On 8 February 1965, a change to Bureau of Personnel Instruction 1210.4C authorized a new designator and name, Naval Flight Officer (NFO). The new designator was appropriate for “an unrestricted line officer, a member of the aeronautical organization . . .who may fill any billet not requiring actual control knowledge of an aircraft.” Eight subspecialties were available at the time: bombardier, controller, electronic countermeasures evaluator, navigator, interceptor, photographer-navigator, tactical coordinator and reconnaissance navigator. The new NFOs continued wearing the Naval Aviation Observer wings.
While there were some (ahem, and evidently still are – you know who you are) that claimed they’d rather have the extra 200lbs or so of gas vice sharing the ride with an NFO, that is very much a minority view. NFOs quickly proved their worth, though it took a little longer before the powers that be were enlightened enough to let NFOs have command of squadrons and carriers.
Not long after the designation of the community, the air war in Vietnam ramped up big time and NFOs were in the thick of it from the start — whether it was flying right seat in the new all-weather attack A-6 Intruder, CAP in F-4′s over North Vietnam, post-strike recce in Vigis or Market Time ops in P-3s, NFOs were there and paid the ultimate sacrifice. High on the list for loss rates were the RA-5C Vigilantes — 19 total lost, usually on the post strike recce of the target area. What was it like as an NFO to fly in this great beast? Boom Powell, a gifted writer – albeit a single anchor wearer, gives us a peek from the perspective of the front seat:
When the Vigilante was new and called the "A-3J," (later, the "A-5A"), the men in the back were simply called bombardier navigators (BN), but when the plane’s mission changed to reconnaissance with the RA-5G, they became known as reconnaissance attack navigators (RAN5). The A remained even after the attack role was abandoned. The RAN is the heart of the reconnaissance mission. His job is to run the ASB-12 inertial navigation system that integrates radar and television for updating the navigation and target detection (the television scanner lens is in the small glass blister on the bottom of a Vigi’s nose). All I have in the front cockpit is a steering bar and distance readout. The most frequent command from the back seat is "Follow steering." (Read the rest…)
A signature aircraft for the NFO and one that showcased the value of the second crewman working a complex weapons system was the A-6. Like the Vigi, the Intruder saw plenty of action in Vietnam, usually the worst targets in the worst weather — and endured its share of losses. Unlike the Vigi, after Vietnam the Intruder soldiered on through the 70’s and 80’s until it was finally put to pasture by the mid-90s. One of the more memorable events that featured an Intruder BN was the partial ejection of LT Keith Gallagher. We’ve all seen the video of the trap, but here is the rest of the story…
Before we got to the Fleet, we had to make it through the Training Command. Flying a variety of training aircraft, including the Mighty Frog (aka T-2 Buckeye), T-39 and TA-4, we learned the basics of our future trade – navigation, flight planning, intercepts and radar. We had good IPs and we had, well, screamers and a-holes. In other words, a representative sample of what we would see in the Fleet. The weeding out process started early — if you couldn’t think and talk on the radio at the same time, you were toast. YHS remembers one of the early washouts who thought he’d found a way to sneak by this challenge. You see, he wrote out a complete script of the flight from engine start to back in the chocks and kept it in a binder hidden below the glare shield in his lap. Worked just fine until the first wingover when notebook – and script, went flying in the rear cockpit, fod’ing it of course in the process… For another look at life as a SNFO (Student NFO), there is this offering from the VF side of the house via Pinch:
First off, as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO), we were destined for the non-flying part of the cockpit. The Navy, a long time ago, learned it was tough enough to land on a carrier from the front seat of an aircraft, let alone the back seat. As a result, most NFO positions in naval tactical jets are sans flight controls (the soon-to-be retired S-3 Viking being the only one where an NFO could have a stick and throttle in front of them). So, at that stage of our career, early in the flight training syllabi, we were concentrating on the various and sundry administrative aspects of managing the cockpit “stuff” and flight things. The Rest of the Story…
So we arrive at the Fleet, finally. We build time and gain experience – and along the way we encounter that situation every NFO dreads — the moonless, horizonless black pit of a night. A varsity night as it were and very challenging to the best stick, except yours has vertigo… (courtesy Steve over at The Woodshed – a VS NFO):
It invariably gets asked. Usually at parties or gatherings where stories are told once the beer starts flowing and someone gets curious. “What was it like? What was the most terrifying experience you had flying off carriers?”
That would be the night my pilot got vertigo. Without a doubt. Night tanker hop. (There’s that word night again, dark one too.) We launched as the recovery tanker aka “Texaco”. Extra gas in the air for those unfortunate souls taking their turn in the barrel, having trouble getting aboard. First joined up on the off-going tanker overhead the ship and took the lead so he could plug in and confirm the on-coming tanker “sweet”. That done we swapped the lead again and plugged in to take his excess fuel to get him down to max trap weight without dumping. More…
There’s a thousand and one or more stories out there to be told by NFOs – and these are but a few. Grab one, like Skippy, ply them with their favorite beverage and sit back and enjoy. Peacetime, wartime, ashore or afloat the NFO has earned a rightful place in Naval Aviation. Here’s a salute to those who went before and fought the good fight, those that continue and to those still to come…
Whoa, wait a minute Scribe — you didn’t tell us about being a Hummer NFO…
Mosey on over here for a first person perspective… in several situations. To be sure there are plenty of other communites – some still existent (VP) others long passed and their stories are encouraged as well (feel free to add in the comments or pass SEPCOR, we’ll update accordingly)
P.S. Thanks to Pinch for supplying the following ad copy:
In memory and tribute of all those NFOs who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and especially CAPT Scott "Scooter" Lam0reaux, USN and "Bounty Hunter One"
Here’s a pic of me on the ramp Sanford Aug 1960. The first A3Js were there already. That’s Heavy One leaving to go to the Indy for her first deployment. Since that was the height of the nuke the world days, they deployed with 18 ircraft.
Yep, 18 A3Ds aboard, which makes this whole nor room for the gig thing just a bit suspicious…..Some luminaries were there in Sanford. Like Tom Markley (4th from left), later on one of the first NFO (first on the west coast?) F-4 squadron COs.
Bones Morgan was another. Wild man mustang & Charlie Pendergrast-who passed away recently-only one to sucessfully make an escape from capture in the north…
That crowd helped forge the NFO concept…