I am curious how after one selects his aircraft after flight school as what squadron they are assigned and how they go about it and then after in the squadrons how one is selected to attend the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN). -Josh C.

That’s a great question, Josh!  I clearly remember the uncertainty I felt as a brand new Ensign reporting to Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API) at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.  When I wasn’t studying for my classes (or cruising around Pensacola Beach.  In my leather jacket.  In summer.) I was scouring the internet for any gouge I could find on what I would experience in the coming years.

I wish I could tell you that I discovered some magic formula that you can follow that leads straight to TOPGUN, but it simply does not exist.  But, here’s a secret:

It’s all about the needs of the Navy.

Ask a Fighter Pilot: TOPGUN Selection (Part One)
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

To give you a little background, let me try to break down how many ways the Navy will weed out candidates from the moment you set foot in API until your patching ceremony as a new Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) or Adversary Instructor.

In API, you and your fellow Student Naval Aviators (SNAs) will take courses in aerodynamics, aviation weather, aircraft engines and systems, navigation, and flight rules and regulations.  In addition to your traditional academic classes, you will receive basic water survival training, aeromedical training, and will be subjected to the “NAMI whammy” – the rigorous medical screening conducted by the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute.

You can fail classes and be removed from training.  You can discover that you’re not meant for a career in aviation during the “spin and puke” (with emphasis on puke).  Or, you can discover during anthropometric measurements that your God-given limbs weren’t meant to be tucked into the cockpit of a fighter aircraft.

Assuming you pass, you’ll move on to Primary flight training in the T-6B at NAS Whiting Field or NAS Corpus Christi.

In Primary, you will attend ground school where you learn systems specific to the T-6B, local course rules, and emergency procedures.  (You’ll also learn that the leather jacket isn’t the panty-dropper you thought it was in API.)  Once in the aircraft you will fly the Contact phase (basic familiarization), Basic Instruments, Precision Aerobatics, Formation, Radio Instrument navigation, Night Familiarization, and visual navigation.  You are graded on every flight and there will be check rides that are both graded and pass/fail – meaning that you won’t move on until you have satisfied the evaluator.

Assuming you pass each phase, you will select your pipeline with your class.  Even though you are competing with your classmates, there is no guarantee that being #1 in your class will be enough for you to select jets.  Remember the secret?  It’s all about the needs of the Navy.

From Primary, you can select Maritime (P-3, P-8, KC-130J), E-6B Mercury, Helicopters (SH-60F, HH-60H, CH-53D/E) or Tailhook aircraft (E-2C/D, C-2A, FA-18C/E/F, F-35, EA-18G).  Let’s say your class has 10 highly qualified SNAs and the #1 guy in your class is Scott Crossfield reincarnate.  If the Navy only needs one tailhook pilot from your class, neo-Scott Crossfield is going to get it, no matter how good your grades are.

Ask a Fighter Pilot: TOPGUN Selection (Part One)
Red MiG silhouettes are painted on the walls at the Navy Fighter Weapons School to mark each victory by a Navy or Marine Corps air crew during the war in Southeast Asia. Referred to as “Top Gun,” the school provides air combat maneuvering (ACM) training for Navy and Marine Corps pilots.

[You already know where the plaque for the alternates is.  Be like Scott Crossfield.]

For arguments sake, you’ll select tailhook and move on to Intermediate jet training in the T-45 Goshawk at NAS Meridian or NAS Kingsville.

In Intermediate, you will essentially repeat what you learned in Primary, but in a jet.  (Note:  Being a jet pilot still isn’t cool enough to dazzle the ladies.)  And, trust me, it will take you a few flights before you can crawl your way from the horizontal stab (where you’ve been hanging on since takeoff) back into the cockpit.  It’s normal, but those destined to move on to Advanced Strike training will do it just a little bit quicker.  And, after roughly 27 weeks, 80% will move on to that final phase before being winged as Naval Aviators.  The other 20% will fight it out to become COD guys so they can be tailhookers while living the good life ashore with minimal night traps!

Advanced Strike takes approximately 23 weeks and includes training in advanced instruments, low-level navigation, tactical formation flying, Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM), bombing, and Carrier Qualification (CQ).  As with Primary and Intermediate, every flight is graded and every phase has a check ride, giving you plenty of opportunities to fall flat on your face.  Having been an instructor in the T-45, I can tell you that the number one thing I looked for in a student was attitude.  And, not a bad one:  Come prepared, be humble, and ask for help.

Ask a Fighter Pilot:  TOPGUN Selection (Part Deux)

Read Next: Ask a Fighter Pilot: TOPGUN Selection (Part Deux)

Okay, Josh, because I like you, I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  But, if you tell anybody, I’m going to deny it!  (What do you mean this is on-the-line?)  When I was a student, I wanted to fly the F-14 Tomcat (Gasp!).  I had good grades, was near the top of my class, and it looked promising that I would end up reliving my childhood fantasy of requesting a flyby with my wings swept back while my RIO pleaded with me not to.  Until I went to the aircraft carrier for CQ.

In Tailhook aviation, that is where we separate the men from the boys.  Back when I selected, two of the most challenging aircraft to fly behind the boat (not ship… boat) were the EA-6B Prowler and the F-14 Tomcat.  If you didn’t get good grades during CQ, you were not going to fly either one of those.  Guess I was still a boy…

Ranked 10 out of 10, my man!  Yep.  I qualified, but just barely.

So, no Tomcats for me.  But, as it turns out, the Hornet has been pretty good to me and I’m glad things worked out the way they did.  I squeaked through API and dodged the “NAMI whammy”, overcame a poor start in Primary and made it to Kingsville, and managed to avoid the 1-wire enough to qualify, earn my Wings of Gold, and move on to FA-18C Hornet training at NAS Oceana.

Wait… I didn’t answer your question about TOPGUN?  Well, stick around for Part Deux.  Cheers!

(Featured photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

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