Caution: Long post. Plan accordingly.
OPSEC Note: The Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) has made the UMFO Master Curriculum Guides (MCG) publicly available on his website for Primary, Intermediate, and Advanced.
Primary Flight TrainingMy previous post ended with me in Contact Phase. Since then, I completed Contacts, Instrument Navigation 1 (INAV 1), and Visual Navigation (VNAV)—collectively "Primary 1"—then INAV 2, and Section Fundamentals (Baby Forms)—collectively "Primary 2"—graduating from Primary 2 on the last business day before Christmas break. Page I-5 of the Primary UMFO MCG linked above depicts the UMFO Course Flow and is shown below.
UMFO Course Flow: Primary 1 & 2
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StagesHere are some tips about what each phase is like.
ContactsI discussed the purpose of Contacts in my previous post (and in fact, I recently updated that old post with new understanding about the purpose).
INAV 1This is an introduction to using instruments for navigation en route and for flying instrument approach procedures, as opposed to the visual/GPS flying used in Contacts. It further develops the students ability to perform procedures in the cockpit, as these are the "bread and butter" of an NFO.
VNAVThis phase introduces the student to low-level flying using visual cues for navigation and, more importantly, the mission planning steps necessary for such flights. They are flown along VNAV routes defined by the squadron at 2,000-2,500' above sea level at 180 knots (207 mph). These flights require weather better than basic VFR minimums, so students often get held up here if the local area weather isn't cooperating. Further, this phase is used as an opportunity to expose the student to precision aerobatics (PA). SNFOs are expected to brief the maneuvers but not fly them. It helps develop G-tolerance as well as reveal any issues with airsickness.
INAV 2After making it through Primary 1 Graduation/Selection, students in Primary 2 have several flights to practice instrument procedures again.
Baby FormsThe culmination of Primary Flight Training, SNFOs are expected to plan and thoroughly brief these 2 events (usually an out-and-in) with their assigned partner. As complex as the flights seem at the time, they are just building blocks for follow-on training; they consist of only demonstrations of what formation flight looks like and the basics of maneuvering a "section" (i.e., two planes in a formation).
Here's an unofficial cockpit video that makes it look like a ton of fun. And it really is.
But it is also a lot of work for the SNFO. Training Squadron Ten has posted these videos on its official YouTube page for students to see what a good formation brief looks like and what the conduct of the flight will look like.
SelectionsAll Marine SNFOs complete Primary 1 & 2 and Intermediate. US Navy SNFOs who are selected for land-based aviation will eventually exit the pipeline after Primary 1. At this time, however, the Navy is not ready for that, so everybody continues on through Primary 2. At the end of Primary 2, US Navy SNFOs will select for either the E-6 Mercury, the P-3 Orion or its imminent replacement the P-8 Poseidon, or continued training in UMFO Intermediate.
I am unable to comment on how exactly the assignments are made. First, the instructors at VT-10 who determine the assignments have their own methods and requirements. Then, some funky things can happen with respect to students being assigned to a platform by the squadron and then superseded by CNATRA. Advice to students: just do the best you can and be willing to serve wherever the Navy needs you. But also take the time to talk with instructors to learn about the platforms you could end up on; I had several friends who changed their preferences as a result of such interactions.
Cross Country WeekendsI had the opportunity to go on one Cross-Country (XC) event during INAV 1, completing 2 events on the way there Friday afternoon and 2 more on the way back on Sunday. Opportunities to go on XCs come and go as the military funding comes and goes; during the government shutdown in 2013, nobody flew, and once we started up again, XCs were a no-go for a while. So, for any students who have a chance to go on one, not only should you not hesitate, but you should jump at the opportunity to take advantage of it!
Life ChangesDuring Primary, I also managed to get married! My advice is definitely that you should not do this if you don't have to, for various reasons. The squadron will try to talk you out of it at every step. The attitude towards students taking leave during flight school is very negative. Students are told from the beginning that they should not anticipate leave being approved.
Aside from the squadron issues, the simple fact that life is different after you get married and your new wife moves in with you will affect you; studying is different, your priorities must find a new balance, and time management becomes even more critical. The adjustment to these changes can affect your performance at work. If you are considering getting married during flight school: it can be done, but if you can make it work to wait, I would encourage you to consider that instead. (However, for myself and my new bride, it was absolutely the correct decision for our relationship to get married when we did.)
My wife and I on our wedding day
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Intermediate Flight TrainingAs a Marine, when I attended Primary 2 Graduation, I already knew I had been selected for UMFO Intermediate. Coming back from Christmas break, it was only a matter of watching the schedule to see when I was up. After a morning of lectures, I was ready to start flying again. Here's the course flow, page I-5 from the Intermediate UMFO MCG, linked above.
UMFO Course Flow: Intermediate
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BlocksThe UMFO Intermediate program is much shorter than Primary: roughly equivalent to a slightly long Primary Stage. The estimate is that it takes a student 2-6 weeks to complete, about 4 being average. Here are some tips about what each block is like.
Single Ship INAVTwo flights are flown as just a single ship so the SNFO can get some more practice on instrument procedures, usually flown as an out-and-in. It is a requirement to complete several touch-and-gos in the VFR pattern, something SNFOs haven't done since the Contact stage, months ago.
When I flew these, it was the first time I had flown with a Marine instructor the entire time I have been in flight training. I really enjoyed hearing him talk about The Fleet from a Marine's viewpoint. He was also an F/A-18D pilot, so he had flown with a WSO (Weapon Systems Officer, the specific name of an NFO in a Hornet), and I really enjoyed hearing him talk up the Hornet role and community.
Section INAVBuilding on the success of the previous flights, the next step is to combine instrument procedures with formation flight, while also completing more VFR pattern work. Flown as either a single Cross Country or as two out-and-ins (which is what I did), SNFOs plan, brief, execute, and debrief each flight as a section with a partner assigned by the squadron. This marks the first time that the students are expected to lead the debrief after an event, but with all the debriefs we've been through, it is not difficult to start leading one.
Tactical FormationIn preparation for the next block, the Tac Form block consists of a single flight which follows a nearly identical script as the second half of the Primary Baby Form.
Section VNAVNow it all starts to come together, as SNFOs plan, brief, execute, and debrief a mission as a section which includes flying on a Military Training Route, as low as 1,000' above ground level at speeds up to 240 knots (276 mph), utilizing visual cues for navigation and good communication to keep the section on course and arrive on the target on time. Just as VNAV in Primary, weather can be a big factor in extending the time this block takes to complete. But once this flight is complete, it feels VERY good.
My Intermediate form partner and I after landing from our last flight in the T-6
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Time to TrainI checked in to VT-10 in the first week of June 2013, one year after I started TBS, and it took me ~7 months, or ~31 weeks, to get through Primary 1 & 2 and Intermediate. According to the curricula, it should take 17.7 weeks for Primary 1, 3.5 weeks for Primary 2, and 3.7 weeks for Intermediate (24.9 weeks total), so I was longer in training than necessary. Delays such as the 2013 government shutdown for a couple weeks in October, plus a hurricane warning for the area, and recently a rare ice storm (20+-year residents had never seen anything like it here!) played a role. Fortunately, I was never medically downed and I had only one hiccup with grades (shortly after the wedding).
Despite the fact I was slower than the curriculum, it felt much faster since I was repeatedly picked from my class to be pushed ahead to the next class, catching up and even passing students who had once been months ahead of me. I'm the first person from my original Primary 1 class to finish Intermediate; I'm the first NFO from Delta Company 4-12, too. By comparison, another Marine from 4-12 was literally checking in to VT-10 on the day I finished Primary 2, and, now that I'm done with Intermediate, he is doing his first Contact flights! Maybe it was because my name is alphabetically up front; maybe it is because of some Big Navy/Marine Corps need for Marine NFOs to be pushed through; or maybe it was just the squadron trying to keep somebody on the curriculum's pace. Who knows? But here I am, complete with Intermediate, waiting for graduation on Friday, then expecting orders to Training Squadron Eighty Six to begin Advanced Strike Fighter Training.
Advanced Strike Fighter TrainingGoing through training, even as early as IFS and API, the student should always be focused on the closest alligator to the boat, the closest wolf to the sled, the most imminent challenge. With a moment to breathe this week, I've been looking ahead. Shown below is the course flow from page I-5 of the Advanced UMFO MCF (why are they always page I-5? Weird.).
UMFO Course Flow: Advanced
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Training Squadron Eighty SixTRARON EIGHT-SIX or VT-86, my next home will be with the Sabrehawks. Here's their official webpage and their Wikipedia page.
Curriculum NotesSome things jumped out at me as I read the curriculum.
Course MissionMCG, page vii:
The mission of the Advanced Strike Fighter UMFO Training System Curriculum is to further enhance navigation, communication, and aircraft systems management skills. Crew coordination and mission priorities are stressed in this curriculum. Skill and performance levels required for completion are outlined in the Course Training Standards (CTS). Successful completion of the applicable curricula qualifies UMFOs as Military Flight Officers.
Time to TrainThe curriculum says 28.4 weeks (6.5 months). Word on the street is that it takes "6-9 months," often closer to 8 than 6.
The Real DealDuring Advanced, SNFOs will take the basics learned in Primary and Intermediate and build on them to do much greater things. SNFOs learn about air-to-air intercepts, air-to-ground attacks and close air support, surface-to-air threats, using radar systems, and flying with a division (i.e., two or more sections, which you recall is 2 planes each).
From the beginning of Primary, they have been telling us that they are grooming us to become mission commanders; reading the Advanced curriculum, you really start to see that play out and gain a sense of the state of readiness and skill sets we will have by the time we finish and head to the RAG. Since we don't have the stick-and-rudder skills our brothers in the front seats have, we make our money by being in charge of the entire mission, putting the pilot in the right place at the right time so he can deliver his ordinance, and getting us all home safely.
The GoshawkThe UMFO curriculum calls for flights in the T-45C Goshawk. Able to fly significanly faster and higher than the T-6, this is my first experience with a military jet, and I'm pretty excited about it! Whereas the T-39 has also been used at VT-86 in the past, it is not a part of the UMFO curriculum.
Follow-on TrainingThe MCG notes follow-on training is as "Assigned by the graduate’s parent service." As a Marine, I will either be assigned to F/A-18D Hornets (and be a WSO) or to EA-6B Prowlers (and be an ECMO, Electronic Countermeasures Officer). This selection takes place at some point during Advanced, although I am unsure when.
HornetsVMFAT-101 is the Hornet RAG at MCAS Miramar in San Diego, Calif. From the day my OSO suggested that I could get eye surgery and apply for an aviation contract, I've dreamt of Hornets, so this would be awesome for me.
ProwlersThe story for Prowlers is more uncertain. Recently, the Marines created their own RAG since the Navy was shutting theirs down. The new RAG is a squadron under MAG-14, at MCAS Cherry Point in Havelock, N.C., but I don't know which one. One source suggested it might be VMAQ-4.
However, the story gets even more interesting. I found out yesterday that2 the MOC (the part of MATSG-21 which handles Marines coming to flight school after TBS) has stopped sending NFOs anywhere—not IFS or API, and especially not Primary—for the next 7 months. Allegedly, the Marine Corps is "done sending NFOs to Prowlers." I also heard that some Marines with NFO contracts have even been able to switch to pilot contracts instead of sitting around waiting. This definitely leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Another Marine SNFO told me this account: he has a Marine friend who recently finished at VT-86 and was assigned to Prowlers. He got his orders and reported for duty at the Prowler RAG. As soon as he got there, he was told he was being redesignated to UAVs. Whether that means they simply didn't need him at that time or that they really aren't taking any more ECMOs at all is unknown.
If true, these latest reports certainly have implications for me, but I don't know the extent of them yet. For now, my job is to stay focused on what's next—Advanced Strike Fighter Training.
After that, I'll serve where the Lord and the Corps send me.
1. I specify "T-6 Intermediate" because the T-39 Sabreliner was formerly used during Intermediate under the MNTS curriculum. Presently, under the new UMFO curriculum, only US Navy SNFOs who are selected for the E-2 Hawkeye at T-6 Intermediate Graduation will transfer to VT-4 to train in the T-39, which is sort of a "T-39 Intermediate," before going to their RAG. All other SNFOs either select earlier and go to their RAG or are sent to Advanced. I'll use "Intermediate" to refer only to T-6 Intermediate. ↩
2. This is unofficial, rumor, gouge, and may be completely wrong. But it's all I've heard. ↩