The Aviation Midshipmen Story
June 10, 2017
The year was 1946, World War II had ended, and demobilization was in full sway. The Navy was standing down its veteran officers and aviators. Concerned with the potential shortfall, the Secretary of the Navy tasked Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel Rear Admiral James L. Holloway, Jr., to chair an influential, ten-member board, charged with revitalizing acquisition, education, and retention of officers in the postwar United States Navy.
Realizing that the Naval Academy could not provide the numbers of officers required, the board devised a trailblazing plan to use the nation’s colleges to train regular naval officers to meet the Navy’s future needs. The plan, soon commonly known as the “Holloway Plan,” was unanimously approved by Congress and signed into law in August 1946. The plan devised two main tracks: the standard four-year course for line officers and the more familiar seven-year Naval Aviation College Program (NACP) for naval aviators.
NACP was devised to entice new enlistees into the Navy by offering two years of college followed by naval flight training. If successful in training, the newly acquired officer candidates would be assured their coveted Navy Wings of Gold, a commission in the U. S. Navy, a promise of two additional years in which to complete their college education, and the grand opportunity to enjoy a 20 to 30 year career as an officer in the regular Navy.
From inception, NACP was a success in attaining its goal. Those already in the training pipeline in 1946 were afforded the opportunity to transfer to the Holloway Plan with the enticement of becoming regular Navy. Enrollees in the Navy V-5 college program were converted to the new program while the majority of new trainees were enlisted right out of high school. During the period 1946 through 1950, just under 3,000 individuals, ages 17 to 24, were appointed Aviation Midshipmen, USN, for two years while undergoing naval flight training. The training was arduous and it is estimated that only 2,100 (70%) successfully completed and were awarded their wings and designation as Naval Aviators. Graduates of NACP went on to participate in every major aviation event from the Berlin Airlift to the conflict in Vietnam. In fact, NACP was so successful that one reason for early termination of the program was the inability of the Navy to honor promises made as inducements to join.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the program was the two years that these future aviators served as Aviation Midshipmen. Serving with the same rank and pay grade as Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, commissioning as an officer in the Navy would not occur for two years and only after successful completion of flight training. Early converts to the program experienced slight variations in time spent as an Aviation Midshipmen. Nevertheless, completion of training and designation as a Naval Aviator took between 15 to 18 months for most. Thus, newly winged First Class Midshipmen were serving the balance of their appointment while assigned to their first fleet aviation squadron. And this is where they first experienced identity problems and administrative inequities like few others.
Aviation Midshipmen were paid $78.00 per month plus 50% flight pay; “bargain basement” aviators in comparison with their commissioned counterparts. The pay scale was barely enough to subsist, let alone buy essentials like uniforms. Midshipmen were not allowed to marry, but few could afford it anyway. Midshipmen were often looked upon with suspicion upon reporting for squadron duty. Commanding Officers were uncomfortable entrusting high performance, operational aircraft to these novice aviators. Some Midshipmen reported that Operations Duty Officers refused to sign flight clearances believing them not qualified. Occasionally, Midshipmen even suffered the indignity of being accused by the unknowing of impersonating officers. But perhaps the most egregious inequity was that the two years as Midshipmen on active duty in a flying capacity was not allowed in computing time in service for pay, longevity, and retirement purposes.
The outlook changed somewhat in June 1950 when the Korean War broke out. Suddenly there was a great demand for aviators. Midshipmen, and those newly commissioned as Ensigns, in maritime and carrier aviation squadrons soon found themselves thrust into combat. A number of these were the first Midshipmen to fight and die in combat since the U. S. – Mexican War of 1846.
Believing a correction was justified to the inequity of not having active duty midshipmen time count for pay and retirement purposes, a few former Aviation Midshipmen formed the Flying Midshipmen Association in 1969. They hired lawyers, drafted legislation, and lobbied Congress. The inequity was ultimately corrected when Public Law 93-545 was enacted in December 1974. However the provision was not grandfathered and no retroactive pay was allowed. The law did provide for Reserve retirement credit and longevity pay for those still on active duty at the time. Most former Midshipmen were retired by then and the few remaining had acquired over 26 years of service. Thus few benefited from the change in the law.
Following legislative success, the Flying Midshipmen Association grew over the years to over 1,500 members and became essentially a fraternal organization with annual reunions and biannual newsletter, The Aviation Midshipmen LOG. Its purpose to this day is to preserve the history and legacy of Aviation Midshipmen, promote Naval Aviation and the United States Navy, and support the education of America’s teenagers in aviation, encouraging them to seek careers in aviation.
To attest to the uniqueness and quality of the individuals who went through flight training as Aviation Midshipmen, it is easy to point to a number of firsts. The program produced the first African-American and first Nisei Naval Aviators. Among the many who went on to long and distinguished careers in the Navy must be included the eighteen who attained flag rank, the aircraft carrier commanders, the MIG killers, the Navy Cross awardees, the test pilots, the Blue Angels, and those who fought, died, or were held as POWs in the Vietnam War.
The list of distinguished former Aviation Midshipmen includes Astronauts Neil Armstrong, the first to walk on the moon, and James Lovell of Apollo 13 fame. To these must be added the names of the many who went on to distinguished careers outside of the service as congressional staff members, diplomats, airline and corporate pilots, doctors, dentists, lawyers, clerics, architects, businessmen, and explorers, to name but a few.
As the year 2010 winds down, the number remaining in the Flying Midshipmen Association has dwindled to less than 650. It became apparent that something was needed to perpetuate the name of this unique and distinguished group before they passed away. The solution was found in the establishment of a partnership with the USS Midway Museum for what is now known as the Flying Midshipmen Youth Aviation Training Program.
The program is now in place aboard Midway University to annually train young aviation enthusiasts in the fundamentals of aviation that will permit them to pass the FAA Private Pilot knowledge test. The program is supported through contributions to the Flying Midshipmen Endowment Fund, administered by the San Diego Foundation, and matched by Midway with funds raised in support of their educational programs. The association now has assurance that the Aviation Midshipmen legacy will be preserved in perpetuity.