A naval aviator is a commissioned officer or warrant officer qualified as a crewed aircraft pilot in the United States Navy or United States Marine Corps. While they complete the same undergraduate flight training as Navy and Marine Corps crewed aircraft pilots, and are awarded the same aviation breast insignia, a United States Coast Guard crewed aircraft pilot is officially designated as a "Coast Guard aviator".
In the U.S. Navy, most naval aviators are unrestricted line officers (URL), eligible for command at sea; however, a small number of former senior enlisted personnel subsequently commissioned as line limited duty officers and chief warrant officers in the aviation operations technician specialty have also been trained as naval aviators and naval flight officers.
A small number of URL officers trained as naval aviators and naval flight officers who hold technical degrees at the undergraduate and/or postgraduate level may also opt to laterally transfer to the restricted line (RL) as Aerospace 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 naval flight surgeons. These are either former URL officers previously designated as naval aviators who later attended medical school and transferred to the Medical Corps, or an even smaller percentage of "dual designator" naval flight surgeons who are selected to be student naval aviators and underwent pilot training as Medical Corps officers. The vast majority of naval flight surgeons, although they are on flight status, are not dual designated and are not naval aviators.
All U.S. Marine Corps officers are line officers, either unrestricted line, limited duty, or warrant officer, eligible to command MAGTF units commensurate with their grade, designation, and occupational specialty; the U.S. Marine Corps does not have restricted line officers or staff corps officers, as does the U.S. Navy. All current USMC naval aviators and naval flight officers are unrestricted line officers, analogous to the Navy's URL officers.
The U.S. Coast Guard categorizes all of its officers generally, with its Coast Guard 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. The last U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Pilot retired in 1979. 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, the Maritime Patrol Association, and the Naval Helicopter Association, among others. The naval aviation pilot wings worn by NAPs were identical in design to the naval aviator insignia worn by commissioned officers. The silver eagle title was a reflection that the rating badge on their uniform had a silver eagle.
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 non-commissioned 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 Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) program. 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.
The last civilian applicants were accepted into the NAVCAD program in 1992 and the program was finally canceled on October 1, 1993.
Except for an extremely small number of enlisted personnel selected to attend flight school subsequent to completing the STA-21, OCS, USMMA, USNA or USCGA programs, all other student naval aviators must first obtain an officer commission. To become a naval aviator, non-prior service personnel must be between the ages of 19 and 32 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 platoon leader's course applicants with prior enlisted service.
Navy and Marine Corps officers are currently commissioned through five sources: the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland; the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York; Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) at a number of colleges and universities across the country; Navy Officer Candidate School at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island; Marine Corps Officer Candidates School (to include the Platoon Leaders Class [PLC] program) at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. A smaller number were previously commissioned via the Navy's limited duty officer or chief warrant officer programs, but this track has since been discontinued.
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. All individuals must pass an aeronautical screening, to include successful completion of the USN/USMC/USCG Aviation Selection Test Battery (ASTB) 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 Advanced Hawkeye or C-2A Greyhound 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 E-2 or C-2A pipeline, averaging over three 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. After passing a medical screening, all new flight school students are enrolled in one of five civilian flight schools near NAS Pensacola. For those students requiring IFS, they will complete 2 weeks of ground training and approximately 14 hours of flight training in single-engine general aviation aircraft. Coast Guard Students complete 25 hours of flight training. 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, or those United States Naval Academy midshipmen who have completed the Powered Flight program.
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. Following the end of academic instruction, API students hold a social event known as Flight Suit Friday at the Mustin Beach officers club. From that point onward, the students are authorized the wear of flight suits (with service-specific garrison cap) as their daily uniform instead of Navy service khakis/Marine service Charlies/Coast Guard tropical blue.
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 the Beechcraft T-6B Texan II (JPATS). 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 six advanced flight training paths: strike fighters, E-2/C-2 (Navy only), E-6B Mercury (Navy only), multi-engine, helicopters, or tilt-rotor. Selection is based on the needs of the military service, an SNA's performance, and an SNA's preference. Previously, students were given the option to select tailhook and trained in the T-45C before learning if they would continue in either strike or E-2/C-2.
Student naval aviators selected for strike training are assigned to NAS Kingsville, Texas or NAS Meridian, Mississippi, flying the T-45C. The intermediate syllabus incorporates basic instrument flying, formation, night familiarization, and airway navigation over approximately 58 graded flights lasting approximately 27 weeks.
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 the F/A-18C Hornet (USMC), F/A-18D Hornet (USMC), F/A-18E Super Hornet (USN), F/A-18F Super Hornet (USN), EA-18G Growler (USN), F-35B Lightning II (USMC), F-35C Lightning II (USN and USMC), and the AV-8B Harrier (USMC).
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, USN variants of the EA-6B Prowler, A-7 Corsair II, RA-5C Vigilante, and S-3 Viking.
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 with VT-31, followed by CQ in the T-45 Goshawk. Following winging, they proceed to the E-2/C-2 Fleet Replacement Squadron VAW-120, NS Norfolk for aircraft qualification before assignment to a Carrier Air Wing (CVW) VAW (E-2C Hawkeye) or VRC (C-2A Greyhound) squadron. The VAW squadrons are home-ported at either NS Norfolk, VA, NAS Point Mugu, CA, or NAF Atsugi, Japan and deploy as a squadron of four aircraft aboard their respective aircraft carrier. The VRC squadrons are based at either NS Norfolk, VA or NAS North Island, CA and deploy in detachments of two aircraft aboard their respective aircraft carrier.
Student pilots selected for helicopter training report to NAS Whiting Field, Florida and complete advanced training in the TH-57 Sea Ranger. Students receive over 100 hours of instruction learning the unique characteristics and tactics of rotary-wing aviation. Students progress through several phases of training including basic helicopter familiarization, tactics, basic and radio instruments, visual, instrument, and low-level navigation, formation, night familiarization (including use of night vision goggles), and search and rescue. Upon completion, students will receive their wings of gold and are designated naval aviators.
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 or HSC-3 for the MH-60S Knighthawk (HSC) at NAS North Island, CA; HSM-40 for the MH-60R Seahawk at NS Mayport, FL; HSC-2 for the MH-60S Knighthawk or HM-12 for the MH-53E Sea Dragon at Norfolk, VA.
Marine Corps helicopter pilots report to HMHT-302 at MCAS New River for the CH-53E Super Stallion; HMLAT-303 at MCB Camp Pendleton for the AH-1W Super Cobra, AH-1Z Viper, UH-1N Twin Huey, UH-1Y Venom; or VMMT-204 at 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 multi-engine students complete their advanced training at NAS Corpus Christi, flying the twin-engine T-44A/C Pegasus. Particular emphasis is placed on single-engine flight in varying conditions and instrument flying. 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 HC-144 pilots report to the Coast Guard aviation training center (ATC) in Mobile, Alabama for a transition course after reporting to their assigned air station.
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.
Training Air Wing FOUR has converted analog T-44As to digital T-44Cs which is the perfect lead-in trainer for the digital / glass cockpit of the P-8A Poseidon, MV-22 Osprey, E6-B Mercury, and C-130J Hercules aircraft. High fidelity T-44C visual simulators will follow the upgrade which will enable the perfect mix of ground and air training.
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 their "soft patch" 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. These wings are the metal pins worn on the khaki and dress uniforms.
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 United States Naval 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 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.
Student naval aviators incur an eight-year active duty service commitment that begins after they complete flight training.
Navy Reserve aviators all come from the active duty ranks. They fly fleet-type aircraft (such as the F/A-18 Hornet, EA-18 Growler, E-2 Hawkeye, SH-60 Seahawk 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-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 (O-4) —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 screened for major aviation command as O-6s. Major commands include captain of an aircraft carrier, command of a carrier air wing, and a billet as wing commodore. 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.
A provision in Title 10 of the United States Code requires that US aircraft carrier commanding officers and executive 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.