Flight trainees' assignment: Wait for orders

March 17, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

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.

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