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The warfare designation insignia of a naval flight officer

A naval flight officer (NFO) is an aeronautically designated commissioned officer in the United States Navy or United States Marine Corps that 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.

In 1966, enlisted personnel were removed from naval aviation observer duties (but continued to serve in enlisted aircrew roles), while naval aviation observer 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 naval aviation communities. They are also eligible to hold senior flag rank positions, including command of carrier strike groups, joint task forces, numbered fleets, naval component commands and unified combatant commands.

A small number of US Navy NFOs may later to opt 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, or hold major program management responsibilities within the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).

Similarly, Marine Corps NFOs are considered also 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 command 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, their NFO training track is more 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]


Student NFOs (SNFO) initially attend the same classes with student naval aviators (SNA) during Aviation Preflight Indoctrination at Naval Aviation Schools Command (NASC) at NAS Pensacola, Florida. Afterwards, they enter a dedicated NFO "pipeline" (curriculum) at Training Air Wing Six (TRAWING 6) at NAS Pensacola/Sherman Field. Here they are first assigned to Training Squadron TEN (VT-10 Wildcats) and are taught basic aviation fundamentals in the T-6A Texan II, including aerobatics and instrument navigation during the primary phase. Based upon performance, personal preference, and needs of the Navy or Marine Corps, NFO students are assigned to various specialized NFO "pipelines" for further training.[3]


Training for a naval flight officer is in a tiered system. After primary training is completed, students are selected for either carrier aviation or "maritime" aviation (i.e., land-based, larger aircraft). Selection is based on a combination of student preference and the rank of the student in his class. The top graduate is typically offered his or her choice of duty. The rest of the graduates are placed in billets according to "the needs of the Navy" or Marine Corps.

For carrier aviation student NFOs, training progresses an additional fourteen weeks in the primary training squadron before they are assigned to Training Squadron 86 (VT-86) for jet training. VT-86 prepares student NFOs for eventual assignment to F/A-18F Super Hornets (USN), F/A-18D Hornets (USMC), EA-18G Growler (USN), or EA-6B Prowlers (USN and USMC), flying the T-39 Sabreliner and T-45 Goshawk. Training in specific fleet aircraft occurs after graduation from advanced NFO training (i.e., "winging") and is conducted at the respective Fleet Replacement Squadron for the particular type/model/series (T/M/S) aircraft. This process also holds true for newly winged NFOs slated for land-based naval aircraft.

An exception to this process is for those student NFOs assigned to the E-2 Hawkeye community, who, following completion of intermediate NFO training at VT-10, are transferred to NS Norfolk, Virginia for advanced training at Airborne Early Warning Squadron 120 (VAW-120), the E-2 Hawkeye FRS. VAW-120 awards these NFOs their wings during their training syllabus at the Fleet Replacement Squadron.

Until 2009, intermediate training for land-based aircraft typically sent student NFOs to Randolph AFB in San Antonio, TX for joint training with the 12th Flying Training Wing (12 FTW) before being sent to Patrol Squadron Thirty (VP-30) at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, the Fleet Replacement Squadron for the P-3 Orion and the EP-3E Aries, or the Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Seven (VQ-7), the FRS for the E-6 Mercury TACAMO aircraft at Naval Air Facility Tinker / Tinker AFB, Oklahoma.

Following the divestiture of specialized undergraduate navigator training (SUNT) from the Air Force's 12 FTW at Randolph AFB and its relocation to NAS Pensacola as the 479th Flying Training Group, a geographically separated unit (GSU) of the 12 FTW, a select number of student NFOs slated for the P-3 Orion, EP-3 Aries, and eventually the P-8 Poseidon are being sent directly to VP-30, the FRS for P-3s, EP-3s and the P-8, as part of a prototype advanced training program similar to that historically utilized by the E-2 community (i.e., NFO "winging" at the FRS), before beginning the normal FRS syllabus. A similar program for student NFOs slated for the E-6 Mercury at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma is also underway with VQ-7. At present, the Navy is evaluating if this will remain a permanent change or if pre-winging NFO training will eventually shift back to the Naval Air Training Command.

NFO training has recently undergone an extensive overhaul under a program known as undergraduate military flight officer (UMFO). The UMFO program continues to use the T-6A Texan II aircraft, has replaced the T-2C Buckeye with the T-45C Goshawk. Long term plans include eventually replacing the T-39G/N with a modified T-45C Goshawk once further navigational training system upgrades are made to NFO-specific T-45C aircraft (including a synthetic radar with both stored air-to-ground and data link-based air-to-air modes) operated by Training Air Wing Six, the parent command for all student NFO training squadrons at NAS Pensacola.

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 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 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, carrier strike groups, Marine Aircraft Wings, Marine Expeditionary Forces, and numbered fleets. Two 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 as a Navy admiral having commanded U.S. Fleet Forces Command & U.S. Atlantic Fleet, U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) and U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM). Another former NFO who retrained and qualified as a naval aviator also achieved four star rank as a Marine Corps general, has commanded U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and served as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Notable NFOs

As a captain, Vice Admiral Richard Dunleavy was the first NFO to command an aircraft carrier, the USS Coral Sea. He previously flew in 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 Benjamin Thurman Hacker was the first NFO flag officer, having been selected in 1980. He previously flew in the P-2 Neptune and P-3 Orion. He retired in 1988.

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 Nora W. Tyson 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 in the land-based EC-130Q Hercules and the E-6 Mercury TACAMO aircraft.

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 in the A-6 Intruder. He retired in 2007.

Vice Admiral (Admiral selectee) Harry B. Harris, Jr., is the first NFO from the land-based maritime patrol aviation community to command a numbered fleet, the U.S. 6th Fleet and the first member of the maritime patrol community, pilot or NFO, to be nominated for four-star rank. The prospective Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, he previously flew in the P-3C Orion.

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 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.

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 in the F-4 Phantom II and the F/A-18 Hornet, and he retired in 2005.

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

In the fleet, NFOs are currently assigned to Navy and Marine squadrons flying the EA-18G Growler, F/A-18F Super Hornet, F/A-18D Hornet (USMC Only), EA-6B Prowler, E-6 Mercury, E-2C/D Hawkeye, EP-3 Aries, the P-3C Orion and the P-8A Poseidon.

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 or mission commanders in current versions of the T-39 Sabreliner and USAF T-1A Jayhawk.

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:

  • EA-1F (formerly AD-5Q) Skyraider serving as electronic warfare officer/electronic countermeasures operator.
  • A-3 Skywarrior (including EA-3, ERA-3, EKA-3, EA-3, TA-3 and VA-3) serving as bombardier/navigator, electronic countermeasures officer, navigator, electronic warfare officers, and EWO signals evaluator.
  • A-5 and RA-5C Vigilante serving as bombardier/navigator in the A-5A and reconnaissance/attack navigator in the RA-5C.
  • A-6 Intruder (A-6A, A-6B, A-6C, KA-6D, A-6E) serving as bombardier/navigator.
  • EA-6A Prowler serving as electronic countermeasures officer.
  • WV-2, WV-3 and EC-121 Warning Star as navigator and electronic warfare officer.
  • EC-130Q Hercules "TACAMO" aircraft serving as navigator and airborne communications officer.
  • ES-3A Shadow serving as electronic warfare officer and co-pilot/electronic warfare officer.
  • F-4 Phantom II (F-4B, F-4J, F-4N, F-4S, EF-4B, EF-4J) serving as radar intercept officer.
  • RF-4B Phantom II serving as reconnaissance systems officer.
  • F-14 Tomcat (F-14A, F-14B, F-14D) serving as radar intercept officer.
  • LC-130 Hercules serving as navigator.
  • C-130 Hercules serving as navigator.
  • OV-10 Bronco (OV-10A and OV-10D) serving as aerial observer.
  • SP-2E/H Neptune (SP-2E, SP-2H, EP-2E, OP-2E, AP-2H, LP-2H) serving as tactical coordinator and navigator.
  • SP-5B Marlin serving as tactical coordinator and navigator.
  • RP-3A and RP-3D Orion serving as ocean project coordinator and navigator.
  • S-3 Viking (S-3A and S-3B) serving as tactical coordinator and co-pilot/tactical coordinator.
  • WP-3A Orion serving as navigator./

NFOs have also served as instructors/mission commanders in since retired training aircraft such as the UC-45 Expeditor, T-29 Flying Classroom, earlier 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.
  • In the CBS TV Series JAG, Sibel Galindez played the F-14 RIO to then Commander Harmon Rabb.

See also


  1. The Naval Aviation Guide, 4th Edition, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1985, ISBN 0-87021-409-8
  2. USCG E-2C Hawkeye
  3. Chief of Naval Air Training

External links

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