if they do reasonably well, but local conditions vary.
- You won’t have quite the same depth of “rolodex” as your USNA peers.
- You have fewer opportunities to march around with fixed bayonets in dark wool uniforms on hot summer days listening to a band blast out John Phillips Sousa (this may also be a “good” depending on your perspective).
Commissioning from the Enlisted Ranks
If you don’t have the resources or high school GPA to head straight to a college program, you might consider enlisting in the Navy and working up to your commission from there. Naval Aviation has deep respect for those who’ve taken this road and its officer corps is, in all honesty, in need of folks with prior-enlisted experience. This path could take a whole chapter, so in the interest of brevity, I’ll hit the high points for now:
- You’ll need a high school diploma or GED to enlist.
- Picking a career field in aviation is likely to help your chances. It’s possible you won’t get that choice, though. Try to push for it. If you are a motivated aircraft mechanic or crewman and good at your job, you’ll likely have aviation officers lining up to sign your recommendation letters.
- Watch the timelines. Some commissioning sources (USNA in particular) have hard caps on how old you can be when you start. Similarly, Naval Aviation will start frowning at you if you’re going to be in your mid-thirties by the time you see a cockpit.
- Do well at what you’re asked to do. Nobody will want to hear about how bad you want to fly jets when your job is to paint bulkheads unless you are the best-damn bulkhead painter in your shop. Being good at “today’s job” needs to be your first priority.
- Opportunities to show your stuff in academic environments mean a lot when you’re seeking a commission. In particular, one of the Navy’s hardest academic schools, the nuclear power program, is notorious for cranking out future officers.
The quotas for the enlisted-to-officer programs vary from year to year, but they’re always there. If selected, the Navy may fund your degree while paying you as an enlisted sailor while you are also earning time counting toward a military retirement, which is one of the most ludicrously good deals in the free world.
Is there a “best” way to become a Naval Aviator? I’m personally not convinced there is. The best aircrew share personal qualities more than they share commissioning backgrounds. Whatever path you take, the objective is the same: Report to Aviation Preflight Indoctrination at NAS Pensacola, Florida, ready to get down to the business of learning to fly.