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The warfare designation insignia of a naval flight officer
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), 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).[1]

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.[2] NFOs in the US Navy 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 and, at a senior level, in command of carrier air wings and aircraft carriers afloat and functional air wings, naval air stations and other activities ashore. 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, Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTFs), 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 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.[3]



NFO Training Pipeline
NFO Training Pipeline

Training for student NFOs (SNFOs) starts out the same as for student naval aviators (SNAs), with the same academic requirements and nearly identical physical requirements. The only real distinction in physical requirements is that SNFOs may have less than 20/40 uncorrected distance vision. Both SNAs and SNFOs go through the same naval introductory flight evaluation before splitting off into different primary training tracks.

The SNFO program has continued to evolve since the 1960s. Today, SNFOs train under the Undergraduate Military Flight Officer (UMFO) program at Training Air Wing 6 at NAS Pensacola, alongside foreign students from various NATO, Allied and Coalition navies and air forces. All Student NFOs begin primary training at Training Squadron TEN (VT-10), flying the T-6A Texan II trainer, eventually moving on to advanced training at Training Squadron 4 (VT-4) or Training Squadron 86 (VT-86). Upon graduation from their respective advanced squadron, students receive their "wings of gold" and are designated as naval flight officers. After winging, students conduct follow-on training at their respective fleet replacement squadron (FRS).[4]

NFO training squadrons

Squadron Name Insignia Nickname Aircraft Notes
Vt-4 patch.jpg
Warbucks MC2
NFO Advanced
NAS Pensacola
Wildcats T-6A NFO Primary/Intermediate
NAS Pensacola
VT-86 logo.png
Sabrehawks T-45C NFO Advanced Strike
NAS Pensacola

Naval Introductory Flight Evaluation

All SNFOs and SNAs start their aviation training with naval introductory flight evaluation (NIFE). NIFE consists of several phases: academics, ground school, flight training, and physiology. The academics portion spans three weeks and covers aerodynamics, engines, FAA rules and regulations, navigation, and weather. Academics phase is followed by one week of ground school. Every student then enrolls in one of two civilian flight schools located near NAS Pensacola. Students complete approximately 9 hours of flight training in a single engine aircraft. NIFE flights can be waived based on proficiency for students entering training with a private pilot license. After the flight phase, students will complete training in aerospace physiology, egress, and water & land survival.


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

After graduating from Primary, SNFOs will select between multi crew aviation or strike aviation.[Note 1] Students selected for land-based platforms (e.g., P-3 Orion, P-8 Poseidon, EP-3 Aries II, E-6 Mercury) will continue on to the advanced maritime command and control curriculum at VT-4. Those that select strike aviation will continue to Intermediate training and remain at VT-10.

Primary 2

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

After graduating from Intermediate, SNFOs will select:

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 destined for carrier-based strike fighter and electronic attack aircraft remain in VT-10 and continue to fly in the T-6A Texan II. Training consists of four phases:

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:

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 in VT-4 via the MCS, allowing SNFOs destined for the carrier-based E-2 community or the land-based P-3/P-8, EP-3 and E-6 communities to begin learning their responsibilities on their fleet aircraft. The development of this program relieves the associated fleet replacement squadrons 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 four strands, depending on what platform they select.

The E-2 strand consists of:

The common navigation strand consists of:

The MPR strand consists of:

The E-6 strand consists of:

Advanced strike

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

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

Marine SNFOs will select:

Comparison with naval aviators

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 trained to pilot the aircraft, although they do train in some dual-control aircraft and are given the opportunity to practice "hands on controls" 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 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 having commanded 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).

In some quarters, NFO careers may be viewed more restrictive than their Naval Aviator (e.g., pilot) counterparts. For example, NFOs only serve aboard multi-crew naval aircraft and as certain multi-crew aircraft are retired from the active inventory, NFOs can become displaced, as happened with the withdrawal of the A-6, EA-6B, F-4, F-14 and S-3 from active service. In addition, as avionics have become more advanced, the need for some multi-crew aircraft using one or more NFOs has been reduced.

However, the majority of NFOs (as well as Naval Aviators) from aircraft being retired have historically been afforded the opportunity to transition to another aircraft platform, such as F-4 and F-14 transitions to the F/A-18D and F/A-18F, A-6 transitions to the EA-6B and S-3, S-3 transitions to the P-3/P-8, E-2 and F/A-18F, and EA-6B transitions to the EA-18G. Although it is true that Naval Aviators can also transition their piloting expertise into civilian careers as commercial airline pilots and that NFOs are not able to similarly translate their skills into this career field unless augmented by associated FAA pilot certificates, the military aviation career opportunities of NFOs remain on par with their Naval Aviator counterparts, as do their post-military career prospects in the civilian sector in defense, aviation & aerospace, as well as other career pursuits beyond that of commercial airline pilot.

Notable NFOs

Vice Admiral Walter E. "Ted" Carter Jr. became the 62nd superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy on July 23, 2014. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981, was designated a Naval Flight Officer in 1982, and graduated from the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) in 1985. Carter's career as an aviator includes extensive time at sea, deploying around the globe in the F-4 Phantom II and the F-14 Tomcat. He has landed on 19 different aircraft carriers, to include all 10 of the Nimitz class carriers. Carter flew 125 combat missions in support of joint operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. He accumulated 6,150 flight hours in F-4, F-14, and F/A-18 aircraft during his career and safely completed 2,016 carrier-arrested landings, the record among all active and retired U.S. Naval Aviation designators.[5]

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.

Rear Admiral Stanley W. Bryant was the first NFO selected for the Navy's Nuclear Power Program as a Commander in 1986. As a Captain, he became the first NFO to command a nuclear aircraft carrier when he took command of U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) in July 1992. In his first posting following promotion to Flag rank, he became the first NFO and first carrier aviator to command the Iceland Defense Force in Keflavik, Iceland in 1994. He was the first NFO appointed to the position of Deputy Commander (then DCINC), Naval Forces Europe and retired from that position in 2001.

Commander William P. Driscoll was the first NFO to become a flying ace, having achieved five aerial kills of VPAF fighter aircraft during the Vietnam War. Driscoll received the service's second-highest decoration, the Navy Cross, for his role in a 1972 dogfight with North Vietnamese MiGs. Driscoll separated from active duty in 1982 but remained in the United States Naval Reserve, flying the F-4 Phantom II and later the F-14 Tomcat in a Naval Air Reserve fighter squadron at NAS Miramar, eventually retiring in 2003 with the rank of Commander (O-5).[6][7]

Admiral William Fallon, an NFO who flew in the RA-5C Vigilante and the A-6 Intruder, was the first NFO to achieve four-star rank. As a three-star vice admiral, he was the first NFO to command a numbered fleet, the U.S. 2nd Fleet. He later served in four separate four-star assignments, to include command of two unified combatant commands. This included service as the 31st Vice Chief of Naval Operations from October 2000 to August 2003; the Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Atlantic Fleet from October 2003 to February 2005; Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) from February 2005 until March 2007; and Commander, U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) from March 2007 until his retirement in March 2008.[8]

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., was the last Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) prior to its re-designation as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). He was the first NFO from the land-based maritime patrol aviation community to command a numbered fleet, the U.S. 6th Fleet, and later commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He is also the first member of the Navy's land-based maritime patrol aviation community, pilot or NFO, to promote to four-star rank. He previously flew the P-3C Orion and retired in 2018.

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 and retired in 2007.

General William L. Nyland, USMC was the first Marine Corps NFO to achieve four-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.[9]

Vice Admiral Nora W. Tyson was the Commander, United States Third Fleet from 2015 to 2017, and previously Deputy Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. She was the first female NFO to command a warship, the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5), and the first female naval officer to command an aircraft carrier strike group, Carrier Strike Group Two, aboard the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). She previously flew the land-based EC-130Q Hercules and the E-6 Mercury TACAMO aircraft. She was the first woman to command a U.S. Navy fleet, the U.S. 3rd Fleet. She retired in 2017.

Colonel John C. Church, Sr., USMC (Ret.) was the first NFO to command a Marine F-4 squadron. He commanded VFMA 115, the Silver Eagles, from 1983 to 1984. Colonel Church, "the Silver Fox", had served with VFMA 115 during the Vietnam War and he and his pilot Captain James "Rebel" Denton were shot down. Colonel Church amassed more than 500 missions in the F-4.[10]


Eligible fleet platforms for NFOs are as of December 2017 are as follows:

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 initially designated as airborne communications officers (ACOs), then upgrade to combat systems officers (CSOs), and finally to mission commanders (CSO/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 weapon 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).

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 (which replaced the F/A-18B previously used) 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.

NFOs have also served as instructors in the twin-seat F-5F Tiger II at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (now part of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC)) and as instructors in twin-seat F/A-18Bs in USN and USMC F/A-18 fleet replacement squadrons and the Navy Fighter Weapons School. They have also flown a number of USAF and NATO/Allied aircraft via the U.S. Navy's Personnel Exchange Program (PEP), to include, but not limited to, the USAF F-4 Phantom II, F-15E Strike Eagle and E-3 Sentry, the Royal Air Force Buccaneer S.2, Tornado GR1/GR1B/GR4/GR4A and Nimrod MR.2, and the Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora.

In all, the specific roles filled by an NFO can vary greatly depending on the type of aircraft and squadron 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

See also


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


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