The Typical Career Path of a Navy Fighter Pilot: Updated.

My first post about this topic is far and away the most popular post on my blog, so my husband and I collaborated on an update. This is a somewhat comprehensive look at the career path of a Naval fighter/jet pilot. The path can vary slightly, but if the pilot is looking to become an XO/CO, this is their typical way to get there:

1) Flight School, approximately 2 – 2.5yrs: The aviator will be moved at least 3 times. For more information, you can check out these previous posts that detail my husband’s flight school experience: The Beginning/ROTC, API in Pensacola, Primary Training at Vance AFB, Advanced Training at Meridian, and the FRS in Virginia Beach. The aviator will usually be home (where ever “home” is for that period of training!), but they may work odd hours some days and long periods at home will be punctuated by 1 – 3 week trips to El Centro, CA; Key West, FL; Fallon, NV; or anywhere else the Navy finds convenient to fly.  Additionally, there will be two trips to an aircraft carrier. The Student Naval Aviator will study a lot and this can be a very stressful period of time. It’s like attending graduate school with tons of high-stakes examinations.

2) 1st Sea Tour (1st Fleet Squadron), 3 years: The aviator can expect to deploy for 6-8 months at least once (my husband deployed twice, for 6 and 7 months respectively.)  In addition to the deployment, they will engage in a period of pre-deployment “work-ups”. Workups are trips away from home for as long as a month each, which begin as early as a year prior to the deployment. The aviator will have the opportunity to “find their place” in the aviation community by earning various professional qualifications in the aircraft, which will also require extra hours and studying.  The aviator will leave this tour as an O-3.

3) 1st Shore Tour, 2 – 3 years:  There are a lot of options for this tour, which can take the aviator and his family all over the country or world.

The first option is to attend a school. If desired, the aviator can apply to attend a professional weapons school and become a fleet tactics instructor, like TOPGUN in the F-18 community. TOPGUN is the pinnacle of excellence when it comes to employing the aircraft and will require over two months of intense “graduate level” training and would lead the aviator to become a tactics instructor in the fleet (basically a tactics officer in jet squadrons). TOPGUN is just one example of a weapons school. All of the weapons schools are in Fallon, NV, and they can either stay in Fallon, or move back to their home station (Oceana and Lemoore for F-18s).  Another options is to apply to US Navy Test Pilot School.  This is a rigorous, year-long course, which will require even more work and study time than they experienced in flight school.  After completing test pilot school, they will usually be stationed at NAS Patuxent River, MD, or NAS China Lake, CA.  Both are remote locations, but they will get to test the latest and greatest equipment and aircraft in existence.

If the aviator doesn’t wish to be a tactics instructor or test pilot (and many don’t because they have other interests or a specialty they earned in their first fleet tour!), they could be a flight instructor at an FRS. Flight instructors teach the next generation how to fly the same aircraft they flew in the fleet during their first sea tour. There are two fighter FRS locations: NAS Oceana & NAS Lemoore. Flight instructors can also go to any flight training command, where they will teach new flight students how to fly for the first time.  There are a few other paths to continue flying, but the Navy generally prefers to keep their pilots in the cockpit since they’ve invested so much time and money in them up to this point.

The aviator will probably not deploy during second tour. My husband was an instructor at an F-18 FRS. He was home most of the time, but there were many months when he was gone for 2 or more weeks at a time when he took his students on training trips. He was always stateside during his work trips and our quality of life was very good. The aviator will typically be an O-3 throughout this tour, though it isn’t unheard of for someone to become an O-4 by the very end if they were delayed for any reason prior to this (injury, bad luck, flight school hold-up, etc).

4) 2nd Sea Tour (Disassociated Sea Tour), approximately 2 years:  This is an aviator’s third tour as a fleet pilot and it is considered a “filler tour” because it will finish the aviator’s initial commitment if they decide to get out at their first opportunity. For those opting to stay active duty, this tour will bridge the time (if they need it!) before they screen for O-4 and Department Head. There are lots of options for this tour. If the aviator went to TOPGUN, they will become a squadron tactics instructor, and will likely deploy at least once. Another option is to join a deployable squadron as a “Super JO” to augment their pilot roster if they’re short; this job would also probably involve at least one deployment. There are several jobs on Airwing or admiral’s staffs, or one can become an Admiral’s Aide.  My husband worked for an Airwing Staff as a Landing Signals Officer (LSO), and deployed 3 times; however, ONLY in Japan will an aviator ever deploy 3 times in just over 2 years. Most of my friends’ husbands only deployed 1 time during this 2-year period. The tour can be 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.

5) 3rd Sea Tour, 2.5 years: The aviator will probably be a Department Head (DH) at a fleet squadron during this tour, which can be a very stressful but rewarding job. I wrote all about the Department Head tour recently. The aviator will be a squadron leader and will rotate between departments: safety, administration, maintenance, and operations.  Depending on the job (usually maintenance!), they can be in charge of up to 150 sailors and several junior officers (JOs).  My husband had a wonderful tour with his department head squadron, and we felt very lucky.  However, as with all squadrons, it’s all about the people and timing, and we have friends who didn’t enjoy their tours and weren’t given an opportunity to advance.  They have been left with a bitter taste in their mouths about the Navy and we don’t blame them.  It really can come down to luck.   DHs will be ranked against each other, and if managed well, there should be an opportunity for every department head to have an opportunity to become an O-5 (assuming they perform up to their CO’s standards, though there are many who don’t for various reasons).  This is the tour that will decide whether or not the aviator will have a chance to become a CO themselves, and the purpose of this tour is for the aviator to prove that they have what it takes. The DH will probably need to earn a #1 EP on their FITREP for at least 6 months for them to have a chance. For more information, check out my recent DH post.  The aviator will be an O-4 throughout this tour.

6) 2nd Shore Tour, 2 – 3 years: This second shore tour can be a difficult rotation, as it can potentially involve more than one job and more than one move.  The aviator may first spend up to a year at a military War College receiving a Masters degree in an area of strategic studies, and afterward, they may move on to a Joint Tour. The military War Colleges have an EXCELLENT quality of life, as their hours are regular and the aviator is home for dinner every night. If the timing is right for your aviator, this is widely considered a great opportunity for aviators and their deployment-weary families.

If an aviator still needs a Joint Tour check in the box for Command (a requirement!), they will typically move on to a Joint Tour at this point. The purpose of a Joint job is to work with other branches of the military or other countries’ militaries at a staff or operations center. There are several Joint jobs overseas, including Bahrain and Germany, and many more in the states in locations like Colorado Springs, Tampa, FL, and Washington, DC. A Joint Tour is required to be an XO or CO of a squadron, so this is a really important tour for many. If the Navy wants an aviator to be eligible for Command, they will push hard for them to take a joint job.   

The aviator will become eligible for O-5 during this tour.

7) Squadron XO/CO Tour, 3 years: If an aviator makes Command, they 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 Major Command (CO of a Ship, Wing, Base, etc).

If the aviator didn’t screen for O-5 or command, there are dozens of job opportunities available, including wing and admirals staffs, or flight instructors.  A lot of good job opportunities open up once an aviator is “off-track”, which means that these jobs potentially have a great quality of life, are located in really great locations that a Naval jet aviator wouldn’t typically be assigned (like Hawaii!). Some aviators want to make O-5, but do not want to do a Command tour in order to get one of these good deal jobs.

After a CO tour, officers are usually within the 2 year window to 20 years (Retirement! Finally!).  If they wish to retire, they will likely have to do one final tour, which is usually a non-flying job. 

If they did well as a squadron CO and want to stay in past 20 years, they will probably take a non-flying job first, and eventually have an opportunity to fly again as the commander of a Naval Air Station or Wing, which are non-deployable, or as the commanding officer of an Airwing or Aircraft carrier, both of which are deployable.  If they are an airwing commander or carrier CO, they are on a path for 30 years of active service. 

All of this information sounds very overwhelming until you’re in the thick of it. We are in the middle of #6 at the moment, with over 14 years of service behind my husband. From our perspective looking back, we’ve had some times of uncertainty and headaches, but ultimately his career has progressed in an orderly, linear path, just like the Navy intends for everyone.

My biggest piece of advice is to take everything one step at a time, one check in the box at a time. This life is really difficult sometimes and it requires sacrifice always, but there are opportunities and adventures to be had around every corner – be open to them. Sometimes what seems like a bad deal turns out to be a great deal. Sometimes the “best” opportunity turns into a major flop. This life is what YOU make of it and how YOU decide to handle things.

Bloom where you are planted. Always.

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