The naval aviator career path is one of the most prestigious and challenging careers globally. It takes commitment, dedication, intelligence, and more than a bit of luck to succeed. Most people will never make it through the rigorous selection process to become naval aviators. Those who do are rewarded with an experience that few other people on earth can share.
Naval avionics are required to be pilots for both fixed-wing aircraft as well as helicopters; they can also serve as air traffic controllers or flight instructors at naval aviation training facilities, and they may be assigned to maritime patrol squadrons (VP) flying long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions using P3 Orion aircraft equipped with sonobuoys and torpedoes, and in the future with P8 Poseidon aircraft.
The naval aviator career path is challenging; even after completing all training programs and earning wings of gold, there are many pitfalls on the way to success (there’s no such thing as having enough hours or simply maintaining currency). There’s a saying in naval aviation: “there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots”. That means that even if you have hundreds of hours of flight time under your belt, you can still get yourself killed in an instant if you take unnecessary risks.
1. What is a Naval Aviator?
A naval aviator is a pilot who specializes in flying airplanes from ships. A naval aviator flies the aircraft from the carrier’s flight deck and can fly other aircraft such as helicopters or uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs). Naval aviation encompasses both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft.
Naval aviation has initially been just about shipboard operations, but that has changed over time to include combat missions and more. The Navy uses its air force of planes to defend against enemy attack, carry out surveillance flights, conduct search and rescue operations, transport cargo on short distances when necessary, drop bombs on targets ashore when needed for military purposes like blockades or ground troop support during wars at sea, destroy enemy submarines with depth charges or torpedoes when found during war, and several other vital tasks that are all important to the overall success for naval missions.
This is what you have been training to do since day one in flight school–operate from a carrier flight deck flying high-performance aircraft. It takes years of practice and hours upon hours spent in the air to become a naval aviator. The training and practice start in your early years of flight school with sailplane flights and continue throughout your career.
You may think you go to work, fly around for an hour or two, land, then you’re done for the day–not exactly! If that were the case, it would be called civilian flying, not naval aviation. There’s a lot more to it than that. You must see your training in this respect as you would in the military. Every job has its specific duty and is vital to combat operations.
2. Duties and Responsibilities of the Naval Aviator
A naval aviator is a pilot who flies aircraft from the decks of ships for either military or civilian purposes.
Naval aviation has three leading roles: creating air superiority, providing ground support, and conducting search-and-rescue missions. The modern naval aviator fulfills all these roles. They fly fighter jets such as the F/A-18E Super Hornet and attack helicopters such as the AH-1 Cobra to provide air cover against enemy forces, but they also fly transport planes like the C-2 Greyhound to move troops, supplies, and equipment where they need them most. Naval aviators also drop bombs on land targets with their AV8B Harrier IIs and rockets with their TARPS EO/IR pods.
In addition to their operational responsibilities, naval aviators must also complete various training classes to progress through the ranks. They usually have to take more education courses than any other military pilot. After completing primary flight school, pilots head to intermediate training at Fleet Replacement Squadron, flying front-line aircraft such as the F/A-18 Hornet. Graduates of intermediate training can apply to become jet carrier pilots, helicopter pilots, or TACCOs (tactical air command and control officers).
TACCOs fly jumpseat missions onboard transport planes like the C-2 Greyhound to provide vital information about any threats in the air or on the ground. They also coordinate flight missions with local troops and troops in-theater. They work closely with Rios (radar intercept officers) to track down enemy planes and ships before taking them out of commission.
3. How to Become a Naval Aviator?
The most important thing to remember is that naval aviators are not born; they’re made.
To become an officer in the Navy’s aviation program, you must first be accepted into one of the USNPS (United States Naval Postgraduate School) programs that produce officers for naval aviation; these include Aerospace Engineering (Aeronautical), Nuclear Engineering (Nuclear Power), Electronics Engineering (Electronics Systems), or Systems Engineering (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence Systems). Officers are usually commissioned in the Navy or Marine Corps following graduation from one of these programs.
Once an officer is accepted into one of the USNPS graduate school programs, he must also meet certain physical conditions which will allow him to become a naval aviator. These include 20/20 vision, good moral character, and a sound mind. There are also strict height and weight requirements and medical conditions such as mental problems or heart disease that will prevent an officer from becoming a naval aviator.
The next step is to pass the “Pilot Candidate Selection Method” (PCSM) test, which helps select those best suited for flight training. USAF (US Air Force) and USMC (US Marine Corps) officers also take the PCSM test, but this is only one of many criteria used to select marine pilots; education and experience are also important. This process includes orientation flights in an aircraft with an experienced pilot, which allows the candidate to demonstrate his ability to handle aircraft and perform the maneuvers required of a pilot. Candidates who pass this period are known as “flight students” and will eventually be selected for flight training.
Once selected, flight students must complete several months of basic Navy aviation training before advancing in one or more specific types of aircraft such as fighter jets, helicopters, large multi-engine propeller aircraft, and more.
Once training is complete, the new pilots will usually be assigned to a fleet squadron to fly with either fighter or attack squadrons. Specialized squadrons such as those that handle rescue missions, anti-submarine warfare patrols, and aerial refueling can also be part of their assignments depending on which aircraft and which type of squadron they fly with.
The US Navy offers several training schools to help prepare officers for careers as naval aviators, including Pensacola Naval Air Station, Naval Air Facility El Centro, NAS Kingsville, and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. This training can be very intense and demanding, but those who can pass all the requirements will have a lifetime of adventure available to them as members of the world’s most advanced air force.
4. How Much Money Does a Naval Aviator Make?
The salary of a naval aviator can vary depending on their rank and years of experience. A brand new Navy Naval Aviator (pilot) who has achieved the rank of Ensign (O-1) can expect to make approximately $43,088 per year. On average, a naval aviator will make around $124,000 throughout their first four years in the service. By their fifth, through the seventh year of service, they should see a salary between $130,000 and $184,000. Pilots who have served for more than seven years will typically make around $188,000 to upwards of $237,000 per year.
A 10+ year veteran Navy pilot can expect an average yearly salary in the range of about $170,000 to nearly $250,000. Top earners will make upwards of $300,000 per year.
5. How Long Does It Take to Become a Naval Aviator?
Naval aviators serve as the Navy’s aircrew. They are trained to be skilled pilots and maintainers, and they fly a variety of aircraft that perform many of the same missions as their Marine Corps counterparts. There is no set requirement for how long it takes to become a naval aviator; instead, each officer candidate must go through an extensive process before flying in any aircraft.
The first step is meeting the eligibility requirements: Candidates must be between 17 and 27 years old (the maximum age limit will increase by two years every five years). They cannot have any physical limitations or medical conditions that would prevent them from performing all aspects of duty aboard an assigned ship or shore station, nor can they be colorblind. Once they’ve been accepted into the program, officer candidates spend nine weeks at Officer Candidate School (OCS) learning what it means to be a leader and an aviator. From there, they go on to flight school to learn how to fly one of three aircraft: the E-2 Hawkeye airborne early-warning aircraft, the SH-60 Seahawk helicopter, or the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter. Naval aviators are required to fly at least one type of aircraft before being promoted to a higher rank. This ensures that officers have well-rounded training and perform their duties aboard an aircraft carrier. After this, they are paired with a co-pilot or crew member and training.
6. Navy Aviator Career Advancement and Retirement
The Navy Aviator Career Path is a challenging and rewarding career with various opportunities for advancement. The path has been described as one of “continuous learning” because aviators constantly strive to improve their skills and knowledge to stay current with the latest developments in aviation technology. In addition, different paths can be taken within this career field.
There are three general categories: Fixed Wing Aviation (non-helicopter), Helicopter Flight Officer or Pilot, and Rotary Wing Aviation (helicopters). There are many levels from Ensign to Captain within these groups at which an individual could achieve promotion.
Furthermore, the retirement benefits offered by the US naval service make it one of the most desirable government careers, such as the option of taking retirement after 20 years of service instead of at least 30 years, without a reduction in retired pay.
The following is a list of Officer ranks and their abbreviations (also used as service rank for officers serving on USN ships):
- Ensign (ENS)
- Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG)
- Lieutenant (LT)
- Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)
- Commander (CDR)
- Captain (CAPT)
- Rear Admiral Lower Half (RDML)
- Rear Admiral Upper Half (RADM)
7. Courses One Can Pursue to Become a Navy Aviator
Naval aviation is one of those careers where having a degree matters because there are so many regulations about what courses must be completed before being allowed to fly a fighter jet off an aircraft carrier. The higher you climb in the ranks of naval aviation, the more responsibility you have for both air-to-air combat and attacking ground targets. It is important to note that only the United States Navy has pilots specializing in flying fighters from carriers.
- Aerospace Engineering Degree
Graduates with a degree in aerospace engineering have an extremely bright future in naval aviation. You will need to focus on academics and computer science to get through the math-heavy coursework. Still, you can expect to learn about aerodynamics, propulsion systems, flight mechanics, aircraft structure, and much more. The knowledge acquired from this program is essential for performing as a naval aviator.
Graduates with an aerospace engineering degree often land jobs with large defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon.
- Naval Architecture Degree
If you are interested in designing and constructing modern aircraft carriers and other warships, then majoring in naval architecture is a must. You’ll need to be in it for the long haul; undergraduate students must complete several maths, science, and engineering classes before they can even begin the naval architecture curriculum. You’ll learn about how ships work, what materials can withstand extremely harsh conditions at sea, and get a chance to participate in advanced design projects.
Naval architecture graduates often get jobs within shipyards, the United States Navy, and other organizations that specialize in hydrodynamics.
- Naval Aviation Degree
If you want to fly for the United States Navy, then a degree in naval aviation will be highly beneficial. While it’s not essential that you major in naval aviation (you can also join as an enlisted sailor and later pursue officer training), having this degree may increase your chances of skipping the arduous training that ensues when starting with the Navy as an aviator. Graduates will need to pass a physical and muster up the ability to remain calm in situations where most people would panic or freeze.
Graduates with a degree in naval aviation often get jobs flying helicopters, prop planes, and jet fighters for the United States military.
- Naval Science Degree
Graduates with a naval science degree are well-suited for the United States Navy jobs. The vast majority of people who pursue this major serve as officers, but some enlist and later use their courses of study during officer training. Graduates will need to pass physicals, demonstrate leadership skills and have a strong focus on teamwork. Learning to work with other people is extremely important because pilots often must perform their jobs in challenging situations.
Naval science graduates often get hired as officers within the United States Navy’s aviation program, and some later joined the Marine Corps.
- Aviation Management Degree
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but the United States Navy does not require new pilots to have a four-year degree. The talented ones enter through officer training and then spend most of their careers as commissioned officers within naval aviation. Graduates will need to maintain strong performance reviews to stay in service.
Graduates with an aviation management degree often land jobs in office management, purchasing, and other areas within large companies.
8. Best Colleges to Study Naval Aviation
Naval aviation is an exciting and rewarding career. It can be dangerous, but the rewards are worth it. If you are interested in becoming a naval aviator, many colleges offer excellent programs to help make your dream become a reality.
Some of the best colleges for aviation are:
- United States Naval Academy – Annapolis, MD.
- Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Daytona Beach, Florida
- University of North Dakota – Grand Forks, ND
- The Coast Guard Academy – New London, CT
- The United States Air Force Academy – Colorado Springs, CO
- The United States Merchant Marine Academy- Kings Point, NY
- Eastern Michigan University – Ypsilanti, MI
Naval Aviation is a challenging and exciting career, and it requires an immense amount of training, dedication, and commitment to succeed in this field. However, those who do cut are rewarded with some of the most exhilarating experiences imaginable. From flying on the edge of space to seeing the world from a perspective that only a few will ever know, Naval Aviators are some of the most highly respected members in any branch of service.