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Military Flight Aptitude: Basic Military Rank Structure

As a pilot in today’s military, you’re either a commissioned officer or a warrant officer. If you don’t know a commissioned officer from a hole in the ground, never fear. The following sections break down each type of rank classification and give you some insight into the duties you encounter.

Enlisted personnel

Typically, when young men or women enter military service after high school without a college degree, they do so in the ranks of the enlisted personnel. You can enter the enlisted ranks with a college education, and most enlisted personnel attain some sort of advanced degree while in the service (many use service as a way to pay for college); as a whole, though, enlisted ranks are where you find most service members.

When you enter or enlist in the military, you enter into a contract with a specific branch of the military for a given period of time and a given duty or position. Pre-enlistment tests determine whether you can hold the specialty position you want. Enlisted roles may include a Marine assault squad, an Army tank crew, Navy ship personnel, and an Air Force aircraft crew chief, just to name a few. Enlisted personnel are ranks E-1 through E-9.

Many enlisted personnel decide to make the military a career; some later become officers, but many decide to advance up the enlisted ranks and become what are known as non-commissioned officers — leaders and senior leaders who don’t hold a commission or appointment by Congress. These noncommissioned officers remain in the trenches, so to speak, and are the backbone of the various military branches. This table summarizes the different enlisted ranks for the various service branches.

Enlisted Ranks for All Branches of Service
Grade Army Navy/Coast Guard Air Force Marine Corps
E-1 Private (PV1) Seaman Recruit (SR) Airman Basic (AB) Private (PVT)
E-2 Private (PV2) Seaman Apprentice (SA) Airman (Amn) Private First Class (PFC)
E-3 Private First Class (PFC) Seaman (SN) Airman First Class (A1C) Lance Corporal (LCpl)
E-4 Corporal (CPL)l Petty Officer Third Class (PO3) Senior Airman (SrA) Corporal (Cpl)
E-4 Specialist (SPC) Petty Officer Third Class (PO3) Senior Airman (SrA) Corporal (Cpl)
E-5 Sergeant (SGT) Petty Officer Second Class (PO2) Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Sergeant (Sgt)
E-6 Staff Sergeant (SSG) Petty Officer First Class (PO1) Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Staff Sergeant (SSgt)
E-7 Sergeant First Class (SFC) Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Master Sergeant, First Sergeant Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt)
E-7 First Sergeant
E-8 Master Sergeant (MSG) Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO) Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt) Master Sergeant (MSgt)
E-8 First Sergeant (1SG) First Sergeant (Senior Master Sergeant) First Sergeant (1stSgt)
E-9 Sergeant Major (SGM) Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO) Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt) Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt)
E-9 Command Sergeant Major (CSM) First Sergeant (Chief Master Sergeant) Sergeant Major (SgtMaj)
E-9 Command Chief Master Sergeant

Warrant officers

A warrant officer is a specialty rank that falls between the enlisted ranks and the commissioned ranks. The warrant officer concept evolved out of a need to recruit, promote, and retain professional technical support at a higher level than could be found in the noncommissioned ranks (see the preceding section for more on noncommissioned officers).

As a warrant officer, you get higher pay and the normal privileges of an officer, but you typically aren’t considered a supervisor. (As this rank has evolved, ranks above warrant officer one — abbreviated WO1 — have come to be considered commissioned officers and can technically command a unit if no commissioned officers are available.)

The rank structure of warrant officers begins at WO1 and goes all the way up to CW5 (chief warrant officer five). At various points in their careers, many warrant officers decide to become supervisors and opt to become commissioned officers. (Head to the following section for information on commissioned officers.)

Various branches utilize the warrant officer in technical specialties, but the U.S. Army boasts the most warrant officers by far, typically in maintenance and aviation technical positions (Army aviators). Check out this table to see the warrant officer ranks for each service branch.

Warrant Officer Ranks for All Branches of Service
Grade Army Navy/Coast Guard Air Force Marine Corps
W-1 Warrant Officer 1 (WO1) Warrant Officer 1 (WO1) No Warrant Warrant Officer 1 (WO)
W-2 Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CW2) Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2) No Warrant Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)
W-3 Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CW3) Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3) No Warrant Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)
W-4 Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CW4) Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4) No Warrant Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)
W-5 Chief Warrant Officer (CW5) Chief Warrant Officer (CWO5) No Warrant Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CWO5)

Commissioned officers

Commissioned officers have official leadership responsibilities. Beginning at the rank of Second Lieutenant (Ensign for the Navy and Coast Guard), commissioned officers advance in positions of authority, command various military units, and are responsible for both the function of the units and the health and welfare of those service members under their command.

Most branches of the military commission their aviators and allow those most talented in leadership and flying skills to advance to positions of senior authority. (The U.S. Army calls on warrant officers for the bulk of its aviators while relying on a smaller contingent of commissioned officers as leaders of those aviation units.)

The paths to a commissioned rank are quite varied and can range from the different service academies (such as the U.S. Air Force Academy) to the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at many different universities to different types of officer candidate schools within each military branch. This table presents the commissioned officer ranks for all service branches.

Commissioned Officer Ranks for All Branches of Service
Grade Army/Air Force/Marine Corps Navy/Coast Guard
O-1 Second Lieutenant(Army: 2LT)(Air Force: 2d Lt)(USMC: 2dLt) Ensign (ENS)
O-2 First Lieutenant(Army: 1LT)(Air Force: 1st Lt)(USMC: 1Lt) Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG)
O-3 Captain(Army: CPT)(Air Force: Capt)(USMC: Capt) Lieutenant (LT)
O-4 Major(Army: MAJ)(Air Force: Maj)(USMC: Maj) Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)
O-5 Lieutenant Colonel(Army: LTC)(Air Force: Lt Col)(USMJ: LtCol) Commander (CDR)
O-6 Colonel(Army: COL)(Air Force: Col)(USMC: Col) Captain (CAPT)
O-7 Brigadier General(Army: BG)(Air Force: Brig Gen)(USMC: BGen) Rear Admiral (lower half) (RDML)
O-8 Major General(Army: MG)(Air Force Maj Gen)(USMC: MGen) Rear Admiral (upper half) (RADM)
O-9 Lieutenant General(Army: LTG)(Air Force: Lt Gen)(USMC: LtGen) Vice Admiral (VADM)
O-10 General(Army: GEN)(Air Force: Gen)(USMC: Gen) Admiral (ADM)
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