Navy Struggles with Flier Mismatch

The Navy has decided that it will use its surplus senior pilots and flight officers to fill empty joint and staff billets while it simultaneously is recruiting petty officers to become warrant officer pilots and NFOs.

At the end of 2006 the Navy had almost 700 surplus senior fliers in the grades of LCDR through CAPT (O-4 to O-6). On the other hand, there is a shortage in the O-4 O-6 surface warfare and submarine officer ranks. All officers in the grade of O-4 and above can stay in the service until eligible for retirement. This results in a senior officer surplus as the number of Navy commands continues to shrink, down approximately 50% since 1991 as the number of ships, squadrons, and wings continues to shrink. In the past the Navy has selectively used special incentive programs to motivate surplus senior officers to leave the Navy before becoming eligible for regular retirement.

Meanwhile, applicants are being sought for the Warrant Officer Flier program. Sailors in the grades petty officer second class through chief petty officer (E-5 through E-7) are being encouraged to apply for the program that will place them in Navy aircraft as chief warrant officers (CWO-2) as pilots and naval flight officers. Completed applications are due by June 16, 2007 (http://www.npc.navy.mil/OFFICER/AVIATION/FLYING+CWO+PROGRAM). Such a program would in the future alleviate the surplus of senior officers as aviation warrant officers may not command a squadron but as junior to commissioned officers would remain eligible to stay in the cockpit until retirement.

Over the years the Navy has attempted to solve this mismatch in different ways. It takes approximately two years for the Navy and Marine Corps to create one fully trained pilot or NFO checking aboard his or her first operational squadron, and then another 18 months to become fully fleet qualified. This three and a half year pipeline is difficult to control on any short-term basis. In the past fifteen years the Navy has periodically had to discharge officers under training when the number of authorized flying billets has dropped. As noted above, sometimes incentive programs have also been used. The officer promotion process also comes into play, as the number of officers authorized to be promoted in the different grades changes from year to year. The promotion opportunity for a particular officer grade also varies widely from year to year. In 1990, the promotion opportunity to CAPT for pilots and NFOs in a flying status was approximately 35%. By 1995, that had dropped to less than 10%.

Some years ago the Navy instituted the flying officer only program, under which a pilot or NFO was eligible for promotion through CAPT while remaining in the cockpit and thus not having to compete for command. After several years this program was dropped. The current mismatch between flying officers and billets could be remedied by relaxing the requirement that senior officers not have to be department heads and commanding officers, but rather, be allowed to stay in the cockpit as aircrew. That the Navy has chosen, instead, to push more senior fliers into staff jobs while suffering a shortage of junior commissioned officer candidates, suggests that the Navy has yet to develop a flexibility more suited for warfare in the 21st century.

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