SWOs Need A "Flight School"

Lieutenant Commander Tyler McKnight, U.S. Navy

What SWOs need is a surface version of flight school, a place where rising SWOs receive hands-on training from fleet-experienced instructors on the policies and procedures developed and agreed upon by SWO leadership. (Naval aviation has done this for decades, as has the submarine community.) Yes, SWOs attend the basic division officer course (BDOC); however, during the course, junior officers receive no time at sea, and many do not attend BDOC until they are well into their first tour. Nothing can replace the educational experience of being taught a skill and then applying it in real life. A surface “flight school” would improve technical knowledge, experience, and—inevitably—the confidence of new junior officers checking into their first ships.

One obvious obstacle to standing up such a command is cost; the Navy as a whole is fiscally stretched thin. A version of such a unit already exists, however. U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen have been taught for many years the basics of shiphandling and navigation on yard patrol craft (YPs). While these vessels are useful for the professional development of midshipmen, not all midshipmen become SWOs. The Navy’s return on investment would increase significantly if the YPs were used to train SWOs. Just as aviators begin primary flight training on aircraft such as the T-6 Texan II before flying more complex aircraft, SWOs would benefit from learning the basics on YPs. It would be much easier—and less risky—for SWOs to make mistakes and learn from them in the safe waters of the Chesapeake Bay, than on the high seas in ships such as the Wasp. (And surface ships in the fleet are often constrained by training evolutions and operational commitments that leave little time for the crew to practice basic shiphandling.) It also would be an opportunity for the surface community to weed out those officers who do not have the aptitude to qualify as OODs, before they fill an operational billet.   

The YPs also could be used for refresher training for SWOs returning to sea duty, in the same way aviators cycle through a fleet replacement squadron after a non-flying tour. When inexperienced officers turn to their leaders for guidance, it is important that those leaders are not only experienced, but also proficient.

Surface warfare “flight school” certainly would be a dramatic departure from how the SWO community has operated, and shifting YPs to train SWOs rather than midshipmen might not be a seamless transition. In an ever more fiscally constrained environment and challenging security landscape—with hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to two destroyers looming—the SWO flight school offers one cost-effective way to train the officers who conn the Navy’s surface fleet.

Lieutenant Commander McKnight is an MH-60 helicopter pilot. He has deployed several times with Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron (HS) 5 (recently rechristened as Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron [HSC] 5), the Nightdippers.

Photo Caption: Could Yard Patrol Craft (YPs) be the "T-6 Texans" for SWOs.  Credit: U.S. Navy

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