This article’s objective is to give you an overview of what Navy flight school looks like generally with an eye towards the attitudes and trends that may make a candidate successful while they’re there. I’ll assume you’ve been reading along week-to-week, and are all up to speed on the necessary steps to get to this point, so I won’t restate them. But for those of you inclined to skip ahead, I’d advise caution. The hardest part of Navy flight school, for many, is the plethora of steps required before they’ll let you show up in a VT (Navy training) squadron wearing a flight suit in the first place!
The Navy or Marine Corps has already invested considerably in screening candidates by the time they report to Primary Flight Training in either Pensacola, FL or Corpus Christi, Texas. They’re not out looking to drop people, but they won’t hesitate to drop someone whose attitudes and performance do not make the standards. They’re also in the instructional business, so your first screwup isn’t likely to be your last; you are a student and expected to make a few mistakes. That said, there’s no reason to give instructors any ammunition. You are expected to act like a professional: be in the right place at the right time with the required knowledge loaded in your brain. If you do that, and are humble and eager to learn, you will get plenty of breaks. People that get dropped at this phase are people who think they’ve already got it made and don’t need to put their heads down and work hard.
Flight school scheduling can be erratic. This isn’t intentional per se, but is an accurate reflection of what a Navy flying career is going to look like. In this regard it is, effectively, training you for the future. Sometimes you will be told you’re not even classing up for weeks or months, only to get a call the following Friday that you start on Monday. You’ll be told to be ready to fly a particular event by a particular time, but if the airplanes are broken or the instructors are overbooked, you may not even make the flight schedule. The Navy does not live in your proverbial chili with respect to what you are doing with your time when you are not on the flight schedule, or what you do when your 9am flight gets weather cancelled. Should you study in the downtime? Should you grab a thirty-rack of CL Smooth and head to the beach? It’s over to you. If you can’t figure out how to organize your time and show up ready to slay when it’s your turn to work, Naval Aviation isn’t too interested in your services in any case. Make sure you are mentally prepared for the random and frequent transitions from heinously overworked to ludicrously undertasked.
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Primary consists of six-ish months of ground and flight instruction in a propeller-driven trainer aircraft, these days the T-6B Texan II. The T-6B is a lot more airplane than the light General Aviation aircraft you saw in IFS; it’s got a turboprop engine and ejection seats and will be more than adequate at this stage of your career to induce humility. Regardless of whether you’ll fly helos, heavies or fighters, everyone starts with Primary in the T-6. Primary flight school is also very simulator-heavy, so you can expect to rehearse nearly all your flights in numerous sims before executing them in the air. Your attitude (towards your events, your instructors and your peers) is more important than your immediate aptitude. The aviation environment is unfamiliar and unforgiving, and you will be expected to have to work through some difficulties. If you are one of those people that just steps into the cockpit and slays, you will still be judged almost as much by your attitude as your skills. Notice the trend here?
You’ll proceed by phases through familiarization, instrument, aerobatic, navigation and formation flights. Nearly all of your events will be scored and the grades will be tabulated into a “Naval Standard Score.” Your NSS is the number that will define your life once you’re in a specific platform. The gonkulator used to generate the NSS isn’t handed out like Halloween candy, but in general terms, the NSS is scored on a standard distribution curve comparing you to a large pool (years) of your flight-school predecessors. Typically, an NSS in the top 35% is required to select ‘tailhook’ and go on to jet training to fly things that stop abruptly on aircraft carriers. Policy varies from unit-to-unit and year-to-year on how much knowledge you will be given about your scores, so you may not even know what your NSS is until moments before you put in your request for a platform. This can be a bit scary if you have your sights set firmly on jets.
Another important point to mention here is that almost all (if not all) of your instructors in Primary come from the rotary-wing or patrol communities, so walking in and telling all who can hear that you only want to fly fighters “because helos are for taking out the garbage” is not likely to be a strategy for success. The instructors, however, are typically consummate professionals, and they recognize students as humans. Generally, you will fly most of your early flights with one instructor, an ‘on-wing’ as they’re known. It is not uncommon, after a few flights of you working hard and not being a douche, for the on-wing to ask a student to cut through the bullshit and just say what it is they actually want to fly. If the student is, indeed, looking for fighters, the instructor will often step up the pressure, but reward you with better grades. Whereas they may, perhaps, relax a bit if you mention you don’t feel the ‘need for speed.’
Tread carefully here, but be honest, and be prepared to back up your ambitions with hard work. Also, pay close attention to what phases of the syllabus at any one time seem to reward or punish students. You will, at some point, have to ration your own personal academic resources, so you might as well ask some more senior students whether the candy (an ‘above average’ score against the standard known as MIF) gets handed out by sounding good on the radio in the aircraft or by nailing a complex approach in a simulator.
In the end, the Navy’s formula for who gets what is quite efficient as a system, but can feel appallingly arbitrary to the individual cogs in the machine that are its Student Naval Aviators (SNAs). Come the end of your syllabus, you’ll become a ‘class’ with whomever else finished their last flights about the same time as you, and your class will put in their request for what they want to fly next. The leadership will meet, take a look at how many slots of what flavor are available that week and who is eligible for what, and make some hard calls. About the only guarantee is that the #1 pilot in a class generally gets their first pick. Otherwise, do as well as you can and politely ask for what you want. You just can’t tell when or who sees what from a flight school student and finds themselves in a position to change your entire career, which is why I keep harping on that ‘attitude’ bit.
Those selected for Naval Flight Officer (NFO) will complete an almost identical track, though will spend more (though not all) time in the back than the front of a training aircraft. NFOs do get the perk of spending more time in Pensacola than many of their pilot brethren.
The pipelines diverge somewhat for Naval Aviators after the Primary syllabus. Those selected for VFA/VAQ (tactical jets) or VAW (E-2) will report to either Kingsville, TX or Meridian, MS for Advanced, which typically takes 9-12 months in the T-45 jet trainer. Helicopter pilots head to Whiting Field, FL while multiengine pilots take on the T-44 (Beech King Air) down in Corpus Christi, TX. In case these places are unfamiliar to you, let’s just say that the Navy picked some amazing spots to keep people focused on flying rather than their social lives.
Advanced is much the same in organization as Primary, but the pace will quicken somewhat. You’ll work through the basics of the new aircraft, including lots of sim time, before introducing some more advanced items. Don’t confuse yourself—you’re not going to leave Advanced a tactical wizard or, indeed, with any real-functioning tactical knowledge at all. The ‘tactical’ scenarios are laughably rote and predictable compared to what ‘fleet meat’ deals with, but the point is to expand the amount of information you can process and react to while flying an airplane at the same time.
The fundamentals remain the same: Study hard, have a good attitude and be ready to flex. One of the key differences in Advanced is that the instructors will expect to you be able to deviate from the plan and make it happen. If you freeze up when Air Traffic Control tells you the approach you’d planned to fly is unavailable, you are going to struggle with the syllabus. Yes, it’s a bummer that the studious work you put in to knowing the plan in excruciating detail before the flight just got tossed out the window—but it is also the way things work on the daily in the Naval Aviation environment. Know the plan well, but know the contingencies equally well. And be prepared for all of it to occasionally get scrapped in favor of something entirely unexpected.
The syllabus may or may not be competitive and have a grade emphasis for further selection. As always, it reflects well upon you to score highly, as top pilots generally get a better shot at their first choice of coast, at least (East or West), come graduation. The types of people that make it into Navy flight school are almost compulsively competitive, so coming out on top will take a lot of hard work. Advanced Jets training, in particular, has varied historically. In the Old Days, when the Navy flew multiple flavors of fighter/attack aircraft simultaneously (F-14s, F/A-18s, A-6s, A-7s, EA-6Bs), the students tended to compete aggressively for grades.
In the more recent past, orders to Jets meant orders to an F/A-18 of some flavor – period – so there was more of a ‘cooperate to graduate’ mentality—insofar as that was really possible amongst the narrow cross-section of society that makes up prospective Navy jet pilots. At this stage of training, if you haven’t already figured it out, you will find that the ‘lone rangers’ struggle. There is just too much information to digest without leaning on the collective wisdom of your peers. Don’t put yourself in a position where your peers aren’t sure they want to help you out when you get swamped.
Pilots selected for tailhook aviation will culminate their training with a trip to The Boat. Landing the T-45 for the first time on a moving ship is a mildly terrifying experience, and more than a few pilots have suffered hiccups at this phase of training that either set them back…or held them up entirely. In case you were wondering, your first ‘trap’ aboard a carrier will be done solo, with no instructor in your aircraft, because it is a thing that ultimately has to be done on your own. Fortuitously, the Navy has long experience getting ‘nugget’ (new-guy) pilots aboard the ship in one piece.
You will be trained to the point where your higher cerebral functions do not need to be operating at optimum performance to get through it, because they are completely aware of the fact that those functions will be short-circuiting for a little while once you hear the “Charlie” (Come down and land) call. Once you’ve come down from the rush of the first trap, and scraped your face off the head’s up display because you forgot to lock your harness, you get the sensational roller-coaster reward of a catapult shot back into the sky. You’ll repeat this process a dozen or so times over a couple of days and, at this phase of training, you will only be expected to land aboard-ship during the daytime. Due to a combination of factors, including the looming replacement of the T-45s with a non-carrier-capable training jet, the Navy is actually experimenting with phasing out the actual carrier qualification (CQ) part of Advanced training, so there will soon be pilots that first see the ship at the controls of a Super Hornet or Growler.
Graduation from Advanced comes with a big, shiny-gold set of wings you get to wear. It’s a huge moment, and you should take a moment to savor it. Then, pack your car and put your ‘student’ hat back on, because the learning has just begun, and you’ll next be headed to a Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) to learn the type of airplane you’ll be flying in the Fleet.