Shrinking Fleet Results in Big Cuts in US Naval Aviation Training

On Tuesday, January 4th, 2005, CAPT A. J. Gallardo, Jr., commanding officer, US Naval Aviation Schools Command (NASC) aboard NAS Pensacola, FL, spoke to all officers currently waiting to start flight school as pilots in what is called the "Alpha Pool" (A-pool). The purpose of his remarks were to explain the current situation regarding the extreme backlog in the student naval aviator (SNA) pipeline and what course of action will be implemented to resolve the situation. This is a brief explanation of the captain's remarks, as reported by an officer who attended.

'Obviously, the US military is a very complex entity requiring a tremendous amount of planning and forethought. Part of this planning is projecting how many people will be required to fulfill a particular job in the years ahead. In the case of naval aviators, this personnel projection window is 3-7 years based on the longest naval aviator training track, an F/A-18 Hornet strike pilot. For planning purposes, it takes a minimum of 3 years to train an OCS (Officer Candidate School) graduate to be a Hornet pilot. This is because OCS kids already have their college education's. It takes a minimum of 7 years to train Academy and ROTC kids to be a Hornet pilot, because of the 4 years spent in college. Therefore, the Navy must predict 3-7 years in advance how many pilots they are going to need. Clearly, the military is a very dynamic, ever changing organization, just like any large organization. In the 3-7 years leading up to the present time, the naval aviation community changed in ways that were not anticipated. The F-14 Tomcat and S-3 Viking platforms are retiring sooner than expected. The EA-6B Prowler community shrunk by 2 squadrons unexpectedly. The P-3 Orion's are dropping like flies because they are so old. All of these factors have resulted in more pilots than planes.

'Rather than purge trained and experienced aviators as their platforms disappear (they are transitioned into another platform when possible), it is more advantageous to purge those people who are untrained and inexperienced officers. The powers-that-be (up to the highest levels in the naval aviation community, whom I will use NASC as a simple, catch-all designator) determined that 160 student naval aviators need to be purged from the program. They did consider simply firing those individuals who scored just well enough on the ASTB (the standard aviation aptitude test) to qualify for flight training, but did not over-achieve. They decided against this because it would obviously be changing the rules mid-game and cheat individuals who were promised on good-faith a spot in flight training.

'After several months of analysis and debate, the course of action decided upon was to "raise the bar" in the first portion of flight training, known as Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API). This is the 6-week course with which all naval aviators and naval flight officers begin their flight training. Up to this point, the command policy regarding API has been 3 academic failures (out of 6 academic tests) resulted in removal from flight training. This created an attrition rate in API of approximately 2%. In order to meet the new attrition quota, NASC decided that the attrition rate in API should be forcibly raised to 20%.

'Using the last 200 pilots to complete API as a data set, NASC calculated that approximately a 91 average on all tests will be required to continue in flight training beyond API (80% is already considered a failing grade). However, those last 200 pilots were not affected by this new rule, and the new standard is a "rolling average." This means that the pilots now starting API will obviously work harder and score higher, pushing the "rolling average" up with each API class. A new API class starts every week.

**SIDEBAR** The Navy actually uses a more complex scoring system than simple averages for flight training called the "Naval Standard Score (NSS)," but an explanation of this system exceeds the aforementioned statement of "brief explanation." For those of you that know this system, the NSS now required in API for student pilots will begin at 42.5, but could change as each class progresses. The average NSS for API is 28.

'There are literately hundreds of ensigns waiting to start API, whether they are actually here in Pensacola or still at the Academy or their ROTC units. NASC also decided that to get their numbers as rapidly as possible, they are going to activate the "Charlie Pool" (C-pool). Up to this point, in order for a pilot to start API, a slot must be available at one of the locations that conducts the second phase of flight training, known as "Primary." These locations are as follows: NAS Whiting Field in Milton, FL, NAS Corpus Christi, TX, Vance Air Force Base (AFB), OK, and Moody AFB, GA. The Primary locations are as backed-up as Pensacola; therefore, the follow-on slot requirement is being waived. Upon the successful completion of API, student naval aviators will enter the C-pool and continue waiting in Pensacola for a slot at one of the Primary locations; a wait of several more months. The activation of the Charlie pool will facilitate the new goal of pushing all waiting ensigns through API by May of this year.

'The measures being taken by NASC are temporary, designed to rapidly purge the program of approximately 80 of the required 160 student pilots. Measures are also being taken along other portions of the training pipeline which are beyond the captain's remarks of Tuesday the 4th. Pilots further along in the pipeline have been feeling the crunch for some time. Several SNAs have transferred to the Marine Corps, which is currently short on pilots. Others have simply been removed from active duty upon completion of flight school and sentenced to the reserves. A relative few are actually making it all the way through the flight training syllabus into the active fleet. There are virtually no jet slots available, with only the top individual from each primary class even having a shot at getting into the jet training pipeline. All those dreams of being Maverick are virtually gone.

'For those of you with ensigns currently waiting to start API, the consequences of the new policy are obvious: a much higher level of effort will be necessary to pass API and continue in flight training as a pilot. It may be possible to acquire an NFO (Naval Flight Officer, back-seater) slot if an individual falls below the required pilot score. The Navy has a slight current need for NFOs. It may also be possible to obtain a transfer to the Marine Corps; however, the likelihood of that occurring is slim to none. The Marine Corps is in need of pilots now, not 2-3 years from now, so they are looking for transfers much farther along in the training pipeline. Remember that all Marine Corps officers must go to The Basic School (TBS, 6 months long) in Quantico, VA before going on full active duty in the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). For Marine Corps transfers, they will attend TBS after earning their pilot wings.

'For some, Pensacola and API will be as far as their Navy career will take them. The entire Navy is overwhelmed with junior officers (ensigns; lieutenants, junior grades; and lieutenants) at the present time, not just the aviation community. Some ensigns will be placed on "Individual Ready Reserve" which, according to the NASC CO, will likely be recalled "only in the case of global thermonuclear war." Translation: the payback commitment is meaningless. Here's your ticket home, thanks for playing, have a nice life.

'What about transfers to other services you ask? Extremely problematic at best, with the exception perhaps being Army infantry. Inter-service transfers are very difficult to negotiate and accomplish.

'For those of you with midshipmen hoping to become Navy pilots, this paints an uncertain indefinite future. Pilot slots for the Academy and ROTC are being reduced by 50 as a whole, for how long I do not know. I understand there to be quite a few issues with service assignment for the class of '05. If you are hoping and praying for more pilot slots, stop, there will be none this year, that I can guarantee.

'For those '05 graduates that actually do secure a pilot slot, I would expect the Navy to throw graduate school at them like candy at a football game. Graduate school defers people for a good solid year from Pensacola. Many '04 graduates were given graduate school slots this past summer to prevent them from getting to Pensacola and exacerbating the problem. Those that do make it to Pensacola this summer or fall, if the quota has not been met, expect the new policy to still be in effect. Even if the quota has been met, expect an uncertain and bumpy ride through the flight training pipeline.

'The outlooks for '06 and '07 are quite uncertain from my point of view. I am speculating far beyond my pay grade, but I would anticipate a sharply reduced number of pilot slots from years past, resulting in much stiffer competition. I obtained a pilot billet from a class ranking in the 700s, barely. I was actually selected for NFO first and fell into an open pilot slot. Do not expect this to happen in the next few years.

'I think the outlook for '08, '09, and '10 improves, because the Navy will be acquiring the new Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and a replacement for the ailing P-3 Orion in the years following these classes' graduations.

'What all this really comes down to the is the fundamental dictum of life on Earth: Hard work is rewarded. Then again, not everyone can finish first and someone has to be the anchorman. Tell your mids that with the current state of the Navy, their effort at the Academy will directly affect their career in the Navy. With the class of '04, they started commissioning "undesignated" officers. These officers will do 2 years as a surface warfare officer and hope that there is another place in the Navy for them at the end of those 2 years. Of course, the pendulum will once again swing the other way and the Navy will find itself in desperate need of officers, but not today and not for the immediate future.'