NIFE Lays Foundation for Naval Aviation Training

23 February 2022

From Ensign Lyndsay Ballew

NIFE by design establishes the foundations of aviation fundamentals for aspiring aviators but is also a screening tool that will test student’s ability to handle stressful evolutions in a high impact environment.
Many have seen the movie “Top Gun” or the Blue Angels soaring overhead at air shows around the nation. Movies and the U.S. Navy’s elite demonstration team demonstrate the excitement and power of naval aviation, but what is not readily apparent are the countless hours of training naval aviators go through before earning their coveted "Wings of Gold."

All U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard pilots and naval flight officers, as well as many international pilots and flight officers, complete more than two years of training prior to earning their wings. They all begin their flying careers in Pensacola, Florida on board Naval Air Station Pensacola, which is affectionately known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” Their training begins at Naval Aviation Schools Command (NASC) while enrolled in the Aviation Training School’s Naval Introductory Flight Evaluation (NIFE) program.

NIFE by design establishes the foundations of aviation fundamentals for aspiring aviators but is also a screening tool that will test student’s ability to handle stressful evolutions in a high impact environment.

“NIFE is the bridge from commissioning to Primary flight training and for many students, it’s their first time experiencing what it means to be a military officer,” said Lt. Catalina “Trash Cat” Webster, NASC 2021 Instructor of the Year. “As an instructor, my goal is to model what that means both on the ground and in the air, and to emphasize how character and responsibility are integral to joining the legacy of naval aviation.”

Few qualify for flight school to begin with. Fewer still will earn their "Wings of Gold" after being evaluated on their mental fortitude, resilience, and dedication – NIFE is where that evaluation begins.

The NIFE program is divided into four phases.

In phase I, following medical clearance, students face their first challenge with a week of water survival training. Students are introduced to and then tested on swimming in flight gear, water survival techniques, and CPR.

Phase II is the academic portion of NIFE where students take classes and exams in five subjects during a three-week period. With its condensed nature, the academic phase not only tests a student’s retention of material, but also challenges their study discipline and time management.

Any score under 80% results in a disciplinary “pink sheet.” Upon receiving their first pink sheet, students must stand before a panel of instructors to explain why they failed and how they plan to improve. An accumulation of pink sheets results in removal from the program.

In phase III, after receiving just a week of ground school, students must quickly memorize and prioritize information required to complete a series of flights in a Cessna 172 using Navy flight procedures. Civilians earning a private pilot license do not typically land an aircraft on their first flight, but NIFE students are expected to attempt at least six landings and perform a set of standardized maneuvers on each of seven flights.

During pre-flight briefings, failure to demonstrate adequate memorization of these maneuvers as well as several emergency procedures leads to a pink sheet. This phase of training is crucial both in testing a student’s ability to learn procedures and in evaluating their aeronautical adaptability.

Students who complete flight phase III move on to phase IV, aviation physiology. This week of training consists of more emergency-specific training evolutions such as the hypoxia chamber, emergency first aid, and the “helo dunker.”

Ensign Matthew Zachary, a student naval flight officer who commissioned in 2021 through Officer Candidate School, graduated NIFE in early December. Despite double majoring in biology and neuroscience at The College of William & Mary, the academic demands of NIFE training surprised him.

Zachary received a pink sheet in phase III for failing a pre-flight brief, which he says was a valuable learning experience.

“I’m so used to being around successful people and being able to breeze by academically,” said Zachary. “So realizing that I have to put in more time and actually study and put forth a good amount of effort to make this happen was a wake-up call and made me realize that the aviation community is really on top of their stuff. They are all hardworking and dedicated. It takes a lot to be part of the group that earns their wings.”

Zachary says NIFE prepared him for Primary flight training by making clear the standards and preparation demanded by the naval aviation community.

“Knowing what you need to study, how to study, how much time is needed to study…you have to put a lot of time into it," said Zachary. "It’s not easy."

Attrition from NIFE could be for medical reasons, poor performance, or personal choice. Students may decide they don’t like flying or their struggles in NIFE make them realize naval aviation is not right for them and choose a new career path.

One student ended up being more consumed by the demands of training than many friends who took more naturally to the material.

“Everyone is inclined to different things, and I don’t think I was inclined to that. But, would I ever have known that until I got here? Of course not,” said the student, who did not regret trying and is looking at other Navy career fields to possibly transition into.

For those with the requisite skills and passion for flying to fuel them through the grueling study sessions and fast-paced training, NIFE graduation is the first milestone on a long, but rewarding journey. After NASC, students move on to training squadrons managed by the Chief of Naval Air Training.

“Honestly the first time flying and actually having the controls and knowing that you’re flying the plane is really awesome,” said Zachary. “It’s hard to get that feeling anywhere else.”

As for advice to those interested in the program, Zachary definitely thinks it’s doable.

“It takes effort, it takes dedication, you have to have a drive for excellence,” said Zachary.

For more on NASC, visit https://www.netc.navy.mil/NASC/.
 
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