Navy flight school is a challenging and rigorous undertaking designed for one purpose: to transform newly minted officers into professional and competent combat-quality military aviators. The U.S. Navy has been in the flight training business since 1911, when Lieutenant T. G. Ellyson effectively became Student Naval Aviator #1, training under aircraft builder and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss.1 Since then, the Naval Air Training Command has grown into one of the largest and most respected flight training programs in the world, producing more than 1,300 pilots and naval flight officers each year for the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and numerous partner nations.2
Navy flight training is unapologetically demanding. Over each the past five fiscal years, about 1 in 5 students were attrited for various reasons. Some found themselves unprepared for the commitment required to keep up with the pace and volume of training. Still others may have been surprised to discover that the skills and talents that enabled them to succeed previously were not the same as those needed to perform well as a student military aviator. Learning to fly requires broad academic knowledge, keen spatial and situational awareness, good judgment, and rapid decision-making abilities, as well as a level of maturity that enables all of those capacities to function well under pressure.
The Navy has largely adopted a “sink-or-swim” model of flight training. There is no hand-holding. The learning curve is steep. The T-6B Texan II is an 1,100-horsepower, complex, high-performance beast that would hardly meet the definition of an entry-level trainer anywhere but in the military. Yet students are expected to solo this aircraft after only 13 flights and a little more than 20 total flight hours. In addition, they are expected to fly in both Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) environments, perform aerobatic maneuvers, fly formation solo, and navigate on cross-country missions while operating in some of the country’s busiest airspaces, such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Orlando, and Washington, D.C.
How can students prepare for and succeed in this environment? What skills and attributes are needed to not only get through Navy flight school, but also perform well? The following are a few lessons I learned over more than a decade of military flying, lessons I wish someone had imparted to me earlier in my own career.
Nobody Cares More about Your Success than You Do
The Navy wants students to succeed. It already has invested significant time and money just to get a student into the aviation pipeline. However, more than a hundred students are training at each of the five primary-phase squadrons at any given time. In my current tour at Training Squadron Three, I am constantly humbled and gratified by the commitment our instructor pilots devote to each student. They gladly spend hours during predawn briefs or stay late into the night debriefing a flight. They will work through the weekends, flying right up to the limits delineated by Navy regulations, to ensure each student is afforded the quality training that we pride ourselves on and that he or she deserves.
Nevertheless, the lion’s share of effort still must come from the student. Students must be able to take the lessons from each training opportunity, digest them, and apply them quickly to the next event, which likely will occur the next (or even that same) day.
Until this point, most students likely experienced a more collaborative teaching model. High schools and colleges often have the flexibility to tailor learning methods, curricula, and support structures to individual students. Even at the U.S. Naval Academy, resources such as the Center for Academic Excellence, extra instruction, and specialized tutoring programs provide the time and space for students to get extra help. Programs such as these, while well suited to a purely academic environment, do not promote the kind of independent thinking and action required of naval aviators.
When they arrive at aviation preflight indoctrination in Pensacola, students have access to all the resources they need, but it is up to them to seek them out. Many students, for example, might not realize that all Chief of Naval Air Training flight training instructions, wing standard operating procedures, Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) manuals, and other critical publications are available online—and can all be accessed before starting flight school. Some of these important documents will not be issued in paper form, but all are required knowledge. Unfortunately, I have encountered students who did not realize until late in the program that some of these publications existed online, much less where to find them. Many students go online to find the “gouge,” but fewer realize that the source documents on which they will be evaluated also are there. This is largely because nobody told them, and they never bothered to ask.
Those students who do well in flight school understand early on that no one is going to hold their hands through training. They understand that success or failure depends heavily on seeking out information and answers on their own. They take ownership of their training and behave accordingly, knowing that nobody cares more about their success than they do.
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
In a literal sense, many students are made uncomfortable minutes into their first flights in the T-6B. Airsickness is common among new students, and while most overcome it quickly with more exposure, some take longer to adapt. More than airsickness, however, discomfort will come in the form of both mental and physical fatigue. While too much fatigue is a clear and unacceptable safety hazard, it is important that all students experience some measure of fatigue during training.
Student aviators must be able to perform at their best with little time to study, prepare, or unwind. They are scheduled for a final examination “checkride” after five consecutive days of flying, often flying two or even three times a day. There is little time between events to study and “chair fly” (going through the maneuvers and procedures of a full flight profile at home, using a chair to mimic the cockpit).
At the conclusion of primary flight training, students routinely lament the discomfort they experienced trying to keep up. Many understandably wish they had had more time between events to study, reflect, prepare, or even just relax. And many believe they would have performed better if only they had been granted that time.
As instructors, we try to explain that military aviation only gets more difficult and demanding from here: flying search-and-rescue missions in the middle of the night over frigid Atlantic waters, landing a fighter jet on the deck of a pitching aircraft carrier with only enough fuel for one attempt, or commanding a large aircraft with more than a dozen crewmembers on board charged with ensuring the nation’s strategic nuclear deterrence. But it is hard to instill what that pressure really feels like. Being able to perform well when physically and mentally taxed is a critical component of Navy flight training that is not fully appreciated until a pilot or naval flight officer experiences one of these situations in the fleet.
Students also must become comfortable with failure. The screening and acceptance process for flight school is demanding. Students already have demonstrated significant ability and success, either in high school and college or in previous careers in the military or elsewhere. In short, flight students are used to success. But flight training is a challenge unlike any they have seen before. As one popular book title aptly puts it, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.3
No student should expect to go through flight school without criticism—a lot of it—or without the occasional failure. Failure may simply mean not meeting the performance criteria for a particular task, thereby earning a grade below “maneuver item file” (MIF) on an event. Other times it might mean getting a “pink sheet” after failing an event entirely. Every student will experience failure to some degree during flight training. It is how he or she responds that determines what happens next.
Too often, students allow failure to leach into their identities. They expend too much energy and time dwelling on the failure, letting it detract from studying and preparing for the next event. When this happens, one failure leads into another, then another, and eventually snowballs into something from which the student cannot recover. Those who succeed understand failure as nothing more than one of life’s best learning opportunities. They take ownership of their mistakes and refuse to let the mistakes own them. They make a concerted effort to extract the lesson, improve the deficiency, and move on.
In many ways, failure is a necessary part of training. How a student responds to these early failures helps determine if that aviator will be able to handle future challenges in the fleet.
Do Not Go It Alone
Navy flight training demands immense personal study and preparation. Many students bring strong study habits, but this alone is insufficient. Students who do well in flight school find opportunities early and often to study with their peers and in group settings, often seeking out others further along in the program who can offer a “been there, done that” perspective. When a student aviator struggles and eventually has to go before a Training Review Board to determine whether he or she can stay in the program, one of the questions the board will ask is whether that student studied alone or in groups. Often, the struggling student did little group work and spent most study time alone. Unfortunately, at this point in the process, it may be too late to correct this.
Just as one is more likely to exercise with a partner, students have an added incentive to stay motivated and study if part of a group. Not only do other group members provide some accountability, but they also can help identify gaps or errors in knowledge. Collective wisdom often is better than individual knowledge, especially if students can consult with those who are further along in training and can season academic studying with some actual flight line experience.
Group studying must, of course, be balanced with individual effort. A student should not become overly reliant on the group to succeed and must be able to answer questions and perform effectively on his or her own. For example, students must be able to do their own takeoff and landing data calculations for a given flight, even though it may be tempting to allow the group to provide that information to everyone. Successful students seek out others who can provide information, fill in the blanks of their understanding, and help them make sense of concepts from the book while at the same time maintaining the independence and discipline to find information on their own.
Succeeding as a student military aviator takes dedication, discipline, and unrelenting effort. It also requires skills that most students may not have had to exercise before, as well as a healthy dose of expectation management. Many students do exceptionally well on the road to their Wings of Gold, but it is not their basic piloting abilities alone that make them successful. Indeed, the fundamental “stick-and-rudder” skills eventually will come to just about anyone who practices enough. The students who do well in flight training succeed because they take ownership of their own training, understand the need for and embrace discomfort and welcome failure, and seek out others for help while simultaneously staying accountable for their own learning. To be sure, Navy flight training is hard—and for good reason—but if the Navy did not think you could do it, you would not be there.
1. William J. Armstrong, “U.S. Naval Aviation Training 1911–1922,” in Naval Aviation Training (Washington, DC: Deputy Chief of Naval Operations [Air Warfare] and Commander, Naval Air Systems Command, 1987), 3, www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/naval-aviation-history/naval-aviation-training.html.
2. Chief of Naval Air Training, “Mission,” www.cnatra.navy.mil/mission.asp.
3. Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (Hachette Books, 2007).