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Flying warrant officer program gets the ax

Aug. 24, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
In this file photo, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Daniel Haller, performs a preflight inspection in the flight station of a P-3C Orion. Haller participated in the Navy's flying chief warrant officer pilot program.
In this file photo, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Daniel Haller, performs a preflight inspection in the flight station of a P-3C Orion. Haller participated in the Navy's flying chief warrant officer pilot program. (MC2 Gulianna Mandigo / Navy)
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The Navy has permanently grounded its 6-year-old Flying Warrant Officer Program, saying that though successful at turning enlisted sailors into aviators, the needs of the service have changed. Moreover, the long-term impact of keeping it going would hurt both the people and the service.

The 49 fliers created by this enlisted-to-officer program — both pilots and naval flight officers — will continue to fly, most likely as commissioned officers, though the service is giving them options.

“This was a success from the standpoint that we were able to take good sailors from the rank and train them and send to the fleet — good pilots and naval flight officers who can function as professional aviators,” Cmdr. Dave Whitehead said. “The problem is that ... the reasons we went down this path in the first place, no longer exist.”

Keeping the program going now, he said, is actually bad for both the unrestricted line aviation officer communities the warrants work in, as well as the warrant officer community as a whole.

“I think we were at a point in this program that to do it justice, we were ... going to have to really ring up all bells on it and go full throttle,” Whitehead said. “With this being a pilot program, a test, there was no separate designator, end strength authorization or career path built for this cadre of flier. That’s because we were going to start it, analyze it after a few years and decide to keep going, or not. Meanwhile, these folks are sitting in authorizations that were slated for other types of warrants, taking bodies away from those communities.”

And with money tight in today’s Navy, and no plan to expand warrants, those 49 flying warrant slots equate to fewer chances for other sailors.

Partly to blame is how the Navy structures its warrant community. All warrant officers in the Navy come in at the W-2 pay grade because the service doesn’t use the W-1 level as the Army does.

And typically, Navy warrant selects are ranked chief or above. But not so in the flying warrant program, which was eyeing younger officers. The age cutoff for aspiring pilots and naval flight officers is 27, although waivers are possible up to 29 for pilots and 31 for NFOs.

“We were bringing junior E-6s as W-2,” Whitehead said “Because there was not a formal career path established for these people, there were no metrics for by which promotion boards had to select these people for the more senior warrant grades, W-4 and W-5. For at least 34 of these warrants, it was a real possibility that they would fail to select for W-4 two times and be forced out of the Navy because they would not have enough commissioned service to be either retirement eligible or even be in sanctuary to be retirement eligible.”

By law, officers who fail to be selected twice, but who have 18 or more years of service, are considered to be in “sanctuary” and can stay on active-duty only until eligible to retire.

Program origin

Whitehead said the program was conceived in late 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, when the Navy was looking at bringing in more pilots and flight officers.

In 2002, the Navy brought in more than 1,200 new aviators and it appeared that those accession numbers were going to increase for a while. That created a dilemma for manpower planners charged with looking at all the effects those accessions would have a decade down the road.

“At that time, the community managers looked at that inventory and projected it out, asking themselves what was going to happen when this large number of aviators starts rolling into department head tours and beyond,” he said. “What they saw was because of these numbers, the opportunity for these guys to make department head would be very low.”

That glut would also mean tougher competition for executive officer and commanding officer, leading to heavy attrition among officers .

“That wasn’t something we wanted to do, to take that many aviators up to the 10-11 year point and basically not select them for milestone advancement,” he said. “So the idea came along that if we’ were going to continue to accept this number of aviators, then we ought to create a cadre of flying professionals, warrant officers, who won’t compete for those milestones.”

What happened, however, is after 2002, the unrestricted line aviation accessions dropped as the Navy embarked on a drawdown that continued to last year. By the time the flying warrant pilot program kicked off in 2006, accessions had dropped by 300.

“We’re bringing in 300 less officers and when you projected that inventory out 10 years, it’s the exact opposite,” Whitehead said. “Now we’re looking at hopefully even making enough O-4’s to even fill out department head billets. The problem has effectively reversed.”

What happens to the 49?

Now that the program is officially dead (announced in NAVADMIN 192/13), the question remains as to the future of the 49 flying warrants, 21 of which are pilots and the other 28 being naval flight officers.

Whitehead said the current plan is to allow the warrants to apply to transfer into the unrestricted line aviation community. Their accession would happen in phases over the next few years, he said, inserting them into officer pay grades and year groups that will make them competitive down the line for the jobs they weren’t supposed to have — department head, XO and CO jobs.

Most will move to the URL community once they make W-3 and pick up there as junior in grade lieutenants, he said.

The Navy is also giving these warrants the option to roll the dice and stay flying and keep their warrant officer status. But this comes with a warning that they risk not being able to advance and possibly retire because of their anomaly status in the system if they fail to select for the higher warrant grades.

In addition, those who don’t qualify for the URL jobs, or who for some reason leave flying status, those sailors can compete for other warrant or limited duty officer designators they’re qualified for based on their aviation or prior-enlisted experience in another community.

The success of the program in training professional aviators isn’t lost on Whitehead, and he said it’s possible for the program to return someday if it’s needed.

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