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Enlisted Aviators: Naval Aviation Pilots and Insignia


One of collectors’ most sought-after rating badges from the World War II-era (and prior), the Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP).

In the past six months, news stories centered on the increasing pilot-shortage issues faced by the United States Air Force have been frequently published in the media ranging from the Military and Air Force Times to mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Fox News. With the severe cuts made to the armed forces in the last decade combined with retirements and a vibrant aviation industry, luring aviators from their Air Force careers to more financially lucrative civilian jobs, the stick and rudder vacancies are mounting leaving leadership to think creatively in order to fill the empty seats.

Not since World War II has the Air Force turned to the enlisted ranks to source candidates to pilot aircraft. In 2016, USAF leadership commenced a program to begin training (E-5 and up) enlisted drone pilots in an effort to free up experienced officers for candidacy as manned aircraft aviators. Leadership announced an expansion of the enlisted drone pilot program in January.

Utilizing enlisted personnel is certainly not a new idea for sourcing military aviator candidates. Both the Army and the Navy trained non-commissioned and petty officers as aviators prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. In fact, the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps (the predecessor to the Flying Service which would become the Army Air Corps) was already engaged in training non-officer personnel as early as 1912, graduating the qualified men as Flying Sergeants. Similarly, the Navy graduated seven petty officers and two Marine Corps sergeants in 1916, launching the program that would evolve into the Naval Aviation Pilot rating.

Throughout WWI, enlisted pilot training continued for the Navy with flyers in ratings (Quartermaster and Machinist’s Mate) designated as aviators. A significant number of the enlisted aviators were offered and accepted commissions as naval officers while a few continued serving and flying as petty officers. In the years after the 1918 Armistice, the Bureau of Navigation (the command responsible for managing and training personnel) issued a policy that would incorporate enlisted and warrant officers as a standard practice for flight training. In a March 12, 1924 Bureau of Navigation Circular, the Navy officially established the rating of Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP) for for Chief Petty Officers. As the program continued, the Navy expanded the NAP rating for first class petty officers in September of 1927.

With World War II in full swing and the shift from ship-to-ship fighting became secondary to over-the-horizon, aviation-based offensive tactics expanded the need for pilots exponentially. The Bureau of Navigation further expanded the ratings for NAP to include second and third class petty officers. During World War II, at least 2,200 NAPs earned their wings (according to Bluejackets.com). By 1948 when Congress discontinued the training program for enlisted naval aviation pilots, nearly 3,800 enlisted sailors had completed the training program since it was established. Though there would be no new NAPs  following  April 2, 1948, those existing in the rating who continued to serve on active duty, also maintained their rating and flight status in dwindling numbers. On January. 31, 1981, the last Navy enlisted pilot, ACCM Robert Jones (who had been designated in 1947) retired, closing the book on the  NAP rating and insignia.

One of the most sought-after rating badges from the World War II-era is seemingly the Naval Aviation Pilot due to the decidedly high listing prices (some reaching upwards of $400). Whether people are actually paying these amounts is more difficult to determine.

The NAP rating badge consists of the Naval Aviator wings centered beneath the eagle and above the petty officer chevrons (and beneath the CPO arc).  When the mark was established in 1924, the thread-color specification for the winged insignia was gold (or yellow) to match the Naval Aviator gold wing device. In the Bureau of Personnel circular of 12 July 1944, the color of the mark was changed to align it with the all other rating badges (i.e. white thread on dress blues and blue thread on whites).

Aside from the color change of the mark, there are two design differences with the wings. Prior to World War II, the wings had a curved (some collectors call them “drooped”) appearance. Speculation among the collecting community suggest that the straight wing (that matches the appearance of the officer’s metal device) began making its way onto badges after 1942. In John Stacy’s invaluable resource, U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885 -1982, the author references suggestions that the curved wing rating badge was used by naval personnel and the curved wing was adopted by Coast Guard NAPs, however provides a caveat that no supporting evidence exists.

I have seven NAP rating badges and photographed each to show both consistency and variation across the same era. All of these are from the 1940s – perhaps all are from WWII.

John Stacey’s referenced comments made by the last NAP, ACCM Robert Jones regarding the different colored wing marks in the rating badges. The “white ones,” Jones commented, ” were (found in) small stores, gold were PX” referring the sources of the different badges. Further comments made by Jones (in Stacey’s book) state that Jones was authorized to wear either the gold or white (colored) rating badge on his dress (blue) uniform when he attained his designation as an AP1/c.

Besides the winged insignia of the NAP, a specialist rating mark was also used for the Aviation Pilot rating. Originally established in 1942 for the Transport Airman rating, the “V” centered in a diamond insignia was re-purposed for the Aviation Pilot ratings for chief, first and second class petty officers from 1948 until it was disestablished in 1962 (BuPers Notice 1440, dated 29 December 1961; effective 1 March 1962).

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