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In the U.S. Navy, most naval aviators are unrestricted line officers (URL), eligible for command at sea; however, a small number of Limited Duty Officers and Chief Warrant Officers are also trained as naval aviators and naval flight officers. A small number of URL officers trained as naval aviators who hold technical degrees at the undergraduate and/or postgraduate level may also opt to laterally transfer to the Restricted Line (RL) as Aeronautical Engineering Duty Officers (AEDO). AEDOs are frequently test pilot school graduates and retain their flying status, with most of their billets being in the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIRSYSCOM). An even smaller number of naval aviators are in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, primarily as flight surgeons. These are either former URL officers previously designated as naval aviators who later attend medical school and transfer to the Medical Corps, or an even smaller percentage of "dual designator" naval flight surgeons who are selected to be student naval aviators as Medical Corps officers. The vast majority of flight surgeons are not dual designated and are not naval aviators.
The U.S. Marine Corps does not categorize its officers in line and staff corps categories as does the Navy; however, all of its naval aviators are considered combat officers and are analogous to the Navy's URL officers.
Like the Marine Corps, the U.S. Coast Guard also categorizes all of its officers generally, with its naval aviators also being considered "operational" officers in the same manner as its Cutterman officers in the Coast Guard's surface cutter fleet.
Until 1981, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps also had a small number of senior enlisted personnel trained as pilots. Such individuals were referred to as Naval Aviation Pilots, colloquially "NAPs" or "APs". The since retired NAPs also continue to have a professional organization known as the Silver Eagles, which remains informally aligned with other naval aviation professional organizations such as the Association of Naval Aviation, the Tailhook Association, and the Naval Helicopter Pilot Association, among others. The Naval Aviation Pilot insignia was identical in design to the naval aviator insignia worn by commissioned officers except that it was silver instead of gold (hence the "Silver Eagles").
The U.S. Navy still has an unknown number of senior officers on active duty in the Regular Navy or serving in the Navy Reserve who were originally accessed as NAVCADs (Naval Aviation Cadets). These individuals entered service via the NAVCAD program during the mid/late 1980s and early 1990s when the program was reinstated following a hiatus of over twenty years. NAVCADs were uncommisioned cadets who were required to have a minimum of 60 college credit hours to enter flight training (rather than the bachelor's degree normally required for entry into the flight training program) and were accessed only through the now defunct AOCS (Aviation Candidate Officer School). Upon completion of AOCS, NAVCADS would enter into flight training and upon successful completion of training and designation as a Naval Aviator, would be commissioned as officers with a reserve commission in an active duty status. After completion of their initial operational flying tour, they would receive an assignment to complete their bachelor's degree. NAVCADs who failed to successfully complete flight training were contractually obligated to enter fleet service as undesignated enlisted personnel.
Except for an extremely small number of enlisted personnel selected for flight school under STA-21 or OCS programs, Student naval aviators must first obtain an officer commission. To become a naval aviator, one must be between the ages of 19 and 27 when entering flight training. Adjustments (waivers) can be made up to 24 months for those with prior service, and up to 48 months for those already in the military at the time of application or for Marine Corps PLC (Platoon Leader's Course) applicants with prior enlisted service.
Navy officers are commissioned through six sources: The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, The United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) at a number of colleges and universities across the country, Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI, Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia or via the Navy's limited duty officer (LDO) or chief warrant officer (CWO) programs. Coast Guard Officers receive their commissions either from the United States Coast Guard Academy or Coast Guard Officer Candidate School, both located in New London, Connecticut; or via the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY. Graduates of these programs are commissioned as Navy ensigns in the U.S. Navy or U.S. Coast Guard, or as second lieutenants in the Marine Corps. Individuals must pass an aeronautical screening and be selected for pilot training prior to being designated as student naval aviators (SNAs).
Student naval aviators progress through a significant training syllabus—typically 18 months to two years for initial winging (designation) as naval aviators via either the advanced strike pipeline for those destined for sea-based fixed-wing aircraft (with a slightly modified pipeline for prospective E-2 Hawkeye pilots), the maritime pipeline for those en route to multi-engine, land-based aircraft, and the rotary wing pipeline for those who will fly helicopters or tilt rotor aircraft (with a slightly modified pipeline for MV-22 Osprey pilots). The longest of these "pipelines" is the advanced strike pipeline, averaging over two years from initial pre-flight training to designation as a naval aviator. All pipelines include ground and flight training at numerous locations.
Following designation as a naval aviator, all newly designated aviators report to a designated Navy or Marine Corps fleet replacement squadron (FRS), the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center at Mobile, Alabama, or, for pilots destined to fly Navy C-130, Marine Corps KC-130, or Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft, the U.S. Air Force's 314th Airlift Wing at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas.
IFS is the first step to becoming a naval aviator. All new flight school students first enroll in a civilian flight school (normally near NAS Pensacola, but also located near Marine Corps Base Quantico and the United States Naval Academy) for 14 (previously 25) hours of flight training in single-engine general aviation aircraft. A student must solo and pass the FAA Private Pilot knowledge test. IFS screens a student's flight aptitude prior to beginning the Navy training syllabus and is waived for students reporting to NAS Pensacola with a private pilot's certificate or better.
Notable dramatization in media: An Officer and a Gentleman
All SNAs start at the "Cradle of Naval Aviation", NAS Pensacola, Florida. API classes consist of Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard SNAs, student naval flight officers, flight surgeons, and foreign exchange military pilots. Students receive four weeks of classroom instruction in aerodynamics, aircraft engines and systems, meteorology, air navigation, and flight rules and regulations. Following academics, students spend two weeks learning land survival, first aid, physiology, and water survival and egress.
Prior to its disestablishment, Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) at NAS Pensacola incorporated the entire API syllabus into the nominally 15-week AOCS curriculum. AOCS students were commissioned only after they completed API requirements.
Following API graduation, SNAs are assigned to Training Air Wing Five at NAS Whiting Field, Florida or Training Air Wing Four at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, where they learn to fly either the Beechcraft T-6B Texan II (JPATS) or the T-34C Turbo Mentor. (VT-28 is the last squadron to fly the T-34C and will continue to train SNAs until fully transitioned to the T-6B in late 2014). Primary teaches the basics of flying in approximately six months and is divided into the following stages:
Upon successful completion of primary flight training, SNAs are selected for one of four advanced flight training paths: E-6B Mercury, multi-engine propeller (maritime patrol) aircraft, helicopters, or tailhook aircraft. Selection is based on the needs of the service (USN, USMC, etc.), an SNA's performance, and, lastly, an SNA's preference.
Student naval aviators selected for tailhook training are assigned to NAS Kingsville, Texas or NAS Meridian, Mississippi, flying the T-45C or T-45A. NAS Meridian uses only the T-45C while NAS Kingsville is nearly completely transitioned to the T-45C. The syllabus incorporates basic instrument flying, formation, night familiarization, and airway navigation over approximately 58 graded flights lasting approximately 27 weeks. At the completion of the tailhook syllabus, approximately 80% of students are selected for advanced strike training, leading ultimately to tactical jets like the F/A-18 or AV-8B (Marine Corps only). The remaining 20% receive further training in the E2/C2 pipeline, ultimately leading to assignment flying either the E-2C or C-2 Greyhound. Marine Corps SNAs automatically continue in the advanced strike syllabus and ultimately fly either the F/A-18, the AV-8B, or the EA-6B.
Advanced strike students continue with approximately 67 additional graded flights lasting approximately 23 weeks in the T-45 Goshawk. The syllabus covers bombing, air combat maneuvering (ACM), advanced instruments, low-level navigation, tactical formation flying (TACFORM), and carrier qualification (CQ) (see Modern US Navy carrier operations). Graduates of advanced strike fly versions of the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet, EA-6B Prowler, EA-18G Growler, and AV-8B Harrier II. In addition to current aircraft, this pipeline will eventually produce pilots for the F-35 Lightning II.
Advanced strike training previously produced pilots for the now-retired F-8 Crusader (to include RF-8 variants), F-4 Phantom II (to include RF-4 variants), F-14 Tomcat, A-3 Skywarrior, A-4 Skyhawk, A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair II, RA-5C Vigilante, and S-3 Viking.
E-2/C-2 students go straight to CQ in the T-45 Goshawk with approximately 20 additional graded flights over 8 weeks. Upon successful CQ, E-2/C-2 students go to NAS Corpus Christi to complete multi-crew and multi-engine training (approx. 16 weeks) in the T-44A. Following winging, they go on to fly the E-2 Hawkeye or C-2 Greyhound.
Student pilots selected for helicopter training report to NAS Whiting Field, Florida and complete advanced training in the helicopter training squadrons there, flying the TH-57 Sea Ranger. Students learn the unique characteristics and tactics of rotary-wing aviation, to include basic helicopter familiarization, instrument flying, night familiarization (including use of night vision goggles or NVGs), low-level flight, formation flight, airway navigation, and search and rescue.
Once they receive their wings of gold, Navy helicopter pilots report to their respective fleet replacement squadron (FRS) for training: HSM-41 for the MH-60R Seahawk and SH-60F/HH-60H Seahawk and HSC-3 for the MH-60S Knighthawk (HSC), both at NAS North Island, CA; HSM-40 for the SH-60B Seahawk and MH-60R Seahawk at NS Mayport, FL; or HSC-2 for the MH-53E Sea Dragon and MH-60S Knighthawk at Norfolk, VA.
Marine Corps helicopter pilots report to the FRS at MCAS New River for the CH-53D Sea Stallion and CH-53E Super Stallion; MCB Camp Pendleton for the AH-1W Super Cobra, AH-1Z Viper, UH-1N Twin Huey, UH-1Y Venom, and CH-46 Sea Knight; or MCAS New River for the MV-22 Osprey.
Coast Guard helicopter pilots report to the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama for further training, or the "T-Course", on the MH-60T Jayhawk and MH-65D Dolphin.
The Navy also trains pilots from several NATO and other allied nations as military and naval helicopter pilots.
Maritime students complete their advanced training at NAS Corpus Christi, flying the twin-engine T-44A/C Pegasus or TC-12 Huron. Particular emphasis is placed on single-engine flight in varying conditions. Upon receiving their wings of gold, Navy pilots report to VP-30, the P-3 Orion/P-8 Poseidon FRS, for further training in the P-3, EP-3, or P-8A. Marine Corps pilots report to the KC-130 FRS. Coast Guard pilots destined for the HC-130 or HC-144 proceed directly to their assigned air station. As budget and time allow, the HC-130 pilots report to an Air Force C-130 formal training unit (FTU) at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas or Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. As of 2012, VT-31 and VT-35 no longer train United States Air Force student pilots bound for C-130 duty. Coast Guard HU-25 Guardian and HC-144A pilots report to the Coast Guard aviation training center (ATC) in Mobile, Alabama for a transition course after reporting to their assigned air station. The Coast Guard is in the process of eliminating the HU-25 transition course.
Similarly, Navy E-6 Mercury TACAMO pilots complete advanced training in the T-44C Pegasus at NAS Corpus Christi, TX. TACAMO-bound students no longer train on the T-1A Jayhawk, a militarized version of the Beechcraft 400, at the Air Force’s 32nd Flying Training Squadron at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma as of 2012.
The naval aviator insignia is a warfare qualification of the United States military that is awarded to those aviators of the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard who have qualified as naval aviators. The naval aviator insignia is identical for all three branches, as are the similar naval astronaut and naval flight officer badges. Naval aviation pilots were awarded the naval aviation pilot badge which, while considered a separate award, was identical in design to the naval aviator badge. The badge was designed by John H. Towers c. 1917 and consists of a single fouled anchor, surmounted by a shield with 13 stripes, centered on a pair of wings. Between January 1927 and October 1929, the design of naval aviation observer wings was the same as naval aviator wings, except the observer wings were silver. Observer wings after that were of a distinct design.
To qualify for the naval aviator insignia, a service member must complete flight training and be designated a qualified pilot of a military aircraft. Traditionally, student naval aviators are awarded "soft wings" immediately after the completion of their final training flight. These soft wings are typically gold-leaf impressions on leather patches that attach to the flight suit with Velcro. The official naval aviator insignia are later awarded at a "winging" ceremony.
Upon completion of flight training, a final selection process takes place in which the Student naval aviators are assigned a particular fleet aircraft community (e.g., F/A-18A+/C/D/E/F, EA-18G, EA-6B, AV-8B or F-35B/C for strike; E-2/C-2 for carrier AEW; SH-60, HH-60, MH-60, MH-65, AH-1, UH-1, CH-53, MH-53 or MV-22 for rotary-wing, P-3, P-8, E-6, EP-3, C-130, KC-130, HC-130, HU-25 or HC-144 for maritime, etc.). This selection is also based upon the needs of the service and performance. Newly designated naval aviators (no longer referred to as "students") are then assigned to a USN or USMC fleet replacement squadron or other similar training organization under the cognizance of the US Coast Guard or the US Air Force, for training on their specific aircraft type. Currently, approximately up to 1,000 pilots are designated each year, and between 1910 and 1995 more than 153,000 naval aviators earned their "wings of gold".
Upon completion of FRS training, naval aviators are assigned to a fleet squadron—either ship- or land-based—in their type aircraft. In addition to flying, naval aviators also hold one or many collateral duties of increasing responsibility such as legal officer, maintenance division officer, training officer, safety officer, etc. Initial fleet assignments typically last approximately three years.
After completing a successful tour in the Fleet, a naval aviator completes a shore-duty assignment, often as a flight instructor in the Naval Air Training Command or a fleet replacement squadron or as an adversary pilot or staff officer. Some complete further military schooling, such as the Naval Postgraduate School or U.S. Navy Test Pilot School, or are assigned specialized flight duty (e.g., foreign exchange pilot under the Personnel Exchange Program (PEP), test pilot, U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (the Blue Angels), presidential support in HMX-1, etc.). Typical Navy and Marine Corps shore rotations are approximately two-and-a-half years long, after which time personnel return to the Fleet for either a flying or a non-flying disassociated sea tour for two years, depending on aircraft background and Fleet requirements. Since 2002, some individuals have been selected for what are now known as Global War on Terrorism Support Assignments (GSA), which are one year in length and are typically to either the U.S. Central Command, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, or U.S. Marine Forces Central Command staffs, or forward-deployed location supporting previously supporting the former Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the former Operation New Dawn (OND), or the still-in-effect Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). In previous decades, naval aviators incurred a minimum 5-year active-duty service obligation. Today, all naval aviators incur a service obligation of seven or eight years upon receiving their wings, so very few individuals are entitled to separate from active service after their initial shore duty rotation and, instead, must accept new orders as described above.
Because of the costly nature of flight training, naval Aviators incur a longer minimum active duty service commitment than any other occupation in the Navy or Marine Corps. This service commitment begins on the day the naval aviator is winged.[dead link]
Student naval aviators incur an eight-year active duty service commitment. There was a discussion around December 2012 for Marine Corps SNAs to only incur a service obligation of six years. This would tackle the problem of newly minted majors leaving the service since they had reached the end of their obligation. As of October 2013, this has not yet been implemented.[dead link]
Navy Reserve naval aviators all come from the active ranks. They fly fleet-type aircraft (such as the F/A-18 Hornet, EA-6B Prowler, and P-3 Orion) as well as aircraft exclusive to the reserve force. These latter aircraft include the F-5 Tiger II, primarily used for fighter adversary support, and the larger cargo or transport aircraft such as the C-9 Skytrain, C-20D Gulfstream III, C-20G Gulfstream IV, C-35 Citation, C-40 Clipper, and C-130 Hercules. These aircraft are used to transport cargo and personnel, including dignitaries and senior leaders.
Naval aviators and naval flight officers who successfully complete a fleet tour as a squadron department head—usually while successfully holding the ground position of either the operations officer or maintenance officer for a year or more and ranked as the top lieutenant commander or major—are considered in a Navy-wide or Marine Corps–wide (as applicable) aviation command screening board for squadron command. Selectees must also have been selected and approved by the U.S. Congress for promotion to the rank of commander or lieutenant colonel (O-5).
Those few selected attend a variety of command, leadership, legal, and safety schools and required refresher flight training and (if applicable) carrier re-qualifications. Unlike other branches of the Navy, a squadron commanding officer (CO) starts out as executive officer (XO), then "fleets up" to the CO position during his or her tenure. Marine Corps squadron commanding officers proceed directly to the CO position; USMC squadron XOs are typically majors.
Aviation squadron COs hold sea and shore squadron positions as a first command tour, and may move on to other commands, staff billets, or retirement. Typically, the CO tour occurs in the eighteenth to twenty-second year of career service, shortly after which an officer is considered for promotion to the rank of captain or colonel (O-6). A small number are considered for sequential O-5 aviation command, while most are later be screened for major aviation command as O-6s. The role of CO, as it similarly is for the naval service's surface, submarine, and Marine Corps non-aviation communities, is considered a nexus position for effective military operations.
US Code Title 10 requires that US aircraft carrier commanding officers be Navy unrestricted line officers designated as either naval aviators or naval flight officers. Prior to assuming command, these officers first command a deep-draft ship and serve as executive officer of an aircraft carrier and go through an extensive training syllabus in ship handling and nuclear propulsion.
Naval aviators who fly in space are designated naval astronauts, and are issued the naval aviator version of the astronaut badge.
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