Yet they go mostly unnoticed among the rest of the fleet, set apart from typical Sailors only by the gold wings pinned on their chests with the letters AC branded in the center. The letters stand for air crew, and earning one of the rare gold enlisted pins is one of the toughest qualifications in the fleet.
Officially known as the Naval Air Crew Candidate School (NACCS), Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Fla., its a duty station that is easily confused as a little slice of heaven with mostly year-around sunbathing weather. But dont let the vacation-like setting fool you; NACCS is anything but a vacation for air crew candidates.
Boot camp physical training might prepare you for duty in the Navy, but it doesnt prepare you for air crew school, said Air Crew Candidate, Airman Apprentice William Joseph Hamilton.
Just to earn the right to attempt air crew school is a physical and mental challenge. Worthy candidates, all volunteers, must be in great physical shape and be a strong enough swimmer to pass a second-class swim test during boot camp. They must pass the Navys physical fitness assessment (PFA) with a satisfactory-medium in all categories for their sex and age, and pass a flight physical prior to setting foot on the air crew schools quarterdeck.
Air crew duty isnt for everyone. Sailors can and do submit a drop on request at any point during the high-risk air crew training process. Stiff physical, mental and even emotional obstacles weed out anyone who cant handle whatever is thrown their way.
We cant just throw any enlisted guy into an aircraft and expect him to contribute to the mission, said Master Chief Aviation Warfare Systems Operator Kenneth J. Ellenburg, NACCS Master Chief Petty Officer in charge of training. Flying Navy isnt anything like flying on an airline. Theres a lot for air crew personnel to do during a flight.
Air crew missions vary depending on the type of aircraft they are assigned to and that aircrafts tasking. Navy aircraft move Sailors and mail, engage targets, conduct surveillance, direct battles, hunt submarines and perform other tasks the Navy deems necessary.
Air crew duties during these flights can include maintenance of airborne electronic, mechanical and ordnance delivery systems; operating airborne electronic equipment; performing tactical duties as flight engineers, load masters, analysts and reel operators on Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO) aircraft; operating airborne mine countermeasures equipment, or crew served weapons; and serving as flight communications operators, in-flight medical technicians or even flight attendants.
Air crew makes the mission successful, said Ellenburg. The pilots just get you there.
Sometimes, just getting thereand back is the most difficult part of the mission.
By design, just about every plane and helicopter device air crew candidates climb aboard at NACCS will crash during training. Instructors waste little time in snapping their students attention into the harsh reality of naval aviation, where mishaps can and do happen.
Training contraptions eerily named after aviator nightmares, like the helicopter dunker, a full-scale mock-up of a helicopter cabin, are used by instructors to crash candidates into the water. Without warning, instructors send the dunker plummeting to the drink, rotating the cabin as it sinks. Students are required to egress from their seats through specific pathways once while wearing their flight gear, then again with black-out goggles.
Like many Navy jobs, air crew survival centers on attention to detail and following procedures, which are drilled into candidates heads until theyre instinctive. You dont carry a checklist with you when you hit the water, said Ellenburg. You have to be mentally tough enough to do the right things, because youll only get one chance if disaster finds you.
Getting out of the aircraft is only part of surviving a mishap at sea. Air crew personnel must avoid drowning while dodging sinking aircraft, possible fires, enemy aggression, heat, cold, waves, exhaustion, dehydration and other obstacles between them and any rescue attempts the Navy sends their way. NACCS covers all of itin four weeks.