Naval flight officer

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The warfare designation insignia of a naval flight officer

A naval flight officer (NFO) is a commissioned officer in the United States Navy or United States Marine Corps who specializes in airborne weapons and sensor systems. NFOs are not pilots (naval aviators) per se, but they may perform many "co-pilot" functions, depending on the type of aircraft. Until 1966, their duties were performed by both commissioned officer and senior enlisted naval aviation observers (NAO).

In 1966, enlisted personnel were removed from naval aviation observer duties but continued to serve in enlisted aircrew roles, while NAO officers received the newly established NFO designation, and the NFO insignia was introduced.[1] NFOs in the US Navy all begin their careers as unrestricted line officers (URL), eligible for command at sea and ashore in the various naval aviation aircraft type/model/series (T/M/S) communities. They are also eligible for promotion to senior flag rank positions, including command of aircraft carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups, joint task forces, numbered fleets, naval component commands and unified combatant commands.

A small number of US Navy NFOs have later opted for a lateral transfer to the restricted line (RL) as aeronautical engineering duty officers (AEDO), while continuing to retain their NFO designation and active flight status. Such officers are typically graduates of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and/or the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School with advanced academic degrees in aerospace engineering or similar disciplines. AEDO/NFOs are eligible to command test and evaluation squadrons, naval air test centers, naval air warfare centers, and hold major program management responsibilities within the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). Similarly, Marine Corps NFOs are also considered eligible for command at sea and ashore within Marine aviation, and are also eligible to hold senior general officer positions, such as command of Marine aircraft wings, joint task forces, Marine expeditionary forces, Marine Corps component commands and unified combatant commands.

The counterpart to the NFO in the United States Air Force is the combat systems officer (CSO), encompassing the previous roles of navigator, weapon systems officer and electronic warfare officer. Although NFOs in the Navy's E-2 Hawkeye aircraft perform functions similar to the USAF air battle manager in the E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, their NFO training track is more closely aligned with that of USAF combat systems officers.

The United States Coast Guard had a short-lived NFO community in the 1980s and 1990s when it temporarily operated E-2C Hawkeye aircraft on loan from the Navy. Following a fatal mishap with one of these aircraft at the former Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, the Coast Guard returned the remaining E-2Cs to the Navy and disestablished its NFO program.[2]



Training for NFOs starts out the same as for naval aviators. Both students go through introductory flight screening and aviation preflight indoctrination together before splitting off into their respective primary training squadrons.

SNFOs train under the Undergraduate Military Flight Officer (UMFO) program at Training Wing 6 at NAS Pensacola, alongside foreign students from allied navies and air forces. All students begin primary training at VT-10, eventually moving on to advanced training at VT-86 or VT-4. Upon graduation from their respective advanced squadron, students receive their "wings of gold" and are designated naval flight officers. After winging, students conduct follow-on training at their respective fleet replacement squadron.

NFO training squadrons

Squadron Name Insignia Nickname Aircraft Notes
Vt-4 patch.jpg
NFO Advanced
NAS Pensacola
NFO Primary/Intermediate
NAS Pensacola
VT-86 logo.png
NFO Advanced Strike
NAS Pensacola

Introductory flight screening

All SNFOs and SNAs start their aviation training with introductory flight screening (IFS). IFS consists of 2 phases: ground school and flight training. The ground school portion lasts about two weeks and culminates with the student completing the FAA private pilot exam. Afterwards, every student enrolls in one of several civilian flight schools located near NAS Pensacola. Students complete approximately 14 hours of flight training in a single engine aircraft, including a solo flight. IFS is normally waived for students entering training with a private pilot license.

Aviation preflight indoctrination

SNFOs will train with Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard SNAs along with NATO and allied students in the SNA and SNFO tracks, and, periodically, with student naval flight surgeons. Aviation preflight indoctrination (API) consists of academic instruction, hands-on interaction and aviation physiology, water survival, and land survival skills.

The academic topics taught in API are of the following:

  • Aerodynamics
  • Aircraft engines and systems
  • Weather
  • Air navigation
  • Flight rules and regulations

After the academic phase, students will complete:

  • Aerospace physiology
  • Egress training
  • Water survival training
  • Land survival training

Primary 1

After completing API, all SNFOs report to VT-10 under Training Wing 6 to begin primary 1 training. All training in VT-10 is done in the Beechcraft T-6A Texan II and consists of 3 phases (all phases consist of ground school, simulator events, and flight events):

  • Contact phase (aircraft systems, emergency procedures, basic communication, take-off/landing, ELPs, spins, precision aerobatics, course rules)
  • Instrument phase (instrument flight procedures, flight planning, voice communication)
  • Visual navigation phase (visual flight procedures, tactical route construction, precision aerobatics)

After graduating from Primary 1, SNFOs will select between maritime land-based aviation or tailhook carrier aviation.[Note 1] Students selected for land-based platforms will continue on to the advanced maritime command and control curriculum at VT-4. Those that select carrier aviation will continue to Primary 2 training and remain at VT-10.

Primary 2

Primary 2 training also is done through VT-10. It is a much shorter syllabus and consists of two phases:

  • Instrument phase (simulators and flights flown at a faster airspeed and used to bolster instrument procedures)
  • Formation phase (ground school and flights used to introduce formation flying, tactical maneuvers, parade sequence, etc.)

After graduating from primary 2, SNFOs will select:

  • E-2C/D Hawkeye
  • Strike jet aircraft[Note 2]

E-2C/D Hawkeye selectees will continue on to the advanced maritime command and control curriculum at VT-4, while jet selectees will continue to intermediate training and remain at VT-10.


SNFOs stay in VT-10 and continue to fly in the T-6A Texan II. Training consists of four phases:

  • Single ship instrument phase (building upon instrument procedures in primary 1 and 2, VFR pattern, GPS navigation)
  • Section instrument phase (instrument flying in formation)
  • Tactical formation phase (rendezvous, tactical formation, tail-chase)
  • Section visual navigation phase (visual navigation flying in formation)

Advanced maritime command and control

After primary, students who have selected E-2s or land-based maritime aviation (P-3, P-8, EP-3, E-6) check into VT-4 for advanced maritime command and control (MC2) training. The MC2 program was developed to allow SNFOs to receive advanced platform-specific training while still at NAS Pensacola, and to receive their wings before progressing to their respective fleet replacement squadron (FRS) for training in their ultimate operational combat aircraft. All MC2 training is conducted in the Multi-Crew Simulator (MCS), a new simulator system that allows students to train independently, as a single-ship crew, or as a multi-ship mission. MC2 training has two phases: Core and strand.


SNFOs begin MC2 training in the "core" syllabus. These classes include a combination of SNFOs who are E-2C/D selectees and land-based maritime selectees. Training in this phase builds upon the instrument training from Primary and includes:

  • Operational flight planning, instruments, and navigation (international flight rules and TACAN navigation)
  • Communications and navigation systems (comm systems and INS, GPS, and RADAR theory and navigation)
  • Sensor and link operations (RADAR, IFF, and IR theory and data link employment)
  • Fleet operations

Upon completion of core training, SNFOs who progressed to MC2 training from Primary 1 (land-based maritime selectees) will select their fleet platform. Their choices are: E-6B Mercury, P-3C Orion, EP-3E Aries II, and P-8A Poseidon. When platform selection is complete, all SNFOs remain at VT-4 for "strand" training.


Strand training is platform-specific training via the MCS, allowing SNFOs to begin learning their responsibilities on their fleet aircraft. The development of this program relieves the FRSs from teaching SNFOs the basics of naval aviation and to focus more on advanced fleet tactics, thus providing the fleet with mission-capable NFOs. Upon completion of strand training, students receive their "wings of gold" and are aeronautically designated as naval flight officers.

SNFOs progress through one or two of 4 strands, depending on what platform they select:

  • E-2C, E-2D
  • Maritime patrol and reconnaissance (MPR): P-3C, EP-3E, and P-8A selectees
  • E-6B
  • Common navigation: a prerequisite strand for MPR and E-6 strands.

The E-2 strand consists of:

  • Airborne early warning (E-2 capabilities and mission overview)
  • Air intercept control (airborne battlefield command and control, tactics, and strike techniques)

The common navigation strand consists of:

  • Publications and charts
  • Overwater navigation and communication procedures
  • Navigation logs

The MPR strand consists of:

  • Surface search and littoral surveillance (community overview, target identification, sensor employment)
  • Electronic warfare and acoustic operations (EW introduction, sonar theory)
  • Maritime patrol and reconnaissance (coordinated operations)

The E-6 strand consists of:

  • Communications and operations (community overview, operations, strategic command structure)

Advanced strike

SNFOs report to VT-86 and fly in the T-45C Goshawk. Training consists of five phases:

  • Contact phase (T-45 systems, emergency procedures, carrier operations, night operations, communications)
  • Strike phase (air-to-ground radar, low level flying, mission planning, fuel awareness)
  • Close air support phase (CAS procedures and communications)
  • Basic fighter maneuver phase (BFM practice)
  • All weather intercepts phase (air-to-air radar, air intercepts, GPS)

After graduating from advanced strike training, Navy SNFOs will select:

  • EA-18G Growler
  • F/A-18F Super Hornet

Marine SNFOs will select:

  • EA-6B Prowler
  • F/A-18D Hornet

Naval aviator vs naval flight officer

Naval flight officers operate some of the advanced systems on board most multi-crew naval aircraft, and some may also act as the overall tactical mission commanders of single or multiple aircraft assets during a given mission. NFOs are not formally trained to pilot the aircraft, although they do train in some dual-control aircraft and are given the opportunity to practice basic airmanship techniques. Some current and recently retired naval aircraft with side-by-side seating are also authorized to operate under dual-piloted weather minimums with one pilot and one NFO. However, in the unlikely event that the pilot of a single piloted naval aircraft becomes incapacitated, the crew would likely eject or bail out, if possible, as NFOs are not normally qualified to land the aircraft, especially in the carrier-based shipboard environment.

NFOs serve as weapon systems officers (WSOs), electronic warfare officers (EWO), electronic countermeasures officers (ECMO), tactical coordinators (TACCO), bombardiers, and navigators. They can serve as aircraft mission commanders, although in accordance with the OPNAVINST 3710 series of instructions, the pilot in command, regardless of rank, is always responsible for the safe piloting of the aircraft. Many NFOs achieve flight/section lead, division lead, package lead, mission lead and mission commander qualification, even when the pilot of the aircraft does not have that designation. Often, a senior NFO is paired with a junior pilot (and vice versa). NFO astronauts have also flown aboard the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station as mission specialists and wear NFO-astronaut wings.

Like their naval aviator counterparts, NFOs in both the Navy and Marine Corps have commanded aviation squadrons, carrier air wings, shore-based functional air wings and air groups, marine aircraft groups, air facilities, air stations, aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups, Marine aircraft wings, Marine expeditionary forces, numbered fleets, and component commands of unified combatant commands. Three NFOs have reached four star rank, one as a Marine Corps general having served as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the other two as Navy admirals, one having served as Vice Chief of Naval Operations before commanding U.S. Fleet Forces Command & U.S. Atlantic Fleet, U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) and U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), and the other currently commanding U.S. Pacific Command, having previously commanded U.S. Pacific Fleet. Another former NFO who retrained and qualified as a Naval Aviator also achieved four star rank as a Marine Corps general, commanded U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and later served as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (VCJCS).

Notable NFOs

As a captain, Vice Admiral Richard Dunleavy was the first NFO to command an aircraft carrier, the USS Coral Sea (CV 43). He previously flew the A-3 Skywarrior, A-5 Vigilante, RA-5C Vigilante and A-6 Intruder. Later in his career, he was promoted to rear admiral and vice admiral, and was the first NFO to hold the since disestablished position of Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare (OP-05). He retired in 1993.

Admiral William Fallon, an NFO who flew in the RA-5C Vigilante and the A-6 Intruder, was the first NFO to achieve 4-star rank. In 2006, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to lead U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM). He had previously commanded U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) and U.S. Fleet Forces Command as well as serving as Vice Chief of Naval Operations, all as a 4-star admiral prior to his USCENTCOM assignment, and as a vice admiral was the first NFO to command a numbered fleet, the U.S. 2nd Fleet. He retired in 2008.

Captain Dale Gardner was the first NFO to qualify and fly as a NASA Mission Specialist Astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-8. He previously flew the F-14 Tomcat. He retired in 1990.

Rear Admiral Benjamin Thurman Hacker was the first NFO flag officer, having been selected in 1980. He previously flew the P-2 Neptune and P-3 Orion. He retired in 1988.

Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., is the commander, U.S. Pacific Command. He was the first NFO from the land-based maritime patrol aviation community to command a numbered fleet, the U.S. 6th Fleet, and U.S. Pacific Fleet. He is the first member of the land-based maritime patrol aviation community, pilot or NFO, to promote to 4-star rank. He previously flew the P-3C Orion.

Vice Admiral David C. Nichols was the deputy coalition air forces component commander (deputy CFACC) during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was the first NFO to command the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, the second NFO to command a numbered fleet, the U.S. 5th Fleet, and was later deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. He previously flew the A-6 Intruder. He retired in 2007.

General William L. Nyland, USMC was the first Marine Corps NFO to achieve 4-star rank as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. As a lieutenant general, he was also the first NFO to serve as deputy commandant for aviation. He previously flew the F-4 Phantom II and the F/A-18 Hornet. He retired in 2005.

Lieutenant General Terry G. Robling, USMC was the first Marine Corps NFO to command United States Marine Corps Forces, Pacific following an assignment as the deputy commandant for aviation. He previously flew the F-4 Phantom II and the F/A-18 Hornet. He retired in 2014.[3]

Vice Admiral Nora W. Tyson, deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, was the first female NFO to command a warship, the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, and the first female naval officer to command an aircraft carrier strike group, Carrier Strike Group Two, aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. She previously flew the land-based EC-130Q Hercules and the E-6 Mercury TACAMO aircraft.

Vice Admiral David J. Venlet, was program executive officer for the F-35 Lightning II until his retirement in 2013. He was a F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer in VF-41 embarked in USS Nimitz, and earned the distinguished Flying Cross for action during the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981.

General James E. Cartwright, USMC was initially qualified as a Marine Corps NFO in the F-4 Phantom II before attending pilot training as a captain and being re-designated as a naval aviator, subsequently flying as a pilot in the F-4, the OA-4 Skyhawk and the F/A-18 Hornet. He was the eighth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He previously served as the commander, U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), from September 1, 2004 to August 10, 2007, and as acting commander, U.S. Strategic Command from July 9, 2004 to September 1, 2004. He assumed the vice chairmanship on August 31, 2007 and retired in September 2011.

The Fleet

Eligible fleet platforms for NFOs are currently as follows:

In the EA-6B Prowler NFOs are designated as electronic countermeasures officers (ECMOs) and may also be mission commanders. In the EA-18G Growler NFOs are designated as electronic warfare officers (EWOs) and may also be mission commanders.

In the E-2C Hawkeye and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, NFOs are initially as designated radar officers (RO), then upgrade to air control officers (ACO) and finally to combat information center officers (CICO) and CICO/mission commanders (CICO/MC). In the E-6B Mercury, NFOs are designated as airborne communications officers (ACOs) and may also be mission commanders (ACO/MC).

In the EP-3E Aries, NFOs are initially designated as navigators (NAV) and eventually upgrade to electronic warfare officer/signals evaluator (EWO SEVAL) and EWO/SEVAL/mission commander (SEVAL/MC).

In the F/A-18F Super Hornet and F/A-18D Hornet, the NFO position is known as the weapons systems officer (WSO) and may also be mission commander qualified.

In the P-3C Orion and P-8A Poseidon, the NFO is initially designated as a navigator/communicator (NAV/COM) and eventually upgrades to tactical coordinator TACCO and then TACCO/mission commander (TACCO/MC). NFOs also serve as instructors/mission commanders in current versions of the T-39 Sabreliner and USAF T-1A Jayhawk.

A single USN or USMC NFO is assigned to the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, as "Blue Angel #8", the Events Coordinator. This is an operational flying billet for this officer and he or she flies the twin-seat F/A-18D "Blue Angel 7" aircraft with the team's advance pilot/narrator. They function as the advance liaison (ADVON) at all air show sites and the events coordinator provides backup support to the narrator during all aerial demonstrations.

In all, the specific roles filled by an NFO can vary greatly depending on the type of aircraft to which an NFO is assigned.

Past aircraft

NFOs also flew in these retired aircraft, including as mission commander:

NFOs have also served as instructors/mission commanders in since retired training aircraft such as the UC-45 Expeditor, T-29 Flying Classroom, several variants of the T-39 Sabreliner, the TC-4C Academe, T-47A Citation II and the USAF T-43A Bobcat.

Popular culture

  • One of key characters in the popular film Top Gun was LTJG Nick "Goose" Bradshaw, played by Anthony Edwards, an F-14 radar intercept officer teamed with his pilot, LT Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, played by Tom Cruise. Several others were LTJG Ron "Slider" Kerner, RIO to LT Tom "Iceman" Kazansky; LT Sam "Merlin" Neills, LT Bill "Cougar" Cortell's RIO; and LTJG Leonard "Wolfman" Wolfe, LT Rick "Hollywood" Neven's RIO.
  • In the film Flight of the Intruder, Willem Dafoe played LCDR Virgil "Tiger" Cole, who served as an A-6 B/N (bombardier/navigator) with his pilot, LT Jake "Cool Hand" Grafton, played by Brad Johnson.
  • In the film Behind Enemy Lines, Owen Wilson played LT Chris Burnett, a weapon systems officer in an F/A-18F.

See also


  1. Marine SNFOs can only select carrier aviation.
  2. Marine SNFOs can only select jets.


  1. The Naval Aviation Guide, 4th Edition, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1985, ISBN 0-87021-409-8
  2. [1]