Overview of USN/USMC Aviation for Candidates

Discussion in 'Life After the Academy' started by Hurricane12, May 20, 2018.

  1. Hurricane12

    Hurricane12 USNA 2012 5-Year Member

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    Some of the most common questions on here are about what service to fly for, who gives the best chance to fly/fly fighters, etc. This will probably end up being a stupidly long post, but will hopefully give some insight on life in flight school and beyond (which is the important part, anyway). My wheelhouse is obviously more the USMC side, but I've worked with Navy aviators a decent amount (both rotary and fixed wing) and on a very limited basis with USAF.

    Getting to Flight School
    -Pass the ASTB, the aviation test for USN/USMC. It used to be (like when I took it) a knowledge and spatial awareness test only, but they have since incorporated sections that test hand-eye coordination and multitasking, which seems like a better use of everyone's time. The USMC just wants you to pass (and has slightly different/higher standards than USN), the Navy will rack and stack people based on performance.
    -Be medically qualified. Some disqualifiers, like colorblindness, are obvious, but there are some more"out there" things that sneak up on people as well. Sizing, particularly sitting height and reach, can disqualify people. When I was initially measured, I was told I had little T-Rex arms and couldn't fly jets (this turned out to be untrue). Normally, candidates have to meet the requirements for multiple platforms to proceed.
    -Morally/mentally qualified. People with multiple major conduct offenses and honor offenses normally do not get aviation spots, though there are always exceptions.

    Post-Commissioning
    Future Navy SNAs (student naval aviators) will pick their flight school report date before commissioning. Upon arriving in Pensacola, they enter a holding pool (A-Pool) before classing up. Wait times depend on the time of year and pipeline flow. While waiting, Ensigns either do nothing or do a bunch of menial jobs (Student Control Office minion, work at the museum, etc.).
    Marine 2ndLts attend TBS just like their ground brethren. Since they already have their MOS, class ranking doesn't matter. However, the Marine Corps is tiny and reputation starts at TBS. Just skating by doesn't cut it. After TBS, Marine SNAs report to Pensacola and have the same life as Navy Ensigns. There are a couple different jobs available to Marines as well: belting up in MCMAP, leading a platoon of Enlisted Marines awaiting training, and serving in funerals for local Marine veterans are a couple examples. Marines normally end up waiting a little longer than Navy students to class up since it is ultimately a Navy school.

    Introductory Flight Screening (IFS)
    IFS is the first introduction to flight school, and a pretty tame one. There are a number of locations within the Pensacola area that are allowed to teach IFS with some minor differences but ultimately it’s the same. There’s a brief ground school that is largely self-paced and uses the FAA test bank, and then ten flights in a light civilian aircraft culminating in a check ride and pattern solo. USCG pilots do a slightly longer syllabus that involves a cross-country solo, but Navy and Marine students will crank through IFS within a couple weeks, weather depending. The criteria for skipping IFS depends on needs of the Navy/USMC, but will normally be either prior flight time involving a solo, or a PPL. When I went through, the wait for IFS was backed up, so I did API prior to IFS, which is technically out of order.

    Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API)

    API involves a four-ish week academic/swim period, and then a couple weeks of rudimentary water and survival training. Class sizes will vary from 20-45 with a decent mix of Navy and Marines. During the academic period, Marines will wear service charlies/bravos (ugh) and Navy personnel will wear khakis since no one “rates” flight suits yet.
    Academics are not difficult but it’s a fire hose. It will be a topic a week: Aerodynamics 1, Weather, Aerodynamics 2, Engines, and Navigation. Nav and Aero 2 are the two big killers. Passing on tests is an 80%....BUT….the metric for grading is something called an NSS. The NSS compares pure scores (percentage on the test) with the past 200 students who have taken that same tests. There is a needlessly complex formula that calculates the whole thing, but the bottom line is that passing is not really enough, you have to perform above a certain standard that is dictated by other people’s previous performance. Changing the NSS required for passing is a common attrition tool: if there are too many Ensigns or 2ndLts (normally this is more of a Navy problem), the NSS required to pass will become artificially high. For people who graduated 2 years ahead of me at USNA, for example, the NSS required for them to pass essentially equated to having to get a 92% or higher on all tests or something crazy. Similarly, the amount of second chances a student gets depends on the climate at the time and how “needed” they are. It all depends. Marines usually get fewer chances than Navy.
    The mornings before class are generally spent at the pool. There are a bunch of various swim tests (mile swim in flight suit/boots and helmet, jumping off of a platform and swimming underwater for a certain distance, etc.) that are not especially difficult, but require having been in the pool within the recent past.
    Studying in groups is often pushed a lot for API. I did it for the first couple weeks, but hated it and went back to what works for me (studying alone, repetition, notes). Success in API is dictated by buckling down (which can be difficult after a few months of drinking on the beach) and studying as needed using skills students have hopefully formed in college. People will be sunk by trying to study the gouge or trying to find an easy way through. Sorry guy, you just have to read the stupid pubs.

    Once complete with academics, you get to put on your flight suit and drink beer at the O Club for flight suit Friday. The last couple weeks of API are filled with physiology (altitude chamber, etc.), the helicopter dunker (a particularly miserable experience for yours truly), ejection seat trainers, and other training that is generally a lot more hands on and pleasant than sitting in class all day. And, you’re wearing a flight suit!

    Primary
    Primary flight training uses the T-6B Texan II and is located at either NAS Whiting Field just up the road in Milton, FL, or at NAS Corpus Christi out in Texas. There is no difference in the syllabus at either location and where you go is a combo of personal preference and (wait for it, this will come up a lot) needs of the Navy/USMC. There are three squadrons at Whiting (VTs 2, 3 and 6) and two at Corpus (27 and 28). Upon checking in to Training Wing 5 (Whiting) or 4 (Corpus), SNAs will likely wait a little bit before classing up. During this time there are a couple duties that can be done (I tutored kids in math at a local middle school, for example), but it’s generally a return to the chill life of checking in and then having the day off.
    SNAs will class up in groups of about 15-25 kids per class. There will be a brief ground school of a couple weeks, and then it’s off to the flight line. There will be a class advisor instructor pilot (IP) assigned whose job it is to keep tabs on everyone through primary.
    Before SNAs get to touch a bird, there will be a few CPTs, or procedural trainers. Civilian instructors teach SNAs how to turn the bird on while wearing the bulky G-suit and vest to give them familiarity with the checklists and systems.
    From there, SNAs will be broken up into groups of 2-3 and assigned an “on-wing,” or IP they will fly their first few events with for continuity. Generally Marines are put with Marines and Navy with Navy, but it depends. My on wing was a former Marine (Huey crewchief, actually…) turned Navy Pilot for example. The first few events are called “contacts” or “fams.” SNAs practice learning to fly the aircraft, maneuvers to build basic airwork skills, and emergency procedures (power off landings, stalls, spins, etc.). After about ten flights, there’s a checkride and a solo flight.
    After contacts, SNAs move into aerobatics. This is a pretty fun phase designed to build confidence and airwork skills. It culminates in another solo where SNAs get to take a bird out and do barrel rolls and Cuban eights to their hearts content.
    Once aero complete, SNAs go into instruments. Instruments in primary are tame compared to advanced, it’s more of an intro. There is an instrument ground school, a number of basic instrument sims (to build scan and understanding of how a VOR works), and then radar navigation sims and flights. There is an instrument check at the completion of stage.
    The last stage is formation. SNAs’ heads explode at having to be near another aircraft. There’s a more significant briefing requirement than for the other stages and it ends with another solo.

    Lifestyle in USN/USMC flight school is different and (I think) better than the USAF. You are, by and large, treated like an adult and an officer. The flight schedule will come out and you are expected to be prepared to execute your scheduled event. If an SNA is not on the schedule, they do not have to come in and have the day to study. It is very sink or swim and there is no hand-holding. If an SNA uses their day off to drink on the beach, then they get found out and sink. If you are a productive and reasonable adult, then it works. The class system in the Navy way is less close, but it is still important. You finish when you finish based on aircraft availability and weather (weather cancellations are a killer in NW Florida).

    Grading in Flight School/Selection
    Every time you fly, you fly a graded event unless you rate a mandatory or optional warmup due to limited flight time. Every maneuver will be graded: for example ground procedures, communications, basic air work, emergency procedures, etc. The grading scale goes from 2-5. "2" is basically "unable." A five is "excellent" and above expectation. Each graded item will have an associated "MIF," which is basically the minimum required to pass. As an SNA progresses through the syllabus, MIF increases, which makes sense if you think about it. Your first cockpit procedure trainers, for example, MIF is a "2." By the end of primary, MIF is normally a 4 ("good") for most items. 5s are never required. Too many below MIFs on graded items or an unsafe/unsat performance will result in a flight failure. Failed flights will result in a refly of the event unless it's a checkride. From that point, an initial progress check (IPC, the USAF calls it an 88 ride) is scheduled with a standardization IP. If that is failed, there will be a final progress check (FPC/89 ride). A failed FPC triggers a training review board and will not uncommonly lead to attrition from the program.
    What this means is that at the end of the day, you have what amounts to a GPA on completing primary. But, to make things more confusing, this is combined with the same NSS concept as API. So it's not just how well objectively a student performs, their performance is compared with the previous 200 students. Yes, I know it's flawed. The end product NSS is scaled from the teens (I can't remember the actual lowest number) to a perfect score of 80, which would imply the SNA is the best SNA out of the past couple hundred (pretty damn good). A minimum of 50 is required for jets (Navy) and 52 for USMC. A 35 is required to pass.

    Selection is 100% Needs of the Navy/USMC, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Those needs are based off of timing (Is a C-130 class about to start? Is there a big backlog in Jet Advanced? ), predicted attrition from fleet communities (are all of the Osprey pilots getting out?) and student performance. Slots available during a given week are passed down from CNATRA, the commander of Naval Aviation training, and from there it's allocated to each TRAWING how many spots there are. Squadrons have a little bit of leeway with assigning who gets what, but ultimately it comes down to what they're given from higher.
    Number 1 normally (not always, see above about needs of the Navy...) gets his/her first choice. From there, it's a crapshoot but largely based on performance. When I selected, there were next to zero USMC jet spots and those who selected had 70+ NSSs (i.e., pretty damn good). Two weeks later, the floodgates opened and everyone with jet grades for Marines got jets. About a month after that almost everyone got Ospreys for a couple months. That's just the way it goes. The Navy is a little more consistent with regulating jet spots and it's unusual for there to be a week without any Navy jet spots.

    Advanced
    This will be more vague because of the differences between the pipelines for advanced.
    All of the advanced pipelines have a similar structure, which looks familiar to primary. There's a contact/familiarization stage, basic instruments, radar instruments culminating in a more robust instrument check than primary (this instrument check is the first of the required annual checks for Naval Aviators), navigation, formation, and tactics.
    Helicopter advanced goes across the road from primary at NAS Whiting Field South. For helicopters, tactics involves night vision goggle introduction, search and rescue, external lift, and tactical landing patterns. Helicopter advanced takes normally between 4-7 months. There are "solos" which are commonly known as "Brolos," where two students take a helicopter out. Emergency procedures and systems knowledge are heavily emphasized.
    Jet advanced goes at either Meridian, MS, or Kingsville, TX (just south of Corpus). Jets, uniquely, get to shoot/drop bombs (just little blue death inert bombs) in advanced. Jet advanced students also go to the boat for carrier qualification which is normally their culminating event. Jet advanced takes upwards of a year, sometimes nearly two. There are a lot more solo events than in helicopter or multiengine advanced. While those pipelines spend a lot of time teaching crew resource management (CRM), by the nature of jets their advanced instead emphasizes that SNAs will be on their own without an IP in their future platform.
    Multiengine advanced goes in Corpus. They spend a lot more time practicing single-engine/asymmetric thrust approaches and fly a very robust instrument syllabus.
    Tiltrotor students for USMC (and soon USN) attend an abbreviated syllabus at south field in rotary wing, and then complete much of the multiengine syllabus.

    Selection out of Advanced
    Guess what, it depends on needs of the USN/USMC. There are sometimes grade cutoffs for certain platforms (Harriers requires a higher NSS than Hornets for USMC, for example) but by and large that just serves to rack and stack students. Selections are done by platform and coast. Students can preference one or another (i.e., a guy can say he wants to go to San Diego and doesn't care what he flies), but it should be clear what his/her priorities are.
    Here, the squadrons have more say in what people end up doing, though the spots given are still driven from higher. If there are no cobra spots, for example, the squadrons can't magic up a cobra spot no matter how well someone does. The USMC generally wants a quality spread between platform/coast, so shortly after I selected a lot of top guys who wanted Hueys/Cobras were forced to go CH-53s on the east coast in order for that to work.
    BUT....as I alluded to earlier, your reputation can help you here a little. I made clear from the start I really, really, really, wanted to fly skids, particular Hueys (but tried to balance that with the obligatory "I'll fly whatever the USMC needs me to"), and hopefully on the west coast. I sought out skid pilots to talk about what it was like and asked what I hoped were intelligent questions. I worked hard and though I was never a top performer (I was bottom of the top third in my winging class for Marines) I did okay. This meant that when I almost got hosed with a CH-53s East spot (literally my last choice) prior to winging, my squadron's Marine selections Officer worked a drug deal to get another guy and I our second and first choices respectively flying Hueys West.
    After winging, students normally get a week or two to get their life in order, and then it's off to the races at the FRS.

    Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS)
    Winging is an awesome experience. Looking down at your chest and seeing wings there instead of a generic EGA for Marines or the Officer crest for Navy is genuinely moving. It's the culmination of years of hard work and dreams.

    ....Then you get to the FRS and realize no one cares. All newly winged aviators are considered equally clueless and worthless.
    The FRS is the transition stage in between flight school and The Fleet. Students (normally known as RACs, replacement aircrew) are flying their designated fleet aircraft and they generally (FRS dependent) have ground jobs like real pilots. Marines are in Marine squadrons finally. The aircraft are grey, not the orange-and-white for flight school. The FRS is designed to create pilots that are basic, "NATOPS qualified" aviators. There is little to no tactical training at the FRS. The endstate is an aviator who can safely fly the aircraft. From here there are still gradesheets and graded items, but it is different than flight school. There is little to no attrition and the intent is to train and provide a good product to the fleet.

    THE FLEET.
    Again, on checking in to the squadron no one cares what you did before. You could have been the top guy in flight school or the FRS, but no one cares because you are guaranteed to not know any of the tactical knowledge required of pilots in the fleet. New pilots are basically a burden on the squadron for their first couple years.
    Learning and grading literally never ends. Upon entering a fleet squadron, new pilots are entered into a syllabus. Initially, this is the Level 2/2000 Level syllabus (the FRS is considered Level 1/1000 Level). Here, tactical skills are taught, but not necessarily in a tactical scenario. For (a helicopter) example, section landings at night, proficiency flights at shooting rockets, etc. On completion of that level, pilots then move on the Level 3/3000 Level. Here, tactical skills are taught in tactical scenarios. This is where pilots in my community are graded in performing close air support, armed reconnaissance, assault support (dropping grunts off and picking them up), etc.
    In helicopters, it takes 1.5-2 years to complete all this and be designated an aircraft commander. In jets, where everyone is an aircraft commander from the start, the initial "goal qual" is section (2 aircraft) and then division (4 aircraft) lead. Upon getting through aircraft commander, the progress never stops. Further qualifications include Section Lead and then the instructor syllabus. The goal qualification is Weapons and Tactics Instructor, which is normally only given to ~10-15% of pilots and requires attending a very intense 6 week school in Yuma, AZ. Jet pilots can also compete to attend Top Gun.

    While you're doing all of this, by the way, you have to do your ground job. Initially, most pilots are assigned pretty light duties: daily schedule writer, Admin Officer Assistant, Medical and Dental Readiness Officer, etc., because their primary goal is studying and progressing in the aircraft. Every 6 months to a year, there is a job change. As pilots progress in time through the squadron, their ground responsibilities increase. This may be writing weekly schedules, leading a shop of maintenance Marines, or a number of other duties.

    As all of this is happening, your squadron is going through it's deployment cycle. In the USN/USMC, deployments are normally 6-8 months long and are followed by a ~12-18 month dwell time. During the hotter periods of Iraq and Afghanistan, squadrons were doing 7 months on, 7 months off, but those days are over.
    Deployments are either on ship (Marine Expeditionary Units, Carrier Strike Groups, etc.) or, for Marines, Unit Deployment Programs or Special Purpose MAGTF at a couple different locations. Navy helicopter squadrons will normally break up into smaller detachments of a couple helicopters for deployment. Marines will normally deploy as squadrons with the exception of MEUs, in which detachments of aviation units are attached to a full Osprey squadron. Exceptions to this would be the C-130 community, which does not often do full deployments but smaller detachments all around the world.

    When not deployed, pilots can still expect to spend a couple months out of the year away for various training exercises at bases around the US. I've done detachments and exercises at about 3-4 different military bases (normally not USMC) in my past 2 years.

    Squadron life is both awesome and sometimes terrible at the same time. It was broken down for me once that life in the squadron is a lot like high school/college...you have your freshman year where you're clueless, sophomore year you're starting to figure stuff out, and then by junior/senior year you've got it down and can start to teach other people. The other pilots in your peer group dictate how good or bad your time will be. If it's a tight, competent peer group life is awesome. People help each other (you're not competing for anything anymore) and work to help everyone succeed. If a peer group is toxic (it happens), sometimes this is not the case.

    Post Fleet Tour
    After a few years in your first squadron (this is a hard 3 years for Navy, 4 extendable for longer for Marines), it's time to do something else. What this is depends on performance and qualifications attained in the first fleet tour. To progress in your career, each community has a "bar" that is considered the acceptable level of qualification for more senior officers to return to a fleet squadron as a department head (Major or Lieutenant Commander). For the Navy, "Production" tours in flight school or the FRS are valued. In the Marine Corps, this is less the case and there's a whole, much more complicated, different thing there.
    There are some opportunities for foreign or other service exchange programs (Marine Cobra Pilots can do an exchange to the 160th SOAR, for example), grad school, etc., but timing and performance dictate selection for those.

    ...And that about rounds it out for the first 8-ish years of someone's time in the USN or USMC as an aviator. Though this post is about a decade long, I'm sure I missed a bunch of stuff and will gladly answer any questions. Hopefully this helps any candidates interested in aviation.
     
  2. Capt MJ

    Capt MJ 5-Year Member

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    What a post! Bookmarking this one.
     
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  3. Devil Doc

    Devil Doc Teufel Doc

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    Great read H-12.

    So, you are a Huey pilot?

    How long would the training take for a Huey/Cobra pilot to transition to the VH-3 if said pilot passed screening for HMX-1 ? I would imagine that particular squadron has its own training syllabus for pilots reporting in from other platforms.
     
    Last edited: May 20, 2018
  4. Hurricane12

    Hurricane12 USNA 2012 5-Year Member

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    I'm hueys.

    HMX-1 gives three year orders to Osprey pilots and four year orders to all rotary wing pilots. The first year for rotary wing guys is spent transitioning to the VH-3.
     
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  5. Devil Doc

    Devil Doc Teufel Doc

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    Thanks.
     
  6. kinnem

    kinnem Moderator 5-Year Member

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    Like being a brand new, shiny Lt again! LOL!

    Great post. I'm bookmarking it.
     
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  7. pleber16

    pleber16 USNA 2016 5-Year Member

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    A note on NSS and grades, CNATRA is changing the grading system. NSS is going away to be replaced by something more equivalent to a GPA. Supposedly studs checking in later this summer will see it.

    Also everything is very backed up so they aren't cutting people nearly as much slack as they used to. Certain medical issues that once were waivered are not now, waivers to return to training after being med down for greater than 6 months are being denied, and the new policy is consideration for attrition after your 3rd cumulative failure (starting in IFS all the way until you get your wings).
     
  8. Dylan7130

    Dylan7130 Member

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    Thank you for the very detailed post!

    If someone were to fail out of flight school, what would the Navy do with them? Would they be sent towards needs of the Navy, and be put into the SWO Community or Sub. Community for example? I think I've read somewhere that the Navy sometimes just lets the individual go, but to me that wouldn't make sense since they still have to do their 5 years.
     
  9. Capt MJ

    Capt MJ 5-Year Member

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    The needs of the Navy at that moment in time are key - and that could include letting them go completely, if they had no room for him or her in any Navy community for which they qualified. It does happen. Not often, but it does. Sometimes the need to cut numbers is greater than the need to get obligated service time out of someone. If they failed out for performance reasons - not everyone is cut out to be a military pilot - that’s one thing. They can also suddenly become NPQ. Or, worst case, it’s a conduct issue.

    Generally, if the officer is ok on all fronts except flight performance, an effort is made to find a spot in a community that appeals to the officer.
     
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  10. raimius

    raimius 10-Year Member

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    Yankees?
    They look nice.

    I've flown some hand-me-down N models from the Marines. (AF getting old USMC stuff...isn it supposed to be the other way???) They had some cool stuff, but I like the pure AF mods a little better.
     
  11. Hurricane12

    Hurricane12 USNA 2012 5-Year Member

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    Yeah, no more (fleet) Novembers for the Marines. The older guys who used to fly Novembers loved them though.
    ...Is the Air Force ever getting a new bird to replace the N??
     
  12. Old Navy BGO

    Old Navy BGO 5-Year Member

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    Rule #1 -- Navy (probably military in general) manning (and fiscal) policies do not always make sense.
    Rule # 2 -- Needs of the Navy control everything. (Perhaps the order of the rules is reversed).


    I know of relatively recent grad that DOR'd from Flight School (good record, just realized that he wasn't meant to be a pilot) that couldn't get placed elsewhere. SHIPMATE (USNA Alumni Magazine) just had a story about a grad that washed out of flight school , dropped from Navy, then went to Marine OCS to get his Marine Commission.
     
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  13. raimius

    raimius 10-Year Member

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    There is a replacement program in the works. We'll see if it works better than the last five or six replacement efforts.

    UH-1N is like an old muscle car. Fun to fly, but less capable than a lot of the newer stuff.
     
  14. kpmom2013

    kpmom2013 5-Year Member

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    Thank you Hurricane 12. You managed to explain more about my DS's life as a USN helo pilot than I have learned from him in the 5 years since he started in the pipeline. I appreciate your taking the time to enlighten those of us seeking to understand the pilot world.
     
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