Enlisted Pilots: Has Their Time Come Again?

By Scott Spangler on February 25th, 2019

With retention of active duty aviators and recruitment of qualified newcomers to fill empty cockpits a growing challenge for America’s armed forces, might it be time to reopen the flight training door to enlisted pilots who meet the physical and physiological requirements?

sgt chevronsTo be a military pilot today, applicants must be officers, which require a four-year college degree. Is that an essential requirement? Today’s officer pilots hold degrees in almost every discipline from anthropology to zoology. How does this knowledge make modern military pilot training easier?

To address its pilot shortage, in 2018, the US Air Force studied the return of enlisted pilots and appointing them warrant officers. “We have enlisted airmen in our Guard and reserve component who have private pilot’s licenses and fly for the airlines. So it’s not a matter of can they do it, or having the smarts or the capability, it’s just a matter of us, as an Air Force, deciding that that’s a route that we want to take,” said Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth O. Wright, the 18th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in a Military.Com story.

Robert A. “Bob” Hoover sits in the cockpit of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, just one of the many aircraft he mastered during World War II. (National Archives)The pilot shortage created by World War II led Congress to authorize an enlisted pilot training program in 1941. They received the same training as officers and graduated as staff sergeant pilots. The program trained 2,567 sergeant pilots (among them were a couple you might have heard of, Bob Hoover (here in a P-38), Carroll Shelby, and Chuck Yeager). Of that number, 332 sergeants served overseas and 217 sergeants flew combat.

In 1942, the Flight Officer Act created the warrant officer rank of flight officer, which replaced the original program. Sergeant pilots elevated to this rank enjoyed the privileges of a second lieutenant. This program essentially continues in the Army today, with warrant officers being the go-to helicopter aviators. And there seems to be no reason it wouldn’t work in the other services, if they can overcome tradition with progress.

The Sea Services, the US Navy and US Marine Corps, launches its enlisted aviator program in 1916. With America’s enlistment in the Great War, in March 1917 a recruiting program sought 200 enlisted personnel specifically for aviation duty. Of that number, 33 of them completed their training in France, and a few more in Italy. Like the initial enlisted aviators, the World War I pilots flew as first or second-class petty officers. Most of them became commissioned officers.

post-2501-1278618479In October 1919, the Bureau of Navigation said, “In the future, it will be the policy of the Bureau to select a certain number of warrant officers and enlisted men for flight training and duty as pilots of large heavier-than-air craft and directional pilots of dirigibles.” The following year they were designated Naval Aviation Pilots. NAP No. 1 was Harold H. “Kiddy” Karr, Quartermaster Chief (Aviation) (NAP). Like commissioned aviators, they wore the Navy’s gold wings on their upper left chest.

During the years between the world wars, the Navy had an enlisted pilot requirement of 30 percent. The depression made this goal challenging, and the Navy asked Congress to make it 20 percent. With the depression deepening and budget cuts, the Navy trained no NAPs between 1932 and 1936. After that, the Navy met its 20-percent goal.

220px-Walsh_KAThe number of NAPs increased greatly with World War II, and the need for more officers led many of them (some estimates are up to 95 percent) received temporary officer commissions and designations as Naval Aviators, which can only be bestowed upon commissioned officers.

One downside to being an enlisted pilot was serving two masters. In addition to flying, they had to meet the responsibilities of their rank. That’s why George W. Webber, Seaman Second Class (NAP), a pilot with Scouting Squadron 3 not only flew off the carrier Lexington, he also had to work in the galley helping the ship’s cooks. That changed when the Lexington’s CO, then Captain Ernest J. King (later Fleet Admiral King, commander in chief and chief of naval operations in World War II), found out that one of his carrier pilots was mess cooking.

people_usmc_napLife was the same for the Marine NAPs. During the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1943, Marine Air Group 14 couldn’t find two of its NAPs, both of whom flew the SBD, Douglas’s Dauntless dive bomber. Sergeants Ollie Michael (left) and Rohe C. Jones had been ordered to dig latrines on New Caledonia. They were ordered back to their cockpits immediately. Michael is credited with sinking three Japanese ships in November and December 1943. Jones was killed during his third combat tour. Another Marine NAP, Ken Walsh (above), who earned his wings as a private, later received a commission and the Medal of Honor in 1943, was the fourth-ranking ace with 21 kills.

jones 1The Navy’s enlisted flight training program ended with World War II, and Congress concluded its requirement for enlisted pilots in 1948. Although the program ended, NAPs in the Navy, Marine Corps, and US Coast Guard, continued to fly for the rest of their careers. With the postwar reductions, many of them had to surrender the temporary officer commissions given to them during the conflict. The last four Marine NAPs retired on the same day, February 1, 1973. The Navy’s last NAP, Master Chief Air Traffic Controller Robert K. “NAP” Jones, retired from active duty on January 31, 1981.

Needing pilots and naval flight officer in the patrol, reconnaissance, and helicopter communities, the Navy established a chief warrant officer program in 2006, but it didn’t last long before the Navy terminated the program. How the military will resolve this ongoing problem will be interesting to watch, especially as the airlines sap its pilot ranks while the demand for those who can fly an aircraft (either in first-person or remotely) continues to increase. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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One Response to “Enlisted Pilots: Has Their Time Come Again?”

  1. Roger Messenger Says:

    I had the unique privilege of flying with Master Chief Jones in the early 70’s when I was stationed in Rota, Spain. He was an excellent instructor and when I kept my mouth shut and my ears open, there was much for a young Naval Aviator to learn from his extensive knowledge and experience.
    The service’s need to be sure to develop a viable career path for the enlisted pilots if they are going to reinstitute the this program. it has to be more than an after thought.

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