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.
Josh! Josh? Oh… there you are! I’m sorry I didn’t answer your question in the first article, but I wanted to make sure I set the stage for you. The important thing to remember is that (say it with me) it’s all about the needs of the Navy!
So, how do you pick your squadron? I think you already know, but I’ll say it anyway: Your squadron picks you. When I went through the FRS, I did pretty well and was considered a “Pri-A” Replacement Pilot (RP), meaning that I would be given a few extra traps at the boat and be sent straight to a carrier to meet my squadron at sea or, my first choice, to Japan.
So, since we all like sea stories, I’ll give you a quick one:
Imagine, if you will, looking through your HUD at a tiny little speck of light in the distance that you are being told you must land on. Your heart is beating through your chest and you can barely hear the screaming power calls over your own breathing. When you land, you look to your right for the lit wands of the taxi director who will taxi you clear of the Landing Area (LA). But, something is wrong. He’s not there. He’s way up there near the bow. And, as you raise your hook and make the taxi of shame up the LA, you’re too stupid to realize that you just caught a 1-wire. And, you taxied into it.
I’ll never forget my shame (and horror) when my favorite Landing Signal Officer (LSO) took me out on the flight deck the next day in broad daylight and showed me where my tailhook hit. It wasn’t the most heinous landing in the history of the Navy (YouTube is full of them), but it was enough to seal my fate:
Ranked 11 out of 12. Sayonara, Japan.
Again, I qualified, but just barely. With the terror of night traps behind me, I was eager to get to my squadron and begin working on my qualifications and go on deployment (where I conveniently forgot that I would be getting even more night traps). I remember the patching ceremony being an exciting time for an RP. By the time it was my turn, I had already been to more than a few and seen friends who classed up before me get patched by their new squadrons. I was excited to meet my new squadron and have my new Commanding Officer invite me to the front with him where he would remove my VFA-106 patches and replace them with the patches of my new squadron. It was not something I wanted to miss.
Too bad I almost did.
The Friday after my last flight, I checked in with the Squadron Duty Officer and asked when the patching ceremony would be. He told me that it wouldn’t be until the next week, so I headed up to Annapolis to celebrate with some friends. I completed the four hour drive just in time for happy hour at Griffin’s when my phone rang.
“Farley, where are you?”
Never a good question. “Uhhh… Annapolis?”
“Well, get back here. Your patching is tonight.”
Back into my car I went. Two and a half hours later (yes, you read that right), I pulled into the O-Club parking lot and sprinted into the back room where they held the patching ceremonies. The place was pretty well cleared out, except for a handful of seasoned pilots who sat in the back of the room nursing their beers and looking either bored or pissed off. When they saw me walk in, they sat up a little straighter and started elbowing each other. Oh yeah, talk about a good first impression.
Without much ceremony or fanfare, my new Skipper ripped off my Gladiators patch and replaced it with my new one. My name tag was replaced with one that said “FNG”.
“Welcome to the War Party, F—ing New Guy.” Five minutes later, the party was over.
I’ll spare you the boring details of how I finished my sea tour with three deployments on three different carriers with three different air wings and two different squadrons. There are plenty of sea stories in there that may need to be dusted off in the near future, but for now they’ll stay comfortably buried. Suffice it to say I was never a Top Ten pilot in landing grades, but I finished my first sea tour with over 300 traps and really only scared myself three, maybe four, times.
By the time you make it to your fleet squadron, you’ve put in nearly three years of training and are feeling pretty good about yourself. Surely, now is the time to break out the leather jacket, right?
Not so fast, nugget!
Your training is just beginning. Under the tutelage of your squadron’s Training Officer, you’ll go through the Strike Fighter Weapons and Tactics (SFWT) training program to first become a qualified wingman (Level II), which you will likely be for your first deployment. After flying on the wing of more experienced pilots for roughly a year, you’ll advance to your Section Lead (Level III) qualification and begin leading around a wingman of your own. After roughly another year, you will advance to your Division Lead (Level IV) qualification and be qualified to lead three other aircraft into combat. Each phase of the SFWT program has multiple briefs and concepts that must be mastered and is worthy of an entirely separate article.
The point I’m trying to make is that by the time you finish your sea tour, you are most likely a Division Lead, possibly a Level IV Instructor, and are thinking about follow-on orders. This is the time you will begin to think about going to the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN).
TOPGUN has evolved over the years from what it was when the documentary starring Tom Cruise was released thirty years ago. Back then, pilots (Sorry, Goose…and RIOs) were selected to attend training in what was known as the “power projection” course. Those crews were given their dream shots and would return to their squadron to pass on the knowledge they learned to their shipmates. Today, pilots (Sorry, Goose…and WSOs) are selected to attend as a requirement for their shore duty assignment as a Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) at the weapons schools (east or west coast), the Naval Aviation Warfighter Development Center (NAWDC…not pronounced “Nazi”), or TOPGUN itself.
Pilots are selected based on multiple factors: Obviously, how your Skipper ranks you within the squadron plays a large role in determining if you will be selected. You must be a good pilot and prove to your Training Officer that you understand and have mastered the tactics of your weapon system. But, in my opinion, the most important prerequisite is that you must be respected by your peers and have the ability to break down complex concepts into simple and easily digestible lessons. In short, you have to be a good teacher.
Selected pilots and WSOs will attend the training course and then report to their shore duty where they will supervise the SFWT training program for the fleet squadrons. TOPGUN instructors will continue to train future SFTIs and are responsible for disseminating changes in tactics to the fleet. Following their shore tours, they will return to the fleet as Training Officers where they will be responsible for the SFWT program in their new squadron.
Typically, pilots earn their patch at around the five-year mark in their career. In a future article, I will explain why I earned mine at the ten-year mark. And, why it has an Adversary rocker underneath. Cheers!
(Featured photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)