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USN Puts NCOs In Pilots Seats
by James Dunnigan
January 31, 2008

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The U.S. Navy awarded wings to its first two non-officer pilots in over sixty years. Faced with a growing shortage of pilots, the U.S. Navy has finally adopted a solution the U.S. Army implemented long ago; warrant officer pilots. The first fourteen navy warrant officer pilots were commissioned a year ago and sent off to flight school.

Noting over half a century of U.S. Army success with warrant officer program, the U.S. Navy decided to try it out, and called for enlisted volunteers two years ago. The navy warrant officer pilots will serve as flying officers in patrol, electronic warfare and helicopter aircraft. These pilots would remain pilots their entire careers. Commissioned officers are expected to move on to leadership positions. Traditionally, this often means spending some of your time flying a desk, instead of an aircraft. Many pilots don't like this, and the warrant officer program is, for them, an attractive option.

There's a sense of déjà vu with this. The navy had NCOs flying aircraft early in World War II. Ever since, there's been a controversy over whether all pilots (most of whom are highly trained warriors, not leaders, which is what officers are supposed to be) must be officers. At the start of World War II, the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) also had enlisted pilots. These men were NCOs ("flying sergeants") selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots. Not leaders of pilots, but professional pilots of fighters, bombers and whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly, but in addition they would provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground. As the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty Army Air Force (with 2.4 million personnel, and 80,000 aircraft, at its peak), its capable and persuasive commander (General Hap Arnold), insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the Army Air Force eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on only officers being pilots, and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting. When the air force split off from the army in 1947, the army went back to the original concept of "flying sergeants," by making most pilots Warrant Officers (a sort of super NCO rank for experienced troops who are expected to spend all their working their specialty, not being diverted into command or staff duties.) Many air force pilots envied the army "flying Warrants" because the Warrant Officers just fly. That's what most pilots want to do, just fly an aircraft, not a desk. But a commissioned officer must take many non-flying assignments in order to become a "well rounded officer." Many navy and air force pilots don't want to be well rounded officers, they want to fly. So a lot of them quit the military go work for an airline. They often they stay in the reserve, and fly warplanes on weekends, and get paid for it. This is considered an excellent arrangement for the many pilots who take this route.

What the navy is trying to do, besides experiment with the old "flying sergeants" arrangement, is address a shortage of pilots for combat support aircraft. Fighters are the most attractive aircraft for military pilots, but far fewer qualified people want to do the more unexciting work of piloting patrol aircraft and helicopters. The navy is also confronted with the coming generation of robotic aircraft. These UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) are usually controlled (when they are "flown" at all) from the ground. This job has been unattractive to pilots, and often NCOs are used (except by the air force, which has made some of its UAVs completely robotic so they could allow NCOs to push the buttons) to do this. Warrant Officers would be better suited to be career UAV operators.

The navy received 69 application, in 2006, for the 30 initial warrant officer positions. Only 42 of the applicants were found qualified, and 14 completed the initial training. The applicants had to be petty officers (E5-E7), have at least an associate's degree (two years of college) and be under 27 years old. As it turned out, four of the 14 graduates already had civilian pilots licenses, and seven had served as enlisted aircrew. The next selection for this program will take place later this year.

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