If you’ve been keeping up with this article series, you’re now familiar with the basic mechanics of getting into Navy Flight School, working your way through the syllabus and what your first tour in the Fleet is going to look like. If I’m totally honest, few people pursuing this path give too much thought to what’s beyond getting to the Fleet and flying your platform operationally. And it’s certainly not a bad thing to keep focused on what’s right in front of you as you grind through the process, as it’s common that five-to-seven years will elapse between getting your commission and obtaining a tactical qualification that marks you as vaguely useful to the USN or USMC. That’s a long, hard stretch that’s best consumed in day-sized bites.
So you’re in the majority if you’ve spent very-little time considering what lies beyond. In the spirit of BogiDope, however, I’m here to make you smart on what comes after and give you a few nuggets of wisdom to consider for the long game.
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Naval Aviator Mid-Career Path
Generally speaking, the Navy has a very fixed path they want folks on. The Navy is obsessed with the idea of making command and advanced-rank competitive, so they want to push everyone to do everything so they will all be able to compete for the job of Chief of Naval Operations. On a quick side note – if you don’t actually want to be an admiral and/or command the entire fleet, you’re best served not admitting this right away.
At any rate, the path for junior aviators is all laid out for you: you’ll spend two-to-four years in training, then do a three-year tour as a junior officer in your platform. Afterwards, most pilots will head to a three-year shore-duty job as a ‘production’ tour, i.e. as an instructor in some capacity. These jobs range from basic flight school all the way through the FRS squadrons and the Navy’s graduate schools for combat aviation at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) in Fallon, NV – which has at least one relatively famous subunit known as TOPGUN (all caps, no spaces).
After three years as an instructor, the Navy has a little timing-buffer while they await the results of the promotion board to O-4. Ideally, they’ll send you back to the fleet in a slightly non-traditional role which we call the ‘disassociated sea tour’ where you’ll do something slightly different, or back to a squadron to serve as a tactics instructor if you’re a graduate of a weapons school. If your timing is ‘early’ (i.e. you were fast in the training pipeline), you may have a chance to go get a master’s degree; if you are late, you might be headed straight back to the Fleet as a department head. After this, the Navy has more firm paths to keep you on to make sure you’re eligible for squadron command.
If you are reading this carefully, you might realize that each one of these new jobs comes 18-36 months after the last one, mostly involving “sea” (or deployable) duty and may involve cross-country moves. This may not sound great to you depending on your family situation. The Navy hasn’t quite caught up with the times, and the force-structure for aviators still generally assumes each officer that chooses to have a family comes equipped with a dedicated, obedient, non-working spouse to organize everything in your life and periodically move your entire family cross-country while you’re working long hours or gone at sea from time-to-time. Don’t take this the wrong way—it’s entirely possible to be a hardworking Navy or Marine pilot and still have a spouse with a career and a passel of happy kids. Do not, however, imagine this is easy to pull off. It will go much better for you if you’re aware of, and actively managing, the challenges—and make sure anyone that’s looking to tag along for the ride has some idea what the ride actually looks like. Please. For their sake and for yours.
Right around the time you finish up your production tour, you will likely be approaching the end of your first service commitment. Currently, service obligations are six years for NFOs, eight years for jet pilots and seven for all other pilots, starting at the date of your winging. In other words, you’re likely to be ten-to-twelve years deep before you even get a choice to get out. This decision point can be tough, so you need to make sure you’re well-educated about your options.
- Get out: At ten-ish years deep, you’ll have some skillsets the civilian market is interested in. Obviously, the airline route is lucrative and available, but the non-flying skills that made you a good Navy pilot to begin with will earn you plenty of interviews in all kinds of fields. If you get out, you ought to think about whether or not you’re going to affiliate with the Reserves. It’s possible to earn a military pension in the Reserves, but it doesn’t start paying out until much later in life—typically 60 years old. Some potential Reserve options are as follows:
- Flying job in the reserves: These jobs are nowhere near as common in the Navy or Marine Corps as in the Air Force, given the relative paucity of Reserve units, but they’re available. Especially for tactical-jet pilots. If you’re wanting to try a change of scenery, the Army or Air National Guards can also be a great landing spot, allowing you to choose where you want to live and what you want to fly. These jobs tend to be more like part-time jobs than traditional reserve jobs. Mixing one of these with an airline job can be very lucrative. And a good way to keep having fun while flying, as most military pilots find the airline brand pretty boring.
- Non-flying Reserve job: This will look like the standard one-weekend-a-month, two-weeks-a-year gig you’re probably familiar with. The Navy has ever-changing rules on when, and under what circumstances, they can activate and deploy you but suffice it to say that, at some point, you will have to stop your civilian-life and do Navy things again for a while. Probably for 6-12 months in a remote part of the world.
- No reserve job: If you leave the Navy voluntarily and don’t join the reserves, that’s it—clean break. If you are required to separate from the Navy (e.g. you fail to promote to O-4 after two attempts), then the Navy hands you a decent wad of cash to compensate you for that retirement for which you’ll no longer be eligible. However, if you join the Reserves and earn the retirement after all, you’ll have to pay it back.
- Stay in and stay ‘on track’: The Navy’s going to pitch you lots of on-track jobs. These are, for the most part, relatively arduous and/or involve lots of deploying. As a retainment-booster, the Navy frequently offers bonus packages (“Aviation Department Head Retention Bonus, or ADHRB) to aviators to incentivize officers to stick around. They’ll shell out for five years or so in sums ranging from insulting ($5k a year) to potentially interesting ($40k a year), depending on their need for different flavors of pilots each year. As a general rule-of-thumb, if the economy is stroking and the airlines are hiring, the Navy’s going to be doling out big bonuses. If not, they’ll try to cheapen the deal. If you take the ‘blood money’ and do your job well, you may find yourself on track for advancement, command and a long career in the Navy. Even if you don’t, by the time your bonus-related service commitment is up, you’ll be 15ish years deep into your career and probably considering military retirement carefully.
- Stay in, but get ‘off track’: Taking certain jobs, particularly non-flying ones, or not taking the bonus when it’s offered to you may be viewed by the Navy as a lack of commitment to their goal of making you eligible for higher-rank and command. They likely won’t dole out the seemingly choice jobs and may get stingy with promotion opportunities. Recognize this fundamental truth about mid-career Naval Aviators: all of the advice you’ll be getting on your career will come from people like your detailer or your commanding officer who are all ‘on track.’ If you want to do something wild, like get an advanced education – working quasi-regular hours to support a more sustainable family-life – or even just stick to flying airplanes and keeping the paperwork numbers down, you’re going to have to search out those who have done things like that and figure out how it’s done. This is because the formal processes aren’t super helpful. Jobs like this do, in fact, exist, but they aren’t well-marketed. The best path to finding them is by buying a cold beverage for those you meet who seem to have found such jobs and picking their brain.
What’s right for each individual varies as much as the individuals themselves. The important thing is that you research your options so that, when you’re put to a decision, you’ve got an idea of where you’re looking to go. It’s never a bad thing to keep your options open, but most of the paths in the Navy have fairly strict on- and off-ramps so that, at some point, you’ll need to decide. If you take one thing away from all of this data, hear this: while you’re working your way through the standard path of Naval Aviation as a junior officer, make sure to take some time to talk career-paths with the people you meet along the way. And with your loved ones, as what they’re willing to do can be a key factor in your decision-making. These sources of practical knowledge will be your best references on current conditions and what options are really available. Investments made in knowledge are rarely bad ones!