Pensacola's Naval Air Crew Candidate School (NACCS)

An F/A-18C Hornet launches from the the flight deck of USS Harry S. Truman.
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Angels exist. The Navy makes them and its factory is in Florida. Navy angels wear green flight suits and snug-fitting flight helmets that leave little room for halos or even fluffy white feathers. These guardian angels have faithfully stood watch over aviation crews, passengers, aircraft, and cargo since the dawn of naval aviation.

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 “aircrew,” 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., it’s a duty station that can be easily mistaken for a little slice of heaven with mostly year-around sunbathing weather. But don’t let the vacation-like setting fool you: NACCS is anything but a vacation for aircrew candidates.

“Boot camp physical training might prepare you for duty in the Navy, but it doesn’t prepare you for aircrew school,” said Air Crew Candidate, Airman Apprentice William Joseph Hamilton.

Just to earn the right to attempt aircrew school is a physical and mental challenge. Worthy candidates and 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 Navy’s 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 aircrew school’s quarterdeck.

Aircrew duty isn’t for everyone. Sailors can and do submit a drop on request at any point during the high-risk aircrew training process. Stiff physical, mental and even emotional obstacles weed out anyone who can’t handle whatever is thrown their way.

“We can’t 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 isn’t anything like flying on an airline. There’s a lot for aircrew personnel to do during a flight.”

Air Crew Duties

Aircrew missions vary depending on the type of aircraft they are assigned to and that aircraft’s tasking. Navy aircraft move Sailors and mail, engage targets, conduct surveillance, direct battles, hunt submarines and perform other tasks the Navy deems necessary.

Aircrew 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, loadmasters, 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.

“Aircrew makes the mission successful,” said Ellenburg. “The pilots just get you there.”

Sometimes, just getting there and back is the most difficult part of the mission.

By design, just about every plane and helicopter device aircrew candidates climb aboard at NACCS will crash during training. Instructors waste little time in snapping their student’s attention into the harsh reality of naval aviation, where mishaps can and often 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, aircrew survival centers on attention to detail and following procedures, which are drilled into candidates’ heads until they’re instinctive. “You don’t 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 you’ll only get one chance if disaster finds you.”

Getting out of the aircraft is only part of surviving a mishap at sea. Aircrew 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 it–in four weeks.

Aircrew personnel are trained to take responsibility for their entire crew, passengers and any salvageable cargo, so it should come as no surprise that the two most prominent things at aircrew school are physical fitness and swimming–lots of swimming.

Survival Training for Candidates

Candidates must pass nine levels of water survival training to graduate from NACCS.

“Most of the time, when you end up in the water as an aviator, it’s because something went terribly wrong,” said  Water Survival Instructor Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 2nd Class Cory Smith. “We give students the confidence they’ll need to survive a mishap in the water. We make them understand that they have to get deep and swim away from the ship (or aircraft) to avoid falling debris, fire, explosions and other Sailors. It matters how you jump into the water. Jump the wrong way and you have to try to survive with a broken leg, dislocated shoulder, or worse.”

According to Smith, it can take up to 15 minutes for a rescue helicopter to get off the deck, so surviving a crash means you have to make it to a life raft or tread water until help arrives. Aircrew graduates leave knowing drown-proofing techniques like treading water, floating and making it to that life raft, even if it’s a mile swim away while wearing between 45 and 50 lbs. of flight gear.

“I learned a lot at water survival,” said Airman Recruit Avery Layton. She considered the tread and float test (WS-4) the toughest part of her training at aircrew school. “I got over being scared to put my face in the water here because I did it so many times. And another thing … wearing boots doesn’t give you more traction in the water.”

Aircrew personnel are entrusted to do more than complete their mission. They’re expected to serve as watchdogs for the rest of the crew and the aircraft to prevent mishaps. One of the things aircrew look for are symptoms of hypoxia.

Hypoxia is a physical condition the body experiences when blood oxygen levels fall below 87 percent, and typically begin at altitudes above 10,000 feet. Low levels of oxygen cause slowed motor skills and impaired judgment. Candidates go through a low-pressure chamber, where aviation physiological technicians like Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Mark Morin educate the airborne-bound Sailors.

“Even though the air crew aren’t actually flying the aircraft,” Morin said, “they need to understand the signs of hypoxia, because if a pilot has hypoxia, everyone aboard that plane deals with his fate.”

Staying Grounded 

Being on the ground doesn’t release air crewmen from their duties. When not flying, they perform duties such as aircraft maintenance, operations, line division, communications and other duties associated with their source ratings.

The aircrew warfare designation is one of the toughest pins to earn. The Navy plans to keep it that way because of the reputation that the aircrew wings have earned in the aviation community.

“The aircrew training program’s reputation has allowed pilots to trust aircrews without question,” said Ellenburg. “The pilots never second guess the enlisted air crew’s decisions.”

The rewards for graduating from NACCS are brief, with a hearty handshake and a push onward to the next challenge in the four-part gauntlet that is the aircrew qualification process. In addition to passing NACCS, candidates must conquer their source rating “A” school, Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training and finally qualify on their specific platform at a fleet replacement squadron. Then, and only then do these guardian angels earn their wings and some extra cash with career enlisted flyer incentive pay.

But that daydream remains fuzzy for candidates back at NACCS, who are more focused on not swallowing more than their fair share of water, completing the dreaded mile swim and escaping the chaotic helicopter dunker, than on the day they get their wings, the holy grail of these guardian angels.