In the spirit of this series, the function of this article is to leave the prospective Naval Aviator more informed about just what it is they’re considering getting themselves into. I’m going to go a little more into the platforms that we fly and the places that Naval Aviators live, though I will leave the ‘green’ (Marine Corps) details for a future chapter. We will, of course, talk the fun stuff (and there’s a lot of it), but honesty is also part of the deal here, in the spirit of education. So, first thing’s first, a couple of caveats:
- It’s the military. Having a preference about what you fly is nice, but nothing is guaranteed. Needs of the service and the whims of the details will rule the day.
- It’s the military. Having a preference about where you live is nice, but… you can fill in the blank here.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY—If not being certain of scoring your preferred platform or duty station is a dealbreaker for you, you’re barking up the wrong tree. The desire to serve and be part of a group of talented, like-minded individuals is the only thing you need to be certain of. This, however, can be said of all of the services, so hopefully it doesn’t come as a shock.
Of course, knowing things is key to upping your odds of getting the things you want, and learning things like this is what the friendly folks here at BogiDope are all about.
Table of Contents
- Where Are We Based?
- What We Fly
Where Are We Based?
In training, everyone starts out in NAS Pensacola, on the panhandle of Florida. This “Cradle of Naval Aviation” on the ‘redneck riviera’ boasts warm, sparkling waters and white sandy beaches. Sadly, you probably will only spend a short time here. After initial training, you’ll be farmed out to one of the basic and advanced training bases, located across the American south: Whiting Field (right next to Pensacola), Meridian, Mississippi, Corpus Christi, Texas or its nearby neighbor Kingsville, Texas. None of these fulcrums of American civilization are world-renown for very much, but, again, you’ll only be there a matter of several months to perhaps a year and change.
After initial training, you’ll head to one of the Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS) to go to school on your platform. The Navy tends to have two main bases for each platform, one on each coast. If you have a strong preference on where you’d like to live, consider this when requesting a platform.
Strike Fighters (F/A-18E/F and F-35C) center their worlds on Lemoore, CA (in the Central Valley) and Virginia Beach, VA.
Electronic Attack (E/A-18G) is entirely centered in Whidbey Island, WA, on the Puget Sound north of Seattle.
Airborne Command and Control (E-2C/D) reside in Pt. Mugu, CA (northwest of LA) and Norfolk, VA.
Helicopter Anti-Submarine/Sea Combat (MH-60S/R) units focus in Jacksonville, FL and San Diego, CA
Patrol and Reconnaissance (P-8, P-3C, EP-3E, E-6B) units are based in Whidbey Island, WA and Jacksonville, FL. The E-6Bs live in central Oklahoma at Tinker AFB.
Fleet Logistics (C-2A/ CMV-22) units hail from San Diego, CA and Norfolk, VA.
What We Fly
Let’s break it down into bite-sized chunks:
Certainly the most famous segment of Naval Aviation, the aircraft carrier is frequently the centerpiece of an American foreign policy effort. It is sometimes cool to be the center of attention, though I admit this honor depends somewhat on how well armed the enemy in question is. The carrier sails with host of different units aboard, including:
- Strike Fighter (“VFA”): VFA squadrons come in three flavors. Most common is the F/A-18E Super Hornet, commonly referred to as the “Rhino,” a single-seat, multirole fighter. Slightly less common is the “Family-model Rhino”, the F/A-18F, which trades a few hundred pounds of gas for a second crew station for a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO, pronounced “Whiz-Oh”). The new hotness in the community is the F-35C Lightning II, a single-seat stealth fighter slated to replace some of the older Super Hornets in the inventory. These units are the hammer when the strike group commander needs something on land or sea blown up, and they’re the shield when the enemy launches aircraft to dispute the carrier’s presence. While the Rhino is an enlarged derivative of the older F/A-18A-D Hornet which came into service four decades ago, it’s received a fair bit of love over the years, and current models have extremely capable, cutting-edge sensors, data links and weapons. As an air defense platform, it carries a healthy payload of air-to-air weapons. Though the Super Hornet in a combat configuration isn’t going to win many races against other modern fighters, it’s known for its exceptional maneuverability in knife-fighting range. It can carry buckets of air-to-surface stores in the attack role: bombs of all flavors (dumb, laser guided, GPS guided, etc) and various missiles that target surface ships and land targets. But Wait-There’s More! Not depicted in any recent Hollywood films is the tanker role, whereby you load up with three to five external fuel tanks, one of which contains a long hose used to transfer gas to other fighters. This isn’t just a thing the Rhino is theoretically capable of doing—it’s a thing carrier pilots do all the time when aboard the ship. The F-35C is a fairly new (“5th-generation” is the in-vouge term) stealth fighter with a broadly similar mission set as the Hornet, but they get to skip the tanking and focus on the higher-end threats that give the Super Hornets a hard time.
- Electronic Attack (“VAQ”): Electronic Attack units fly the E/A-18G Growler, a variant of the F/A-18F modified for the electronic attack role. Its two seats contain a pilot up front and an “Electronic Warfare Operator” (EWO, pronounced “E-woe”) Naval Flight Officer in the trunk. Their mission is to detect and suppress enemy air defenses so the fighters can strike their targets. The Growler does this with both electromagnetic energy (jamming) as well as kinetically with missiles designed to destroy surface-to-air threats. The Growlers have the same advanced radars as the Super Hornets and therefore have robust air-to-air capabilities as well, though as prized, rare, and important assets, they are usually screened from significant air threats by a few Rhinos. Nerd jokes aside, the technical capabilities of the Growler are what allow both Navy and Air Force fighters and attack aircraft to attempt the most difficult and contested missions. Since the Air Force lacks a similar dedicated electronic attack aircraft, the Navy owns this mission nationally, resulting in a few dedicated land-based Growler units (“Expeditionary” in Navy parlance) that deploy to land bases in support of Air Force operations. These units have good collections of Air Force exchange officers and one presumes they also deploy with Air Force-grade espresso machines as well.
- Airborne Early Warning/ Command And Control (VAW): The VAW squadrons are equipped with the E-2 Hawkeye, a twin-turboprop aircraft that looks like it’s being terrorized by a UFO. That big dome on top of the airplane is, in fact, a large, long-range radar system. The E-2 has two pilots up front and three Non-Flight Officers (NFOs) in the back. Combine this crew with that huge radar and approximately one million radios and you have what functions as the nervous system of the carrier strike group. The Hawkeye crews detect and track the enemy at long range and manage the fight. Though you may not
hear them talk about it right away, Navy fighter pilots will eventually admit that they’re slightly in awe of the guys that have to land that very wide, very manual E-2 on the ship in the dark.
- Carrier-based logistics (VRC): The VRC squadrons haul the mail, parts and people to the ship and typically have small detachments assigned to carriers underway. They have two varieties: the older C-2 Greyhound (Like an E-2, but without the attached flying saucer) and the newer, and infinitely more expensive, tilt-rotor CMV-22. While the logistics mission isn’t always sexy, it is one of the best hidden deals in the Navy. You get to deploy with the carrier, but instead of hanging out with seven other sweaty dudes/dudettes in a tiny footlocker aboard a noisy ship in the middle of nowhere, you most often lay your head down in your four-star hotel. Such accommodations, naturally, include cold, tasty beverages consumed at some exotic foreign bar/restaurant serving food not cooked up by teenagers for mass consumption like your carrier friends. Fun fact: did you know that Navy pilots have to pay for their food aboard aircraft carriers? VRC pilots know this and chose the route of Per Diem instead.
- Navy carriers also deploy with helicopters aboard, but they deserve their own section. . .
Navy Rotary-Wing Aviation
A little-known fact is that the largest pool of pilots in the Navy are helicopter pilots. Navy helo crews fly three different models of aircraft with three different missions:
- Sea Combat (HSC): The MH-60S is the platform-of-choice for the Navy’s most versatile helo platform. A variant of the same Blackhawk helo found across the military’s aviation assets, the HSC squadrons do just about everything. They deploy with carrier groups and conduct search-and-rescue for downed aircrew in the water or on land. They can load up SEALs in the back, take them where they need to go, and support them once ashore with missiles, rockets, cannons, and crew-served machine guns. In the event the enemy’s tactics involve smaller ships and boats coming at you, the HSC crews can apply those weapons against those targets at sea as well. They also strip off all the weapons and do logistics work, moving palletized cargo and non-palletized people back-and-forth between ships at sea. The Navy even has some HSC units that are “Expeditionary” and deploy to land bases. Much like their Super Hornet brethren, the HSC pilots in their MH-60Ss are the jacks-of-all-trades.
- Maritime Strike (HSM): Flying another Blackhawk derivative, the MH-60R, the HSM squadrons specialize in hunting subs and surface ships. They deploy aboard both carriers and “Small boys” (cruisers and destroyers) to lend their eyes, ears, and fists to their parent ships. They often operate in small detachments, sometimes only one or two aircraft, in a very independent and self-reliant mindset. HSM pilots get the unique joy of landing on the smallest, least stable flight decks in the Fleet, a skill set which has to be seen to be truly appreciated.
- Mine Countermeasures (HM): Flying the
venerable (and monstrous) CH-53E, these squadrons conduct counter-mine operations. They primarily operate off of land bases but retain the capability to operate off of surface ships as well. The Navy is trying to neck down the number of helicopter types it has in the inventory, and the CH-53s are supposed to go away, but the MH-60s can’t pull the same hardware and so the 53s soldier on for the time being.
Patrol and Reconnaissance
Likely the least well-known segment of Naval Aviation, but with no-less critical roles to play in the massive scope of Naval Aviation’s point and purpose:
- Patrol (VP): The Navy’s shore-based, long-range patrol aircraft are the ageing P-3C Orion and its newer cousin, the P-8 Poseidon, which is based off the very famous Boeing 737 airframe. These squadrons detect and track surface ships and submarines. The missions are
long and the crews are large, with multiple pilots, NFOs and enlisted sensor operators aboard. Say what you want about the relative sexiness of the patrol platform compared to the carrier stuff, but carrier guys pee in bags and sleep in tiny beds on ships. VP guys win both those rounds for sure.
- Reconnaissance (VQ): The EP-3E Aries II variant of the P-3 is a flying antennae farm that looks to collect and analyze enemy electronic signals. There aren’t very many of these around, so they are tasked in support of the most important missions. Augmenting, and eventually replacing, these units are the MQ-4C Triton, a large, unmanned Navy version of the USAF RQ-4 Global Hawk. Under the VQ umbrella are the small numbers of E-6B Mercury airborne communications aircraft, a version of the Boeing 707 airframe flying out of Tinker AFB near Oklahoma City.
The Navy maintains several other units doing training missions, transport, adversary and test & evaluation stuff, but all of these units will pull from a host community that’s listed above and accession into these units is many years down the road in a naval aviators’ career. It is, thus, a subject for a future article.
Getting a feel for what it’s all about? Got some thoughts about what you want to do and where you want to go? Next up, we’ll talk about how to get your foot in the door.