PilotPlanet's co-founder had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Lt. Chris Napoli of the United States Navy to talk about his process to becoming a naval aviator. This article features that discussion and includes the process that Lt. Napoli went through and the advice that he has for those with aspirations to become a naval aviator.
What do you do for a living?
I fly the F/A-18C Hornet for the United States Navy and I am attached to Strike Fighter Squadron 113, known as the “Stingers,” which is based out of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California. Our squadron is part of CVW 17, or Carrier Air Wing 17, and is assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
What made you want to become a pilot, specifically a naval aviator?
Flying has always fascinated me ever since I was a child. I had always wanted to become a fighter pilot and the idea of landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier seemed unreal to me. I wanted to know what it was like to land a fighter jet on to an aircraft carrier out in the middle of the ocean.
When did you start flying?
I started flying in 2004 just after I graduated high school. I had already been accepted to Bridgewater State College at the time and decided to get a head start on my aviation career. I enrolled in the summer course for the private pilot certificate and began flying with Delta Connection Academy shortly thereafter.
Where did you do your civilian training?
During my time at Bridgewater, the college had a contract with Delta Connection Academy, which operated out of New Bedford Regional Airport. The commute from the college to the airport took approximately 30 minutes and we, as students, would head down to the airport after our academic classes to do our flight training.
What were the pros and cons of attending an aviation university?
I believe my college experience was truly unique in that I was able to fly and at the same time attain college credits. It was interesting to spend your time at the university, learning the different areas of aviation in the classroom, and then actually flying later on that same day. Being outside of the classroom allowed us to broaden our learning experience and be exposed to the real world. The only downside of this was the half hour commute from the university to the airport.
What made you join the Navy instead of pursuing a civilian aviation career after graduation?
I had talked to many of the civilian flight instructors going through flight training and I really wasn’t that interested in becoming a flight instructor and then working for a regional carrier. The aviation industry was having some troubles and the outlook within that community seemed somewhat negative at that time. I had been interested in flying for the military for quite some time, but had no real guidance on the application process and what it entailed. I did some general research online and started to put my package together to Officer Candidate School shortly after graduation.
What are the requirements to be eligible to be a naval aviator?
To become a naval aviator, one must first obtain an officer commission through either the United States Naval Academy, Navy ROTC, or Officer Candidate School. Once you receive your commission and are slated for aviation, you go through Aviation Preflight Indoctrination, also known as API, which is located in Pensacola, Florida. The course takes approximately six weeks, where the first four focus on classroom studies and the final two on physiology and water survival. Upon completion of API, you are sent to Primary Flight Training, which takes approximately six to eight months. Primary is conducted at NAS Whiting Field, located just north of Pensacola, and NAS Corpus Christi in Texas. During this phase, students learn to fly the T-6 Texan II and train in basic aircraft handling, instrument procedures, and formation flying. At the conclusion of Primary Flight Training you are selected to continue with Helicopters, Maritime, or Tailhook. Helicopter training is located at NAS Whiting Field, and takes approximately another six months. At the completion of this flight training you receive your designation as a naval aviator and continue for training to a Fleet Replacement Squadron in the SH-60 Seahawk. Selection of Maritime slates you to fly the P-3 Orion and you conduct your advanced flight training at NAS Corpus Christi. There you will fly the T-44, which is a military variant of a King Air. This training also takes roughly six months. The Tailhook pipeline is the lengthiest of all platforms. Training is conducted at either NAS Kingsville, Texas or NAS Meridian, Mississippi. Students will start the Intermediate jet syllabus where they learn to fly the T-45 Goshawk, a single engine jet trainer. Intermediate training consists of learning how to handle a jet, instrument and air navigation, and formation flying. At the completion of Intermediate, students are selected for either E2/C2 or Strike. E2/C2 students will fly the T-45 to train in aircraft carrier qualification and then finish their flight training at NAS Corpus Christi in the T-44. There they will receive their designation as naval aviators and be sent to a Fleet Replacement Squadron to fly either the E-2 Hawkeye or the C-2 Greyhound. Students selected for Strike will continue to fly the T-45 and start training in the tactical arena. Flights consist of tactical formation flying, air combat maneuvering, air to ground tactics, low level flying, and lastly, aircraft carrier qualification. At the successful completion of Strike, students are designated as naval aviators and receive follow on orders to a Fleet Replacement Squadron to train in the F/A-18C Hornet, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, or F/A-18G Growler.
How much of a commitment are you required to serve?
For aviators in the fixed wing community, one must currently serve for eight years. That commitment begins on the day that one receives his or her wings of gold. The entire training process up to that point takes approximately two years.
What was the selection process like? Did you have an advantage over others also hoping to become a naval aviator?
There are numerous variables that get taken into account when you start your application. Status of the economy, manning within the military, and needs of the navy are just a few. The application process itself can sometimes be lengthy and exhaustive. During times like these it helps to just be patient and focus on your ultimate goal, which is to earn your wings of gold and proudly serve your nation.
What was training like? Can you describe your typical day?
Flight training in the military was unlike any other training that I had ever experienced. The learning curve is extremely high and it is truly amazing to see what you can accomplish in such a short time. Once you complete your training and are assigned to an active duty squadron, you are assigned a ground job in addition to your flying duties. The flights that we conduct on a day-to-day basis vary from air to air intercepts, basic fighter maneuvering, to air to ground missions.
Did your civilian flight training help you in your military training?
Yes and no. It was good to have some aviation experience prior to my military training although I had to be careful not to solely rely on it. Flying a Cessna is vastly different than that of a T-6 or a T-45, and you have to be able to conform to the type of flying that those aircraft are designed for.
Is there really anything similar in flying a Cessna 172 and flying your F/A-18 Hornet?
The world tends to move much faster when I’m flying the Hornet. The airplane has so many systems that sometimes you forget about actually flying because you are so focused on making sure you have the appropriate weapon selected and that every sensor is functioning properly. When flying a Cessna 172 I have to remind myself that I am no longer in a fighter jet, and although a completely different experience, flying an aircraft like that is just pure fun.
What advice do you have for future students of aviation or those hoping to also become naval aviators?
Do not let anyone tell you that it cannot be done. Set your goals appropriately and strive with 100 percent effort to attain them. Having an open mind and a positive attitude is key and qualities like that will pay major dividends for you in the future.
If you had to do it all over again, what would you change?
The process that I have gone through is a mixture of skill, timing, and absolute dumb luck. I consider myself extremely fortunate and grateful to be where I am at today. To answer your question, I wouldn’t change a thing.