Flight trainees' assignment: Wait for orders

The Baltimore Sun

Pensacola, Fla. -- Luke and Sherri Parchment, 2006 graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy, are enjoying something of an extended honeymoon on the white beaches of the Florida Panhandle while they wait to begin flight school.

Each weekday, the newlyweds line up in formation at 7:30 a.m. with about 200 other newly commissioned ensigns, standing at attention in their khaki uniforms while an officer verifies their attendance.

After that, they go home.

For the Parchments, used to a mentally and physically grueling four years at the academy, that means passing the time now by taking their dogs to the park, reading thrillers or watching NCAA basketball from morning to evening.

In a time of war, the Parchments and hundreds of other young officers are being paid almost $4,000 a month to do little more than wait, sometimes as long as a year, before they can get into the cockpit.

Part of the problem, Navy officials say, is that they can't train all the newly commissioned flight students at once as soon as they graduate from the academy or other colleges. Making matters worse: the higher retention among aviators since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Navy's shrinking fleet of planes, the development of aircraft that require smaller crews and even hurricanes that have halted training in Pensacola for months.

Ironically, some of the problem is caused by steps the military took to streamline pilot training. Borrowing the "just-in-time" inventory system that revolutionized manufacturing a generation ago, the military has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by estimating years in advance how many pilots it will need and then timing their education so they emerge ready to take command of aircraft just as they are needed.

While it used to take up to six years for students to make it through the system, the Navy has cut that time in half. But in the 10-year quest to improve the training pipeline for aviation, the Navy has pushed what used to be various costly waiting periods at scattered parts of the training regime into one glut before flight school, leaving a host of junior officers, such as the Parchments, waiting for orders.

Some officers have taken part-time jobs at Home Depot and restaurants. Several dozen students in 2004 even left the active-duty Navy because there was no place for them. They were not required to serve out their five-year service commitments in another Navy community or repay the cost of their education.

"We don't have a perfect answer to this; we really don't," said Rear Adm. Donald P. Quinn, the commander of Naval Air Training, based in Corpus Christi, Texas. "But we're working it. We have a lot of ideas on it now."

A team of senior naval officers is trying to reduce the wait and make better use of the young officers' time by preparing future aviators for the other duties - such as overseeing aircraft maintenance - that they will take on when they reach the fleet.

"I know it's not enough to say let's just find a 'stash job' that will keep these guys occupied for a few weeks," said Capt. Stephen H. Kirby, who heads the Naval Aviation Schools Command. "This is a training opportunity we don't want to miss."

As with many newly commissioned former Mids, the waiting game began for the Parchments right after they graduated last May.

Their class ranks were high enough to earn them aviation slots, the most coveted career choice at the 162-year-old military academy, even though those who fly have to stay in the Navy eight years to fulfill their service obligation to the government.

Some go to Pensacola immediately, but the Navy needs others to report there later so it can stagger starting times in the flight education program. Married in July under the famous "arch of swords" at the academy, the Parchments signed up to head to Pensacola in January.

In the meantime, they were assigned temporary jobs at the academy and in Washington. Luke Parchment worked 40 hours a week for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington while completing a master's degree in electrical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, which he began during his senior year at the academy. Sherri Parchment worked about 20 hours a week in the Naval Academy superintendent's office, acting as a "go-fer" for meetings and functions.

Other former midshipmen work in the academy's admissions office or even fly in jets with test pilots at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. One described his assignment as "a B.S. job," and another, who helped with plebe summer, said he spent most of his time "doing crossword puzzles."

When the ensigns make it to Pensacola, they wait again. For naval flight officers, who act as navigators or serve other back-seat missions on aircraft, the average time between when they arrive in Pensacola and when they begin flight school was 199 days last year. So far this year, that average wait has been reduced to 164 days, Navy officials said. For pilots, the wait is about 99 days.

New, temporary jobs are there to greet about half of them. They might work 10 hours a week at the base's aviation museum alongside octogenarian volunteers, or assist swimming instructors or medial aerospace researchers, do data entry or fetch coffee. One former Mid was assigned to help prepare taxes for service members on the base.

The other half don't do anything but show up in the morning for "muster."

Left with idle time, Ensign Bonnie White, 26, helped a local charity rescue greyhounds. Ensign Jennifer Yedoni, 23, took up abstract painting and built homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Sherri Parchment, who will become a naval flight officer, hasn't minded the extended time with her husband and two new dogs in Pensacola, famous for its blue-water beaches and status as "the cradle of Navy aviation." While Luke, a pilot in training, will begin classes soon, she has several months of down time ahead.

"It's been nice," she said. "It's the one time in the Navy where we will actually be together."

Even though officers are sitting idle, the Navy estimates it has saved $480 million since 1997 by ensuring that ensigns complete training and fill fleet vacancies as soon as they open up.

"That meant we had to walk the dog backwards" through each training syllabus, Kirby said, which includes pre-flight coursework, primary, intermediate and advanced training, followed by months of learning how to fly jets, helicopters or multi-engine planes.

The Navy, with the help of a consulting firm it paid $36 million, moved all the down time between each step to the beginning, where students go through rigorous physical and mental tests for six weeks to determine whether they are fit to fly.

This is where the savings come in: Because the Navy requires refresher flights for pilots who have been away from the cockpit for more than two weeks, students were racking up excess flight hours while they waited. An F/A-18 Hornet or UH-60 Sea Hawk costs about $6,000 or $7,000 per flight hour.

Today, aviators wait two weeks or less between the training steps.

But unexpected complications have vexed the Navy's attempts to fix the rest of the problem. Before the terrorist attacks, about 28 percent of aviators signed up for second tours. After, the number jumped to 50 percent. Further, use of several older planes, such as the F-14 Tomcat and S-3 Viking, was discontinued sooner than expected, meaning that fewer officers were needed.

Furthermore, Hurricane Ivan laid waste to much of the base in 2004, and training screeched to a halt. The Navy had such an excess of pilots that several dozen students left the active-duty Navy, either by choice or because they fell short of increased standards. One former midshipman, when told 25 percent of his class would be forced out of the aviation pipeline, left voluntarily and is now attending law school.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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