The United States Naval Air Training Command (NATRACOM) and the five Training Air Wings (TAW) of which it is comprised, pride themselves on producing the finest Naval Aviators in the world. Headquartered at Naval Air Station (NAS) Corpus Christi, the student pilot training program – commanded by Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) – instructs trainee pilots from all around the world to become Naval Aviators.

AeroResource was granted access to visit all five Training Air Wings of NATRACOM to photograph their aircraft and see the training program which turns Student Naval Aviators (SNA) into Naval Aviators.

Joint Primary Pilot Training (JPPT)

Primary pilot training for all SNAs is conducted at either NAS Whiting Field, Florida or NAS Corpus Christi, Texas on the Beechcraft T-6B Texan II. Following Aviation Preflight Indoctrination at NAS Pensacola, SNAs from both the US Navy and US Marine Corps join JPPT and are taught the basics of flying, from ground school up to aerobatic and formation flying. After successful graduation from a course filled with just over six months of training, SNAs are offered one of six advanced flight training paths. Any student who is not ready to advance is offered extra training to bring them to the standard required for graduation.

Advanced Training

Upon completion of the JPPT, Student Naval Aviators move on to the advanced pipeline of training. As mentioned, each SNA will be offered one of the six primary training paths – either Strike, Rotary, Maritime, E-2C/D & C-2A, E-6B or MV-22B Tilt-Rotor.

Strike Training Path

Intermediate Jet and Advanced Strike Training is based at NAS Meridian Mississippi and NAS Kingsville Texas, with students flying the McDonnell Douglas T-45C Goshawk. The Strike pipeline trains for progression to the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet strike fighters, the EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, F-35B/C Lightning II, AV-8B Harrier II and EA-6B Prowler.

Only US Marine Corps SNAs will train to fly the AV-8B and EA-6B (the AV-8B is only flown by the USMC, and all Navy EA-6B squadrons have now converted to the EA-18G). In the next few years, it is anticipated that training on these platforms will end in favour of the F-35B Lightning II.

Rotary Training Path

Training is performed at NAS Whiting Field Florida on the Bell TH-57B/C Sea Ranger. Future USMC pilots advance onto the AH-1Z Viper, UH-1Y Venom or CH-53E Super Stallion, whilst US Navy SNAs advance onto the SH-60 & MH-60 Seahawk (all variants). US Coast Guard (USCG) student pilots will train to fly the MH-60 Jayhawk and the MH-65 Dolphin.

Maritime Training Path

NAS Corpus Christi performs all training for this pipeline with students flying the TC-12B Huron or the T-44C Pegasus. Once gaining their wings, the SNAs on the Maritime training path will progress onto either the P-3 Orion (although this is now being phased out as the Poseidon enters service), EP-3E Aries, P-8A Poseidon, C-130 Hercules or the HC-144 Ocean Sentry.

E-2 & C-2 Training Path

Phase 1 of this course is performed on the T-44C at NAS Corpus Christi then SNAs move onto phase 2 at either NAS Meridian or NAS Kingsville flying the T-45C. Because of the operational role of the E-2 and C-2 aircraft, to complete the syllabus students must perform carrier qualifications. This involves deck landings on a moving aircraft carrier whilst flying the T-45C. Following completion of the course, newly “winged” pilots will transition to VAW-120 at NAS Norfolk, Virginia. VAW-120 is the Navy’s Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), responsible for converting student pilots onto the E-2C/D Hawkeye and C-2A Greyhound.

E-6B Training Path

All E-6B Mercury trainees perform their flight training on the T-44C at NAS Corpus Christi. Previously, those SNAs selected to go onto the E-6B were sent for separate training at Vance Air Force Base, but are now trained together with all other multi-engine students on the T-44C.

Tilt-Rotor Training Path

Because of the unique nature of the MV-22 bridging the gap between fixed wing and rotary aircraft, the pipeline to fly the Osprey requires training on both types of aircraft. Initially, SNAs will be trained on rotary wing aircraft (having already flown fixed with during JPPT). Intermediate Rotary Training phase 1 is at NAS Whiting Field on the venerable TH-57B/C, with later progression to phase 2 multi-engine fixed wing training on the Beechcraft TC-12B Huron at NAS Corpus Christi.

Naval Flight Officer (NFO) Training

Naval Flight Officers (NFOs), or in British parlance a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), follow a different training path to their SNA brethren, with NAS Pensacola Florida conducting all NFO training for CNATRA. After completing an Aviation Preflight Indoctrination phase, primary training begins with Training Squadron TEN (VT-10) flying the Beechcraft T-6A Texan II (similar to the T-6B, but without the more modern glass cockpit) in a phase known as Primary 1. Very similarly to JPPT, the student NFOs undergoing Primary 1 are taught the basics of flying, instrument navigation, communication, formation flying, simulator training and a wide breadth of supporting academic subjects necessary for the role.

If a Student is selected for a role in Strike, they will be tracked to the Primary 2 training path, which includes further academic study and additional T-6A flight training (covering high speed navigation, tactical manoeuvres and instrument procedures). The track towards Strike moves them to advanced primary training with Training Squadron EIGHT SIX (VT-86) flying the T-45C Goshawk which provides tactical air-to-air training. Upon completion of this course the NFO will receive their Navy Wings and be assigned to one of two Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS). The FRS acts as the Operational Conversion Unit to teach the NFO to fly the frontline aircraft they will eventually be assigned to. Currently Strike students are passed to either VFA-122 at NAS Lemoore, California or VFA-106 at NAS Oceana, Virginia – both units converting NFOs to operate all marks of the F/A-18 Hornet (F/A-18C, F/A-18E/F and the EA-18G).

Aside from Strike, NFOs can be streamed through three additional tracks – namely Airborne Early Warning (AEW), Maritime Patrol (MPR) and Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO). Following completion of Primary 1, all students on these routes move on to Training Squadron FOUR (VT-4), a non-flying simulator squadron utilizing the PMA-205 Multi-Crew Simulator (MCO). Introduced to the training syllabus in 2014, the MCO enables greater mission command skills, communication, navigation, real world simulated training missions, multi- configurable simulations and real threat tactical awareness. The MCO also trains students to use sensors, radar, data-linking, infra-red cameras, electronic surveillance and acoustics. Successful students in the AEW and MPR track will transfer to NAS Jacksonville Florida to train on the P-3C Orion, EP-3E Aries and P-8A Poseidon. For the TACAMO role, NFOs will move to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron SEVEN (VQ-7) at Tinker AFB Oklahoma to train on board the E-6B Mercury.

Training Air Wing One, NAS Meridian

Training Air Wing ONE (TAW-1) has two training squadrons assigned – VT-7 “Eagles” and VT-9 “Tigers”, with a total amount of 83 T-45C Goshawks at their disposal. SNAs train for around 12 months and as part of their Strike training will be tasked to perform two and four ship formation flying, night flights, Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM), air-ground bombing, operational navigation and Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP). To earn their wings, the final stage of training is multiple carrier deck touch and go’s and deck arrested landings (at the start of 2017 these are being conducted on the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, which returned from deployment at the end of 2016 and is now being used as the “ready ship”).

During Fiscal Year 2016 VT-7 trained 43 USN/USMC aviators and 12 international aviators from France. Currently assigned to VT-7 are 100 SNAs, 35 instructors and 9 government civilian staff. In 2016 VT-7 received the Safety “S” Award for Safety Excellence during the previous Fiscal Year. Training detachments are either to NAS El Centro, California or Cecil Field Airport, Florida and range from 1-4 weeks. For VT-9, Fiscal Year 2016 saw 47 USN/USMC and 3 international aviators trained which is the same level as 2015. Assigned for training are 110 students and 39 instructor pilots of which 28 are USN, 10 USMC and 1 from the Royal Navy. VT-9 has eight to nine detachments per year – four of which are weapons air-ground bombing detachments at NAS El Centro, and the rest are carrier qualifications (CQ) to the East or West Coast.

Commanders quote – Captain Paul A Carelli, Commander TAW-1

“For Two years, Training Air Wing One has experienced an increase from approximately 120 to 200 students in training. A number of our students are international military officers represented by allied nations such as France, Singapore, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. The international students represent the best from their nation and undergo the same rigorous training as United States Navy and Marine Corps students. I am proud of our instructor pilots, service members, contactors and civilian employees, for their amazing accomplishments and remarkable level of production in providing the best aviators in the world. We look forward to the challenges that 2017 holds in store for us and I know, because of the intense dedication of our people, we will be successful.”

Training Air Wing Two, NAS Kingsville

Flying from NAS Kingsville, TAW-2 also operates the T-45C with two squadrons assigned and between VT-21 “Redhawks” and VT-22 “Golden Eagles”, the Wing has around 100 T-45s attached. TAW-2 performs the same role as TAW-1 at NAS Meridian and a SNA course is typically no longer than one calendar year. During Fiscal Year 2016 over 150 students passed through NAS Kingsville, trained by 70 instructors and assisted by 80 government civilian staff. Some 20% of the SNAs trained are USMC, and TAW-2 provides the USN/USMC with a little over 50% of its Strike pilots every year. Both VT-21 and VT-22 saw four detachments to NAS El Centro in 2016 with the same amount of carrier qualification detachments to earn the students their “Golden Wings” and pilot status.

Training Air Wing Four, NAS Corpus Christi

TAW-4 at NAS Corpus Christi differs from TAW-1 and TAW-2 in having four squadrons assigned, performing the JPPT and multi-engine training paths. Both VT-27 “Boomers” and VT-28 “Rangers” fly the T-6B Texan II used for the JPPT role, with the course lasting around 30 weeks. In the advanced training role VT-31 “Wise Owls” flies the T-44C, and VT-35 “Stingrays” train with the TC-12B – although these are due to be retired out of service during 2017 and to be replaced by the T-44C (which performs an almost identical role to the TC-12B). As of the start of 2017, TAW-4 has 19 TC-12s, 54 T-44C and 97 T-6B aircraft. Fiscal Year 2016 throughput of students stayed constant to fiscal year 2015 at a little over 1000. Advanced multi-engine training depends on the student’s syllabus and track, but is normally between 27-35 weeks. TAW-4 has 230 instructors assigned, split across the four flying squadrons.

Each winter from January to March, 25-30 T-6Bs detach to Bullhead City, Arizona to keep primary flight training current and this is normally the only detachment for TAW-4 each year. TAW-4 is comprised of 700 military personnel, 100 Navy civilian employees and 500 contractor with the contractors providing a portion of the classroom and simulator training, alongside all aircraft maintenance.

Awards to TAW-4 are CNO safety award, John Towers TW-4 squadron award, T.E. Ellyson awards for pilot training excellence and individual awards of Instructor of the Year and Flight Surgeon of the Year.

Commanders quote – Captain Trey “Tex” Hayden, Commander TAW-4

“Training Wing Four performed exceptionally well in 2015 and 2016. We completed the transition from the T-34C to the T-6B in 2015 and the very nature of that process left us with some unfilled, but planned production requirements and completed 100% of current year requirements on time. We have high expectations for 2017 successes.”

Training Air Wing Five, NAS Whiting Field

TAW-5 has six squadrons assigned for two pipelines of training. Primary fixed wing SNA training is with the T-6B of VT-2 “Doerbirds”, VT-3 “Red Knights” and VT-6 “Shooters” with Rotary training performed in the TH-57B/C models of HT-8 “Eight Ballers”, HT-18 “Vigilant Eagles” and HT-28 “Helions”.

Based at NAS Whiting Field, the TAW-5 fleet is made up from 148 T-6Bs and 115 TH-57s. In Fiscal Year 2015, 736 SNAs passed through on the T-6B, and 663 on the TH-57, with Fiscal Year 2016 seeing 760 on the T-6B and 601 on the TH-57.

Instructors on the T-6B number 248 on the T-6B and 227 on the TH-57. Only one six-week detachment was conducted in 2016, which saw T-6B training deploying to Roswell, New Mexico. TAW-5 has 250 maintenance contractors on the TH-57, 272 on the T-6B and 99 supporting simulator training.

Many awards have been presented through 2015/2016, these include CNATRA Flight Instructor of the Year, CNATRA Reserve Component Flight Instructor of the Year, The Orville Wright Achievement Award (student with highest overall grades over six months), CNATRA Training Excellence Award (best overall primary and advanced training squadrons) VT-3 for primary training and HT-18 for advanced training and the prestigious Vice Admiral Robert Goldthwaite Award (outstanding squadron for training excellence in NATRACOM) to VT-3 “Redknights”.

Commanders quote – Captain Mark Murray, Commander TW-5

“Training Air Wing Five has performed superbly over the past two years. This past year, we exceeded our Primary Flight Training production goals and we forecast to do the same in 2017. Our Advanced Helicopter Training also performed exceptionally well, meeting our adjusted production output despite the challenges of operating an ageing helicopter. Next year we expect to meet or exceed last years production numbers as we fine-tune our operations and scheduling processes.”

Training Air Wing Six, NAS Pensacola

Known as the “Cradle of Aviation” in the USN, NAS Pensacola in Florida is home to all NFO training and Training Air Wing SIX (TAW-6) is assigned three squadrons – VT-4 “Warbucks” (no aircraft currently assigned) who conduct MCS and academic training only, VT-10 “Wildcats” flying the T-6A, and VT-86 “Sabrehawks” with the T-45C. Assigned aircraft are 42 T-6A and 21 T-45C, on which the student NFO class will take approximately one year to complete Primary 1 through to Advanced training and earn their NFO wings. The NFO pipeline had a little over 300 students for fiscal year 2016 with a complement of 156 instructors. TAW-6 does not normally detach aircraft away for training, but during poor weather conditions around the February time VT-86 may locate to other warmer locations around the Gulf of Mexico.

AeroResource would like to thank the following for their assistance in this article – Penny Randell TAW-1, Rodney Hafemeister TAW-2, Lt Elizabeth Feaster TAW-4 (CNATRA), Jay Cope TAW-5 and Cathy Witney TAW-6 and the many personnel from NATRACOM for providing the access required to make this article happen.