Today we are going to look at the process of becoming a Naval Aviator, specifically a Strike Fighter Pilot in the F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet community! We will look at all of the phases of the process, from commissioning all the way to the fleet, illustrating see why those pilot who wear the Wings of Gold are considered by many to be the best in the world!
The prerequisites to become a Naval Aviator are the same as for the Air Force: candidates must be commissioned officers and meet a set of strict physical requirements. All Student Naval Aviators (SNAs) start at the same place: Naval Air Station Pensacola, located on the Gulf Coast in the Florida panhandle.
Known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” it is here they will go through Aviation Preflight Indoctrination, or API. The program is six weeks long consisting of 4 weeks of academics and 2 weeks of survival training. Concurrent with the academic phase is the swimming course. SNAs will begin each morning learning swimming survival skills that may help save their lives operating in the world’s waters. The swimming course culminates with a one mile swim in a flight suit.
The academics are divided into six classes encompassing a variety of subject areas including aerodynamics, weather, and navigation. An exam is given at the end of each course and the grades are very competitive. The survival training includes classes on basic land survival, survival equipment, physiology, and first-aid.
It’s not just Navy and USMC student pilots at API; Students Naval Flight Officers (SNFO) are also in the classes. There are US Coast Guard SNAs as well as students from allied nations. In my class there were even flight surgeon candidates who needed to complete all the phases to successfully be designated flight surgeons (doctors don’t always make the best swimmers)!
After API SNAs will be sent to primary training to fly T-6B Texan II. Primary is at one of two locations: NAS Whiting Field just outside of Pensacola, or NAS Corpus Christi, Texas (SNFO’s will stay at NAS Pensacola to fly the T-6A). The T-6B is a relative newcomer in Naval Aviation and replaced the old workhorse T-34C Turbomentor.
The T-6B’s systems replace the T-34C’s old steam-gauges and bailout parachutes with a full glass panel, HUD, G-suit, pressurized cockpit, and ejection seats. Until a few years ago, there was an exchange program where some students went to fly the T-6A at Vance AFB while some USAF students came to Whiting.
In Primary, SNAs are put through a fast-paced syllabus of classes, sims, and flights. The syllabus starts with familiarization flights (FAMs), but then moves quickly into aerobatics, instruments, and formation flying. Every event is graded and the flying is challenging, but SNAs definitely have fun as well.
In the aerobatics phase SNAs master maneuvers such as the Aileron Roll, Barrel Roll, Immelman, Split-S, and Half-Cuban-eight. In instruments, students are tortured in the simulator with various emergencies and partial panel approaches. In the aircraft, they will learn the fundamentals of IFR flight and cross-countries. In forms (many students’ favorite phase), interval takeoffs, crossunders, lead changes, breakup-and-rendezvous are practiced both as the lead and wingman.
There is no doubt that the structure produces top-notch aviators. For example, a Private Pilot candidate needs 40 hours to take the Private Pilot checkride. If successful that pilot can then fly VFR in a single engine airplane. In fact, the national average is approximately 60 hours to take the checkride.
Contrast that with a Primary graduate. After 70 hours the pilot is competent enough to fly a high-performance and complex turbine aircraft under IFR, as well as fly aerobatics and formation. It is definitely not for the faint of heart! Typically the Primary instructors come from the fleet Maritime (P-3 and P-8) and Rotary communities and are among the best their community has to offer.
At the end of Primary, the SNA will fill out a “dream sheet” of what community they want to join. Based on these preferences, their grades, and the needs of the service, they will get their assignments. For the Navy students, they can select Maritime, Rotary, E-2/C-2, or jets. The Marines can select rotary, jets, tiltrotor and props.
Those SNA’s selecting jets will transfer to NAS Kingsville, Texas or NAS Meridian, Mississippi to fly the T-45C Goshawk. The syllabus is now much more intense than Primary and is divided into two phases: Phase 1, called “intermediate,” and Phase 2, called“advanced.” Here the instructors are almost exclusively from the F/A-18 community, with some from the E-2/C-2 and AV-8B Harrier communities as well.
Phase 1 is like Primary on steroids. Here the same things are taught, but refined for jet aircraft and with additional advanced concepts. For example, in Primary the students will fly in formations of two aircraft; in Intermediate they will fly in formations of four aircraft and learn tactical formation flying. E-2/C-2 students will be sent to NAS Corpus Christi for multi-engine training after Phase 1.
Phase 2 is when the SNAs get their first taste of true Naval Aviation. Tactical concepts are taught in various phases like advanced TACFORM, Night Formation, WEPS, ACM, and the biggest one of all: Carrier Qualifications.
In the TACFORM phase, students learn how maneuver dynamically from the “spread formation,” one nautical mile apart. WEPS is where SNAs master the principles of unguided bombing, as well as low altitude attacks and CCIP bombing. The ACM phase (my personal favorite), students learn the fundamentals of 1v1 perch BFM, as well as neutral high aspect and 2v1 concepts. Phase 2 is a lot of work, but a LOT of fun.
For CQ, students will Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) both in Intermediate as well as in Advanced in preparation to go the boat. A class of a dozen or two SNAs will be assigned an LSO to teach them the art of meatball, lineup, and angle of attack. The landing pattern will be flown very precisely and each pass at the field will be graded and debriefed. The LSOs will use their judgment to discover trends and corrective action for students’ performance. When they are ready, they will go to a fleet aircraft carrier for their CQ which lasts over the course of a couple of days.
The entire time at the boat the SNAs are solo, and most likely are suffering from a helmet fire at least on the first day. After 4 touch and go’s and 10 traps, if they meet the minimum boarding rate and GPA, they’ve qualified and can join the proud few who wear the Wings of Gold. Students will always make bets with their LSOs on their performance, and almost always lose (the wager is usually the LSOs’ favorite beverage). These include things as simple as “3 wire on the first pass” to the fabled IronMan: no bolters, waveoffs, or 1 wires. It gets pricey for the SNAs but worth it for the wings!
Qualifying at the boat for the first time was one of the proudest moments of my career. It is an experience I’ll never forget, and the celebration in Jacksonville that evening is something that my classmates and I will never remember!
Dream sheets are again submitted for platform and location. For the Navy pilots, they can be sent to one of three locations: NAS Oceana to fly the F/A-18 Hornet or Super Hornet, NAS Lemoore to fly the Super Hornet, or to NAS Whidbey Island to fly the E/A-18G Growler. USMC pilots will either go to NAS Oceana or MCAS Miramar for the hornet, MCAS Cherry Point or MCAS Yuma to fly the Harrier, and now MCAS Beaufort (and Yuma, too) to fly the F-35B Lightning II.
The Naval Aviators join these Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS) (nicknamed “RAGs” after what they used to be called) to learn the ins and outs of their fleet aircraft. This is analogous to the USAF’s B-Course. The F/A-18 syllabus is divided into four phases: Transition, Air-to-Surface, Air-to-Air, and CQ.
In Transition, the students will apply what they learned in the T-45C to the Hornet, except now the expectation is that they already know how to fly. The fifth flight is the very first solo. After a few formation flights (including night TACFORM), they will move into all-weather-radar intercepts, and aerial refueling.
In Air-To-Ground the aviators will learn bombing fundamentals as well as how to strafe the mighty 20mm gun. Also in this phase is the LAT (low altitude training) phase where the pilots will hone their low-level flying skills at 200 feet AGL and over 480 Knots. Students will develop these skills in the unguided “circle the wagons” weapons pattern, before applying what they learned to the art of CAS.
The CAS flights will use traditional methods such as IP (Initial Point) to target, as well as low-threat CAS from overhead the target area, and high-threat CAS with a low altitude ingress to a Pop attack. The phase also includes flights that practice the use of smart weapons, such as the GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-38 JDAM, and AGM-65E Laser Maverick.
In Air-To-Air they will learn modern fighter tactics, starting with basic 2v2 setups and eventually in to 4vX missions such as an OCA, DCA, or self-escort-strike. This phase also is where students try their best at the instructors at BFM, in addition to learning about how to use weapons such as the AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM.
Finally, CQ phase is nearly identical (including the bets) to the T-45C, except now the aviators have to land on the boat at night! Those two night touch-and-gos and six night traps allowed me to not only earn my place in the fleet, but also my very first gray hairs.
After completion of the FRS syllabus, aviators are sent to fleet squadrons on both coasts, as well as Japan. All in all, it’s a very long road to earn those Wings of Gold. Then again, if it were easy….the Air Force would do it!
(Featured Photo by the Dept. of Defense)