Pilot and flight officer promotion rates recover from historic lows
By: Meghann Myers
Naval aviation has come through the other side of a promotion debacle, after a 2014 lieutenant commander selection rate hit rock bottom at just over 50 percent, prompting outcries from junior officers throughout the community.
This year, that rate is at 83 percent, according to Navy Personnel Command statistics, up from last year’s low-70s.
“Promotions across the control grades are up,” Capt. Dan Dwyer, NPC’s head of aviation officer assignments, told Navy Times in a May interview, of promotions for O-4 through O-6. “Expect them to be up again next year.”
On top of those promotions are helicopter pilots, who made lieutenant commander at a rate of more than 90 percent.
The proof is in the communitywide statistics, released Sept. 6, which show aviators inching closer to the high rates of O-4 selections in the surface, submarine, explosive ordnance disposal and special warfare unrestricted line officers, which are historically around 90 percent or higher.
The reason for the discrepancy, leaders explain, is that aviators come up for lieutenant commander at about the same time they finish their initial service obligations, at eight years in.
Because of that, they are competing against an unthinned herd of their fellow pilots and naval flight officers, whereas many of their surface or submarine counterparts have already separated to pursue other careers.
But that explanation never sat well with junior aviation officers who stuck to their golden path of two sea tours and one “production source” shore tour, like a fleet replacement or test squadron.
For some, like a P-3C Orion flier with “early promote” marks on his fitness reports who spoke to Navy Times last year, that still wasn’t enough.
“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 toward retirement,” he wrote in a September 2015 post on AirWarriors.com. “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.”
Dwyer was a target of frustration as well, he said, in his Sept. 10 briefing at this year’s Tailhook reunion in Reno, Nevada, which was streamed live and recorded online.
“Throughout the weekend here at Tailhook [in 2014], I got the “What happened, ‘Dozer,’ and what are we going to do about it?’ ” he recalled.
To right the perceived wrong, NPC did away with zone distinctions at promotion boards, so the senior officers making decisions wouldn’t know if someone was up for promotion early or getting their second look.
NPC also took a closer look at who was sitting on the boards, Dwyer said, to make sure they had a wide range of fleet experience. A year later, aviator O-4 selections were up 10 percent.
“Their records competed because of some of those changes,” Dwyer said of disregarding zones. “We promoted people above and below zone because of those changes.”
Next up on Navy personnel’s list of changes to officer promotions was supposed to be a plan that would allow officers to receive new promotion sequence numbers based on merit — for going to graduate school or doing a fellowship, for example.
But that language was written out of the final 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, Dwyer said, and hope for changing that policy faded when the Defense Department’s Force of the Future initiative faded earlier this year.
Now, Dwyer said, the Chief of Naval Personnel’s office wants to give officers an avenue to defer promotion boards if they feel they aren’t yet competitive enough, though it will require a change to the law that governs officer promotions.
In some cases, if a lieutenant veers off the golden path to attend graduate school, do a tour with industry or even an involuntary individual augmentee tour, his resume could look less favorable.
“Give them an opportunity to signal to the board that, ‘I may not have all the milestones that make me competitive for promotion,’ ” he said. “We hear the fleet, we hear the JOs loud and clear about this rigid career path, and this is one way to get after that.”
Those changes have an effect on promotion rates, but for some, the way that promotion news is handled still needs work. As it is now, the entire community finds out at the same time when an ALNAV message is posted.
That can be a real burn to those who aren’t selected, and the process doesn’t give leaders time to sit down with their junior officers and talk about the news.
“The numbers are better,” Cmdr. Mehdi Akacem, the executive officer of Training Squadron 86, told Dwyer at the Tailhook briefing. “What is not better … is the personal touch, the leadership touch of telling the officers who did or didn’t make it — you’re not giving me the tools.”
As it is now, only a squadron CO gets a 24-hour advance copy of the selection list.
“So it came out on Monday, I’m sitting in a debrief, and my officers … are finding out again through text messages from friends,” Akacem said. “What did we not get right this time? How come I don’t have a six-hour heads-up?”
Dwyer and his team have suggested changing the process, he said, but it’s been tabled by NPC and the staff judge advocate.
“I know it’s not a good answer,” Dwyer said.
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