Guest Post: How to become a Naval Aviator – Primary at Vance AFB

This is the 3rd installment of my husband’s guest post series. My husband is a F-18 pilot in the United States Navy and these blog posts are his experience in becoming a Naval Aviator. Later posts will talk about what his job as a pilot is actually like. He has been a qualified F-18 pilot since March 2007, and he has been a Naval Officer for 10 years.

Previous posts:
1. ROTC & getting selected for flight school.
2. API in Pensacola.

Primary at Vance Air Force Base

After completing API, your next step is to select where you want to go to “Primary.”

Primary flight training is your first introduction to military flying; for most, it is our first opportunity to fly an airplane. At first, those with a civil aviation background will excel. However, after the basics are over, whatever advantage they had is null, since civilian aviation is unlike military aviation.

There are a few locations for primary flight training. The two most popular choices are Pensacola, FL and Corpus Christi, TX. The training is identical, as is the aircraft. Most guys with families wanted to stay in in Pensacola, while the single guys wanted to try out Corpus.

That’s the end of my knowledge on Navy Primary because a few of us were sent to Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma for a cross-service training experience. The Air Force flew the T-37 Tweet, an ancient twin-engine jet that was designed and built in the 1950s. At the time, Vance AFB had just begun to switch to the T-6 Texan. Today, both the Navy and Air Force use the T-6 for Primary flight training.

My take on Air Force training: I’m glad I did it, but I’d never want to do it again. Their concept of how to train a new Navy pilot is so vastly different from the Navy that it’s hard to believe they’re teaching identical skills. I felt that the Air Force method was idiot-proof. Once you had made it to flight training, you had to try really hard to fail. They spoon-feed you everything, scheduled every minute of your day, and forced you to succeed. Conversely, the Navy tells you what time your flight is and it’s up to you to prepare; from what I’ve heard, it’s easy to fail Navy Primary.

Being a bit of an idiot myself, it turns out the Air Force training was a blessing in disguise for me. As I mentioned before, I wasn’t the strongest student, so the structured environment and idiot-proofing helped me succeed. I’d like to think that I would have passed Navy Primary, too, but I know I got lucky by going through Air Force training.

When nearly complete with Primary, student pilots submit a ranked list of their choices for their future career. The choices include “Tailhook” (jets), Helicopters (helos), and prop planes. By selecting “Tailhook”, the student indicates that they want to do carrier aviation (fighter jets or E-2/C-2s). The final selection between those carrier aircraft occurs later.

The Navy uses many factors to determine your placement, but your Naval Standard Score (NSS) is the biggest factor. Your NSS is based on your performance throughout the aircraft syllabus. It is computed much like the NFL’s QB rating: Magic. When I was a student, you needed a score of +35 to pass, +50 to get jets, and +70 was the highest possible score. I think my NSS was a 52, barely in the “jet” range.

Many current helo and prop pilots received a higher NSS then me, but they were not selected for jets because there is a 2nd factor the Navy uses to determine your aircraft: “needs of the Navy.”

From a student’s perspective, the “needs of the Navy” is very unpredictable. Although a few of my buddies did better then me in Primary, they finished a different week then me when when fewer jet slots were available; so, instead of getting their first choice of Tailhook, they were selected for helos.

I selected for jets, which was my first choice and I was very excited. However, the excitement wore-off when I arrived in Meridian, Mississippi for “Advanced”.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!! I’m currently AD enlisted with a degree and considering listing pilot as one of my options for my OCS package.

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