A Navy fighter pilot’s typical career path.

I receive some really, really fantastic questions via email. I try to answer your questions as best I can, and, given how great the questions are, I’d like to start posting some of the questions and answers.

About 2/3 of my emails are from pilots’ or prospective-pilots’ significant others and families. I am asked a lot of really good general questions about an aviation family’s quality of life, how to deal with separations, etc. I will post many of these questions.

1/3 of the emails come from prospective pilots or current pilots who would like advice, mostly on behalf of their wife, girlfriend, or family, or about how to promote a good quality of life for their loved ones. The most detailed and thorough emails I receive are from this last group, and I most enjoy answering these emails.

All of your questions are fantastic, and I hope that you are happy with my responses. You can email me anytime at TheNavyLifeofaPilotsWife@gmail.com 🙂

Today’s Question: What is the typical career path of a Navy pilot?
As the wife of a Navy F-18 pilot, I can only speak to the career path of a fighter pilot, BUT the career path of all Navy aviators is similar.

The below list is the typical career route for fighter pilots who will become squadron Commanding Officers. Some aviators take slightly different routes or make different career choices along the way due to differing aspirations (not all aviators want to be a CO!), because they want a better family life, or for a number of other very good reasons.

1. Flight School: approx. 2 – 2.5yrs; the aviator (and family) will be moved at least 3 times, usually 4 times. For more information, you can check out these previous posts that detail my husband’s flight school experience! The aviator will usually be home, but they may work odd hours some days and long periods at home will be punctuated by 1 – 3 week trips to Key West, Fallon, NV, and to an aircraft carrier (twice). The aviator will study a lot, especially during the first year. This is a very stressful period of time.

2. 1st Sea Tour (1st Fleet Squadron): 3 years; the aviator can expect to deploy for 10 months at least once (my husband deployed twice, but the 2nd time was for only 6 months). In addition to the deployment, they will engage in a period of “work-ups”, which may take them away from home for 3 – 6 months prior to the deployment. The aviator will have the opportunity to “find their place” in the aviation community by attending Top Gun, becoming a LSO, attending “schools”, or taking part in other activities. These specializations will guide their career path. The aviator will make O-3 during this tour.

3. 1st Shore Tour: 2 years; they could be a flight instructor at a FRS or any flight training school, they could become an Admiral’s aid or work a non-flying job (which is bad for their career if they want to continue flying), or they could do an exchange tour overseas (also bad for their career unless they get a flying job, which would, in that case, be AWESOME!). The aviator will probably not deploy during this time. My husband was an instructor at a F-18 FRS. He was home most of the time, but there were many months when he was gone for 2 or more weeks. However, he was stateside during his work trips and our quality of life was very good. The aviator will be an O-3 throughout this tour.

4. 2nd Sea Tour: 2 years; the aviator will probably deploy during this tour. My husband will deploy 3 times because he has been extended here by 3 months; however, ONLY in Japan will an aviator ever deploy 3 times in 2.5 years. Most of my friends’ husbands only deployed 1 time during this 2 year period. This 2 year tour is fairly stressful, but it’s an opportunity for the aviator to get a job that will help their career. The aviator will make O-4 during this tour. Following this tour, they will hit the 8-year commitment mark and can get-out of the military if they choose.

5. 3rd Sea Tour (2nd Fleet Squadron): 2.5 years; the aviator will probably be a Department Head (DH) at a fleet squadron during this tour, which is a very stressful but rewarding job. They will learn to lead sailors during this tour and will rotate between squadron departments (safety, training, etc). With each rotation, they will lead up to 100 sailors and several JOs (junior officers). Most of our DH friends report that they are stressed but satisfied with this tour. If they perform better then their DH peers, they will be ranked #1 among their peers and receive a #1 EP from their Skipper (CO), which will put them into the pool of potential squadron skippers. In order to be a squadron skipper, they MUST receive a #1 EP during their DH tour. The aviator will be an O-4 throughout this tour.

6. 2nd Shore Tour: 3 years; this will probably be a combination job, where the aviator may spend 1 – 2 years at a War College receiving a masters degree in an area related to leading sailors, and afterwards they will move on to their Joint Tour. Their time at the War College has an EXCELLENT quality of life, as their hours are regular and they’re home for dinner every night. Their timing varies, but they probably will not stay at a War College longer then 2 years.
Following their time at the War College, they will go on to their Joint Tour, which is a deployable job that could station the aviator and their family anywhere (and I do mean ANYWHERE!) in the world. The purpose of this job is to prove that they can work with other branches of the military or other countries’ militaries. The aviators tend to come and go often during the Joint Tour, but I’ve been told that the quality of life during the joint tour is excellent because they are usually doing a job that they wanted to do in a location where they wanted to go.
If the aviator has already completed a masters degree, either by doing a Navy-approved online program or by going to a military college earlier in their career, they will spend all 3 years doing a Joint Tour.
The aviator will become an O-5 during this tour.

7. Squadron XO/CO Tour: 3 years; the aviator will be assigned to a deployable squadron for their Executive Officer (XO) and Commanding Officer (CO) tour. They will serve in each position for about 1.5 years. Like the DH tour, this is a stressful but very rewarding job. They will lead hundreds of sailors and officers. During this time they will compete for the highly coveted #1 EP among other XO/COs, which would green-light them into the position of CAG and, eventually, Admiral.

By their 7th tour, officers have already put-in their 20 years towards retirement, and most choose to retire. Although some COs want to continue on to higher ranking positions, many families are exhausted from moving, stress, and separations, and at least half of the aviators are ready to settle-in to normal family life. If they retire from the Navy after their CO tour, they will be about 45 or 46 years old, and, depending where they’ve been stationed, they may have deployed as many as 10 times. By the end of this tour, my husband will have deployed 5 times.

All of this information sounds very overwhelming until you’re in the thick of it. We are in the middle of #4 at the moment, and nothing, from my prospective, seems very overwhelming or difficult. My husband has already done so much and put in so much time that, in my opinion, we should keep going and focus on our long-game. However, it’s easy to disagree with this point of view. Many spouses say the same thing — their husband has already put in so much time and done so much, and it’s time for him to turn his focus to their family life and having a more stable life that involves living in one location.

Every military family has to overcome (sometimes extreme) difficulties. Some jobs involve a little more sacrifice then others, but, overall, all of us military families sacrifice a lot: time with our loved ones, time with our spouse, time together as a family, time in general. There are great psychological and emotional costs, too — not just for the service member. Military life isn’t for everyone, but I think that I navigate this life better then most and I am very happy with our military life.


  1. Awesome info Rebecca… for someone actively pursuing what you and your husband are already doing, this information is invaluable. It is tiring to wade through all the conflicting and confusing information out there, but this is simple and from the source. You can’t beat this. Thanks!

  2. I came across your blog and this post the other day, and I was wondering, does your husband know of any one who went through the CVN pipeline *after* a CAG tour?

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