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Aiming for Excellence: What it takes to become a Navy pilot
by Monica Prinzing
Mention “Topgun” and often images of fast fighter jets, swaggering pilots and death-defying dogfights quickly come to mind.
But real Topgun pilots say this common stereotype popularized by the Hollywood blockbuster with the same name hardly portrays what it takes to become a skilled United States Navy fighter pilot let alone an elite Topgun graduate.
“We saw a huge upswing in recruitment when the movie was released, but what we do is far from playing beach volleyball and jumping on a motorcycle,” said base commander Capt. Monty “Ash” Ashliman, Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore. “It requires hard work, commitment and determination.”
Ashliman knows this firsthand. During his 24-year Navy career, the former Topgun instructor and ex-squadron commander has flown risky missions in Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Preparation for such daring operations takes years of training and practice to ensure every fighter pilot performs his or her best.
“I don’t fear any threat because we have the best-trained military--there’s not any better group of guys and gals in the world,” Ashliman said.
What it takes
The prerequisites for becoming a Navy fighter pilot are straightforward. A bachelor’s degree in any major is required for a pilot commission, while an aptitude test and a medical screening open the door to flight school. Keen eyesight is essential, which today often can be corrected through Navy-approved eye surgeries. Navy pilots must meet specific and complex height, weight and body proportion requirements (known as anthropometric limits) to ensure greater safety and better functioning of the aircraft.
The pilot’s dynamic atmosphere is intertwined with accelerated speeds, high g-forces and various demands on the senses. Mentally and physically strong, the successful pilot makes tactical decisions based on the assimilation of competing stimuli. Visual cues come from iPad-like cockpit displays in the Super Hornet. Auditory cues emit steadily from three radios, along with voice cues from the aircraft itself including missile alert tones, aircraft malfunctions and dwindling fuel supplies. The pilot’s own senses provide continuous feedback too.
“We put a lot of trust in our pilots and push them to be independent early on,” said then Cmdr. Ryan “Little Guido” Bernacchi, who headed VFA-192 (World Famous Golden Dragons) before recently accepting a federal executive fellowship at MIT in Boston. “We give them a lot of training but when they’re in a challenging environment they have to be able to make good decisions on their own.”
Seasoned leaders like Bernacchi and Ashliman agree while natural ability is important, other less tangible qualities such as work ethic, confidence, leadership, team player, humility and sense of humor make the difference between a mediocre and an exceptional pilot.
“More dangerous than the new guy who knows nothing is the senior guy who thinks he knows everything,” Ashliman said. “Usually the incredibly obnoxious pilot is the most average.”
“It comes down to talent, passion and personality,” Bernacchi said. “You have to want it—you can pursue it as a profession but the desire to excel needs to come from within you. There is no one right personality but it has to incorporate all of these elements.”
Ultimately, it’s not about being the most intelligent, the most physically fit or even the most talented.
“One thing I love about naval aviation is it’s a microcosm of the American dream,” Bernacchi said. “The Navy doesn’t care what you look like or where you’re from. It rewards performance. Once you start flight school, work ethic and teamwork are what enable young pilots to develop the necessary skills.”
“Work ethic doesn’t just mean hard work,” Bernacchi continued. “It’s how you work, individually and as a team. It’s learning from your mistakes, taking and applying criticism well while internalizing what you’ve learned. It’s putting others before yourself. The right work ethic leads to competence and character that form the trust and camaraderie needed should you find yourself flying in combat.”
Bernacchi dreamed of becoming a pilot since he was a boy growing up in the Bay Area, reading everything he could about aviation. Mostly crediting his parents’ steady guidance, Bernacchi said a pivotal point came in the eighth grade during a conversation with a family friend’s son who was a Navy flight student.
“He steered my passion for aviation by developing a specific goal to fly for the Navy,” Bernacchi recalled. “He made it real. He said, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’”
The young aviator’s advice to do well in school, learn to be a team player through activities like sports, and stay out of trouble paid off. “I made the decision then I wasn’t going to ever jeopardize my chances of becoming a Navy pilot,” Bernacchi said.
After 18 years as a Navy fighter pilot and taking his skills to the highest level, the former Topgun instructor hasn’t looked back.
“When you see the incredible hard work and skill of the young men and women who maintain these aircraft, not to mention the training and resources the country invests in, it’s hard to describe flying Navy jets as anything but a privilege,” Bernacchi said, whose squadron is receiving updated Super Hornets, currently the Navy’s premier strike fighter. “It makes the hard work, family separation and inherent risk worthwhile.”
The United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, also known as Topgun, teaches fighter and strike tactics and techniques to selected naval aviators and flight officers. Established after the Navy lost numerous aircraft during the Vietnam War, graduates of the intense, 12-week course at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, return to the fleet as Strike Fighter Tactics Instructors, often called “swifties.”
New fighter pilot Lt. Joshua “Twerk” Elder hopes eventually to be selected for the Topgun school. Right now the 27-year-old is focused on mastering his current role.
“I want to be great at my job and never let my team down, and to have the highest percentage of coming home to my wife and daughter,” Elder said, who grew up in Missouri and joined the Golden Dragons in January.
“’Twerk’ is a ‘nugget,’” Bernacchi explained, a Navy term meaning Elder hasn’t completed a deployment yet. “He’s like a lump of gold—he has a lot of worth but still needs to be shaped into a skilled carrier aviator, which only comes with experience gained on deployment.”
Elder and other fighter pilots often seek guidance from Topgun officers. “They help mold you into an actual combat pilot, not just a pilot,” Elder said.
Lcdr. Erin “Eeyore” Flint, maintenance officer, VFA-151 (Vigilantes), appreciates challenges but becoming a Navy fighter pilot didn’t initially cross the native upstate New Yorker’s mind. After all, she had terrible vision and her limited flight experience as a kid included becoming ill while riding a small plane.
Laser eye surgery and an impromptu visit at the Naval Academy while surveying colleges, however, changed Flint’s course. The only woman among more than a dozen fighter pilots in her squadron and one of six women fighter pilots assigned to NAS Lemoore, Flint said it’s like going to work with her brothers.
“They tease me just as much as they tease each other,” Flint, 34, said with a smile. “At the end of the day, you know they have your back.”
In 1974, the Navy became the first service to graduate a woman pilot, Lt. Barbara Allen Rainey. Four decades later, Flint notices civilians’ reactions when they learn she flies an F/A-18E. “When I’m in a group of guy pilots, people think I’m one of the girlfriends. I just hang back and laugh. The situation is what you make it.”
Today, women serve aboard the Navy’s aircraft carriers and soon may be permitted on submarines. “I’m grateful for what other women pilots before me have done,” Flint said. “I like making a difference. I didn’t know I wanted to fly but now I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
With several deployments under her belt, Flint remembers well the first time she performed a pilot’s most difficult task: landing on a carrier: “It seemed surreal. It was terrifying but the coolest thing I’ve done.”
‘Exciting times’ for Central California
Currently 15 F/A-18 strike fighter squadrons and one fleet replacement squadron, totaling about 300 assigned aircrew, are stationed at NAS Lemoore. The base averages about 210,000 flight operations a year, making it one of the Navy’s busiest airfields.
The host of the Navy’s entire West Coast fighter/attack capability may get even busier. Recently named the preferred alternative, NAS Lemoore is anticipated to serve as the home base for the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter—the ultimate stealth attack, fifth-generation jet to join the Super Hornets. At press time, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is expected to approve the recommendation. If so, with 100 F-35Cs and two relocated F/A-18 Super Hornet squadrons scheduled to arrive in 2016, NAS Lemoore would house nearly 60 percent of the Navy’s strike-fighter airpower, Ashliman said.
The investment is significant. While the price of combat jets varies, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets cost about $55 million each, according to Boeing Defense, Space and Security. In July, the U.S. Department of Defense announced an agreement to reduce the price of F-35 Lightning II fighters to the equivalent of today’s fourth-generation fighters by the end of the decade.
“These are extremely exciting times,” Ashliman said. “In a short time, NAS Lemoore would see a 25 percent growth in base personnel. This would solidify the U.S. Navy's presence in Central California for decades to come.”
Away from home
Military families often deal with stresses such as frequent moves or deployments to war as long as 10 months.
“It’s like being a single parent,” said Bernacchi’s wife, Rebecca Bernacchi. “For first-time moms who don’t know anyone at the base and their parents live across the country, it can be overwhelming.”
During a deployment, limited communication with families consists mostly of email, satellite phone for emergencies, and cell phone calls, Skype or in-person visits in port.
“We depend on other Navy spouses and friends who aren’t deployed at that time,” said Gail Kurtz, a schoolteacher and mother of two whose husband Rod “Hot Rod” Kurtz is a flight instructor in VFA-122 (Flying Eagles). “Maybe someone’s car needs fixing or help picking up kids after school.”
For pilots, family support is critical. “It’s easier to focus out at sea when you know your wife and family are OK and believe in what you’re doing,” said Bernacchi, who has two young children. “This is a very rewarding career but balancing the costs with having a family can be tough. I’m lucky because my wife and I have done this as a team from the beginning—it’s made us stronger.”
So while a flashy smile and an arrogant attitude aren’t prerequisites to become a successful Navy pilot, Navy leaders agree teamwork and the willingness to sacrifice top the list. But whether a new fighter pilot or an experienced combat aviator, one thing seems certain: they all feel blessed to do what they do.
“Having your ‘desk’ in the cockpit of one of the most capable weapons in the world, and the ability to work with some of the most professional people in service—all for the greater good,” Ashliman said before pausing. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
Monica Prinzing is a full-time writer in the medical field. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she enjoys freelancing on various topics.