In 1961, as a reaction to a climbing accident rate and the increasing complexity of the aircraft and helicopters flown by the Navy, the service instituted a program which we now call NATOPS which stands for Naval Aviation Training and Procedure Standardization and is pronounced “Nay Tops.” The mission statement clearly lays out the purpose:
NATOPS is a positive approach toward improving combat readiness and achieving a substantial reduction in the aircraft accident rate. Standardization, based on professional knowledge and experience, provides the basis for development of an efficient and sound operational procedure. The standardization program is not planned to stifle individual initiative, but rather to aid the commanding officer in increasing the unit’s combat potential without reducing command prestige or responsibility.
This was not an attempt have everyone fly the aircraft in the same, rigid, mechanical way nor was an efort to dictate the tactical employment of the aircraft. Instead, implementing NATOPS was a process to standardize the way we learned to fly and maintained our competence in an airplane or helicopter. NATOPS also helped us as pilots developed a detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the aircraft which helped us keep them in the air when all the systems weren’t performing as designed.
Each year, Naval Aviators and air crewmen are required to undergo a “NATOPS check” which, back in the days before simulators, was a three part evolution. First, you had to complete an open book exam based on the NATOPS manual. The UH-2A/Bs manual was about an inch thick. By the time I started flying the HH-2D, it had grown to about an inch and a half of details on normal and emergency procedures, check lists, system descriptions and performance charts. The NATOPS manual sitting on my bookshelf for the SH-3A/G and the HH-3A is almost two and a half inches thick. These measurements are not figments of my imagination, I measured them!
Once you passed the open book test, then you had to pass the closed book test which had questions that bordered on the minutiae, but also served a purpose. They forced you to READ and learn what was in the manual. After that hurdle, you then spent two hours or so being quizzed by the NATOPS check pilot before you climbed into the helicopter for two to three hours of fun dealing with simulated emergencies, circuit breakers being pulled, answering questions on the helicopters systems, etc.
If you failed the check ride, you usually got another shot.. However, the failing grade and reasons why were noted in your training jacked and your annual fitness report that went into your personnel file and could affect your ability to be promoted. Fail a second time, and you won a trip to a pilot disposition board which had two options – retest or end your flying career. So failing your annual NATOPS check was not something you wanted to do because everyone in the squadron would know very quickly.
The NATOPS check was not the only check ride. We also had to take an instrument check ride every year which graded your ability to fly the helicopter on instruments. It too had a written test as well as the long briefing and Q&A on changes to the instrument flying rules.
And then there were the check rides for the crews where they were undergoing the same types of testing and qualifications that the guys in the front were doing. In the H-3, it was not uncommon to schedule a NATOPS check for both a pilot and aircrew. The first part of the flight was dedicated to the pilots and the second half to the air crewmen. Then, in the ASW community, we had to qualify as crews and this was its own set of check rides. In the H-2, we didn’t have the gas to do both so the hops were scheduled at different times.
There were also check rides to upgrade qualifications. Initially, in the helicopter community, when you first arrived from the training command, you were taken through a training syllabus and then, after a check ride, designated a Helicopter, Second Pilot or H2P which along with the check ride, required 30 hours in type. As you gained experience, often sometime late in your first deployment, you would have the HAC check ride once you had at least 50o of helicopter flight time. Sometimes the “HAC check” was part of your annual NATOPS check and sometimes it wasn’t. Pass the check ride and you were king of your own helicopter!
Not only is there a NATOPS manual for the aircraft you are flying but there are several others with which one has to become intimately familiar. First, there is the CV or Carrier Operations NATOPS manual as well as one for non-aviation ships, i.e. destroyers, cruisers, oilers, etc. Each of which provides guidance and procedures for flying around that type of ship. Then there are the ones on instrument flying, operations on the flight deck and hangar decks. If you fly a machine that can refuel from another in the air, there is a section for that in the NATOPS manual.
Oh, and I almost forgot the pop quizzes by the NATOPS and training officers during all officer’s meetings. And, the NATOPS question of the day. Needless to say, one spent a lot of time with one’s nose buried in the various NATOPS manuals that ruled your flying life.