If you’ve considered becoming a pilot in the USN or USMC, you’ve surely wondered, “What does a Navy or Marine Corps pilot do?” An easier question to answer might be what a USN or USMC pilot doesn’t do, because, simply put, we do just about everything. This article will cover the broad brushstrokes of what these branches of Aviation do, where they do it and who they are. We will get down into the weeds on each topic later in our introductory series, but for now…
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Naval Aviation is a diverse collection of aircraft and people covering down on a broad mission set. In general, we lean away from specialization to favor platforms with multiple capabilities–the proverbial “Jacks of All Trades” is the going-in game plan. If there’s one concept that really serves to separate USN/USMC aviation from that of other service branches, it’s flexibility. This is innate to our mission, which is oriented around the sea, because the enemy on the sea has an annoying propensity to move around. Similarly, the mission of the USN’s smaller sibling, the U.S. Marine Corps, is all about flexibility: showing up someplace unanticipated with an unexpected amount of force.
Broadly speaking, the Marines and the Navy share similar characteristics when it comes to pilots. They have the same commissioning sources and the same initial training pipelines—something I’ll cover at length in the near future. It’s common to have Marines lurking around in some Navy units and vice versa. Some Marine fighter squadrons deploy on Navy carriers, and platforms with similar missions employ similar procedures that are often standardized across the service schoolhouses.
Naval Aviation has its own culture, and it’s enough of a topic that I won’t even attempt to cover it here. It deserves its own chapter in this series. Hard work, hard missions and constant personal sacrifice forge strong bonds among its members. You may be sure you want to try it, but if you are totally sure you are going to be able to handle it, your attitude may require adjustment. It is more of a lifestyle than a job. This could be said of every service branch, but…they don’t spend extended amounts of time together in floating prisons. Boats, excuse me…
The Marines are a unique cultural entity. If you are not sure if you want to be a Navy pilot or a Marine pilot, you probably want to be a Navy pilot. The Marines tend to get the short end of the funding stick. And you would think that this would make USN aviation more attractive, as planes and training in them is insanely expensive…but it turns out money isn’t the whole story. Doing more with less tends to draw and/or generate some spectacularly talented people. There’s a certain ethos in the Marines–a swagger–that is all their own.
Who Are Naval Aviators?
The “Wings of Gold” adorn three different sets of chests:
1) Pilots- Officers with their hands on the controls.
2) Naval Flight Officers- Officers who operate weapons systems or sensors while flying.
3) Naval Aircrewmen- Enlisted Sailors and Marines in the back, doing all of the jobs that need to be done while airborne: SAR swimmers, crew chiefs and crew-served weapons operators on helicopters, as well as sensor operators aboard patrol aircraft, for example.
The Navy has, historically, dabbled with Warrant Officers or enlisted pilots, but never really committed to the process in the same way the Army has. Programs for flying Warrant Officers, in particular, have popped up and gone away in recent years.
What We Fly
Everyone who has seen a television and is reading this article can probably quote enough Top Gun to cover down on the basics. Carrier aviation certainly gets the press, but it’s only a fraction of what we fly. The carrier’s basic mission is oriented around its air wing, which is charged with both striking targets on land or at sea while protecting the strike group from all comers. The fighters fly the single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet and two-seat F/A-18F, which adds an NFO to the mix. The new hotness on the scene is the stealth F-35 Lightning II. Protecting the fighters are the electronic attack squadrons, which fly the E/A-18G Growler, a two-seat (Pilot/NFO), dedicated-electronic warfare derivative of the Super Hornet. Guiding the Air Wing is the E-2 Hawkeye, a command and control platform with a crew of 5 (2 pilots/3 NFOs) whose job is to quarterback the whole show. These assets are supported by a few helicopters (all variants of the ubiquitous dual-pilot H-60 Blackhawk series of helicopters) pulling search-and-rescue, logistics and anti-ship/anti-submarine duties, as well as a small contingent of transport aircraft. It’s an entire, self-contained air force in miniature, and while the carrier is very large for a ship, it is very, very small for an airfield!
By the numbers, the most common seat for a Navy pilot is in a helicopter. In addition to the carrier-based duties, the Navy flies helos off of all kinds of other ships, including ones that seem much too small to host airplanes. These helos extend the range of their host ships’ sensors and weapons. USN aviation also hosts a small contingent of mighty CH-53E Super Stallions that perform airborne minesweeping duties. In the unmanned lane, the Navy flies the MQ-8 Fire Scout drone helicopter as well. The Navy also flies a number of large, land-based aircraft: P-8 and EP-3E patrol and electronic surveillance aircraft as well as a small number of E-6B Mercury airborne communications platforms. New to the fleet is the unmanned MQ-4C Triton, a large drone that’s the Navy’s version of the Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk.
The Marines have a whole separate air arm which, much like the Navy’s carrier units, is designed to cover down on all their requirements without much outside help. Fighter units include the older F/A-18C (single-seat) and F/A-18D (two-seat) versions of the Hornet, known as the “Legacy” Hornet (as opposed to the newer Super Hornet). These are mostly land-based, though they maintain a couple of units that deploy with carriers, all of which have now converted to newer platforms. The Marines are actively replacing these squadrons with F-35s. Unique to the Corps is the F-35B, the Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL) or “jump jet” flavor of the Lightning II which trades a lot of gas for the ability to take off and land from extremely small areas. There are a few AV-8B Harriers still around waiting for their F-35Bs, but these aging platforms aren’t long for the skies.
The Marines deploy aboard ships in an Amphibious Readiness Group, or ARG, which has its own air wing. It’s like an even smaller carrier. Given that the mission is to support amphibious operations, the makeup is a lot different than a USN air wing. The mission of the Marine Corps revolves around the rifleman, and the ARG’s job is to deliver the rifleman to a place where they can fight, then support them once they’re there. To this end, the ARG employs transport aircraft, CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transports as well as the massive CH-53 Super Stallion for the heavy loads. Defending these platforms and the rifleman once they’re ashore is the attack helo contingent, a mixture of AH-1Z Vipers (the latest flavor of the Cobra attack helicopter) and UH-1Y Venom, a modern take on the Vietnam-era Huey. Closer to the back of the bus than the front on the ARG are its small contingents of F-35B stealth strike fighters. Additionally, land-based Marines also fly various flavors of the C-130 transport/tanker aircraft.
Why Naval Aviation?
If you want to fly, shouldn’t you go where the most airplanes are? If high and fast is your plan, the U.S. Military has a whole Air Force; if low and slow is your speed, we’ve got a literal Army of rotary-wing aircraft in America. So…what’s the deal with Naval Aviation, anyway? Has anybody ever pulled an espresso on an Air Force base and compared it to “being in jail, with the chance of being drowned?”
It isn’t easy to explain. It’s visceral. Highly objective people look at Naval Aviators trying to land fighters on a ship in the dark, or helicopters on an even smaller and less stable ship in the dark, and conclude that they are slightly insane thrill-seekers with a death wish. Those highly objective people certainly make good Air Force pilots. In fact, the stereotype of the adrenaline-fueled, arrogant, hotshot Navy pilot is much more Hollywood than truth. The business is too difficult to survive alone, so you find humble professionals that band together and help each other out. I won’t say there’s no ego in Naval Aviation, but I will warn the ego-charged Naval Aviation-wannabe that your instructors in flight school can smell ego a mile away and will punish it with an iron fist. This is because ego gets in the way of doing hard things well. The culture of Naval Aviation tends to pile on the tasking and responsibility and, in turn, rewards those who can thrive with uncertainty. It isn’t for everyone…but if it’s for you, you’ll feel it in your bones.
If that’s you, I’ll see you next week.