Up-or-out outcry: Aviators upset by low promotion rates

By Meghann Myers, Staff writer

Sept. 1 was either a great day or a terrible day for about 2,000 lieutenant commander hopefuls.

For the second year in a row, the Navy promoted fewer than 60 percent of its in-zone aviation lieutenants, prompting an outcry against the selection process from some officers whose Navy careers are abruptly ending.

“It is so completely broken that I don’t even think they know how to fix it,” a Norfolk-based P-3C Orion pilot told Navy Times on Sept. 2.

The passed-over fliers railed against the selection board and process, with the P-3 pilot saying that this command hadn’t even bothered to notify him afterwards; he found out on a popular naval aviation online forum. But personnel officials defended the up-or-out system, saying that overall O-4 selection rates have risen.

According to the numbers, the overall aviation selections rose to 70 percent this year, including 50 percent for in-zone officers, but some were dismayed that aviators’ rates still were significantly below the other largest unrestricted line communities.

Submarine and surface warfare officers, in contrast, were promoted at about 92 percent, with 89 percent of their in-zone candidates.

The P-3 flier said it was the second year in a row that he didn’t pick up O-4, so to release some frustration he posted a mocking article, titled “Navy Announces Layoff of 207 Experienced Pilots and Flight Officers,” on AirWarriors.com, the same forum where he found out that he didn’t make the cut.

“It looked like satire, but everything I said about it is true,” said the pilot, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by his colleagues.

“On Tuesday, the Navy decided to prematurely terminate the careers of 207 experienced naval aviators and naval flight officers, most of whom were more than halfway towards retirement,” he wrote in the post obtained by Navy Times. “Many of the pilots who were terminated had amassed nearly 2,500 flight hours each and were [early-promote]  sailors during their shore and multiple sea tours.”

The Fiscal Year 2016 unrestricted line O-4 board results back up the pilot’s numbers: 91 above-zone aviators and flight officers made the cut, a 31 percent selection rate; above zone includes officers who were in-zone in the previous board and not picked. Things were also tight for the in-zone group, which saw about a 58-percent selection rate. That’s up from last year’s 50 percent, but not enough, the pilot said.

“They made this big production about how there’s going to be drastic changes, but there’s been no changes,” he said.

Top personnel officials dispute that, however. They note that last year’s pilot and NFO numbers jumped from about 50 percent to over 70 percent this year. The Navy increased its selection rate from 70 to 80 percent, Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel Rear Adm. Kenneth Whitesell told Navy Times, and the board was pushed from April to May to allow lieutenants’ January fitness reports to be included in their packages.

“Board members were also given improved community milestone definitions, allowing board membership to clearly differentiate those who performed above their peers.  These changes did not affect the fundamental board precept guidance of selecting the ‘best and fully qualified,’ ” he said. “Every record was given fair consideration across the totality of their experiences compared against their peers.”

By law, Congress allows the Navy to promote 70 to 90 percent of its eligible officers every year.

“It continues to be heavily skewed to submariners and surface warfare,” the pilot argued.  Both communities promoted about 92 percent of their candidates, though those above-zone fared even worse than the aviators: 17 percent for SWOs and 27 percent for subs.

Each community has different needs, CNP spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen told Navy Times, and that is reflected in the selection percentages.

“Specifically, the FY16 selection rate — about 71 percent for pilot and 75 percent for NFO — is significantly better than it has been for the previous three years,” he added.  “This year we saw a large number of above-zone picks in the FY16 board for aviators.  This shows that the Navy values and recognizes talent — regardless of zone position.”

“While no system is perfect, we believe in our process,” Christensen said. “The Navy works hard to ensure that for each board cycle we identify the right number of vacancies and billets available so that we can select the best, most qualified officers for promotion.”

‘The grim reality’

The FY15 board was even tougher, the pilot said, and the talk of his community.

“Last year I was pretty shocked. So was everyone else that I knew, as well as my commanding officer and a lot of people above him. The commodore, our one-star,” he said. “People in the top three in some squadrons still didn’t get picked up.”

It was similar this time around, the pilot said. With a shore and sea tour as an EP sailor — the highest fitness report performance bracket — a stint at a fleet replacement squadron and disassociated orders to a carrier, he thought he’d paid his dues.

There is no magic promotion formula, but there are career guidelines to follow. The pilot feels he followed them and is being sent home anyway, without an explanation.

“That is the million dollar question that no one can answer, not even flag-level commanding officers,” he said. “I know people who were number one in their sea tour, number one in their shore tour. They went to the FRS as instructors. We’re all told that’s the best thing that you can do. They took disassociated sea tour orders after that, and they still didn’t get picked up for O-4, which is shocking.”

“The grim reality is, if you’ve been looked over once – even though they give you two chances — the chance that you’re going to pick it up on your second time is even worse,” he added.

To make matters worse, he added, is that no one in his command has spoken to him about it.

“From what I understand, the policy is they’re supposed to contact people that didn’t make it on the board 24 hours in advance,” he said in an interview a day after the board results were released. “My chain of command has not officially called me in, sat me down, looked me in the eye, told me, ‘Thanks for your service, but you’re gone.’ ”

Instead, he said, he learned his fate when someone posted the results to AirWarriors.com, right before the BUPERS web site went down and he couldn’t verify it.

“The only official thing that anyone said to me was, my detailer called and left a message [on Sept. 2], saying, ‘Hey I guess you’ve seen the results by now, go ahead and give me a call back to talk about your transition,’ ” he said.

The board results started a seven-month clock for him, in which he’ll go on terminal leave and receive severance pay. In any case, he’s looking ahead to getting out.

“I’ve been preparing myself for that, looking at picking up civilian careers. A lot of people have talked to me about trying to go reserves, but I’m not interested,” he said. “I gave everything I had to the Navy and I performed well, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have been selected.”

He has some ideas for the process, though. Foremost is dumping the “up or out” system and then giving communities, like surface warfare or aviation, more control over how many people they promote.

“Because it’s not selected by community, there’s no conversation in there about, ‘Well, we’re promoting too many submariners, or too many surface warfare, not enough aviators.’ Their hands are tied,” he said. “Especially in the last few years, there are hundreds of very excellent officers out there who definitely have something to offer the military, and the military is losing them.”

Still, he said he does want his fellow officers to know that he’s not trying to take anything away from their accomplishments by voicing his frustration.

“I’m not bitter about it. I really appreciate all the people that I’ve served with along the way,” he said. “I think the people that did get promoted absolutely deserve it. They’re the best of anyone out there.”

Back to Top