A shortage of pilots caused by a surge in retirements, national security needs and demand for air travel continues to hamper the Air Force.
This usually happens when the economy is strong and commercial airlines are hiring.
But this time is different. This time, even commercial airlines are struggling to find pilots at the same time the Air Force is fighting to fill cockpits.
The Air Force has about 18,000 of the roughly 20,000 pilots it needs. In 2017, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said the problem worries them.
“With 2,000 pilots short, it’ll break the force,” Wilson said in 2017. “It will break it.”
“It’s almost worse now, because not only is the Air Force having problems, but the airlines are having problems,” said William “Jay” Jabour, a prior Air Force fighter and test pilot and retired vice commander of the former Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
The problem is serious across the Air Force and Air Force Reserve, said Col. John Robinson, commander of the 445th Operations Group, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“We’re in pretty good shape right now,” Robinson said about Wright-Patt, but added that Air Force-wide many see the situation as a crisis, and there is keen competition between the military and the airlines.
Commercial airlines are hiring everybody and anybody they can, Robinson said.
Weary of long deployments away from family and interested in better-paying opportunities, military pilots are drawn to airlines or other civilian jobs.
Said Robinson, “It’s not going to go away any time soon. And part of it is that since 9/11, forces have been flown a lot.”
Commercial pilots for smaller carriers such as Dayton-based PSA Airlines also feel the same draw to bigger, better-paying airlines.
“Pilots want to be with Delta and American and all that,” Jabour said. “The smaller regional airlines, like PSA, they have a real challenge getting people in the entry level of the pilot field.”
PSA has aggressively offered recruitment bonuses. And just this spring, the airline launched a “cadet academy” program offering qualified candidates a chance to train at one of American Airline’s partner flight schools.
A PSA spokeswoman declined to make PSA President Dion Flannery available for comment.
Pilot retirements and airline growth compound the problem, said ABX Air Captain Rick Ziebarth. “The pipeline is so thin to fill those slots.”
And pilot requirements are time-consuming. Federal law requires experience of 1,500 flight hours to be an airline transport pilot.
“We prefer not to water down the requirements,” the pilot said.
A recurring problem
The overall problem is clearly cyclical, Jabour and others said.
“When I a young guy back in the ’70s, we had the same kind of thing happen,” Jabour said. “Airlines were hiring, the Air Force was stable or decreasing in size.”
Will the problem ease when the economy weakens? Not necessarily, said Michael Mattock, a senior economist with Rand Corp. think tank which has close ties to the Air Force.
“The commercial demand for pilots is driven largely by needing to replace retiring pilots,” Mattock said. “A weakening economy may reduce airline demand for pilots somewhat, but they will still need to replace many retiring pilots.”
Jeff Lane is a former Air Force pilot who now works for Riverside’s SP Global Inc., as a principal software engineer.
The 54-year-old was active in the Air Force for eight years. Then he flew for the West Virginia Air National Guard for 14 years. He flew the OV-10 Bronco and the F-16 in active duty and the C130 in the Reserve.
And he loved it. But it wasn’t an easy life.
“I was moving around a lot,” Lane said. “I moved seven times in five years, something like that. I wanted a little more control over my life.”
He added: “Some of the ground work wasn’t thrilling me.”
“Pilots are sitting in the Air Force saying, ‘What’s my lifestyle like now? What’s my pay? What are the demands on my family?’” said Clay Pittman, chair of the Aviation Technology Department at Sinclair Community College and a former Air Force pilot.
Addressing the issue will be challenging for either side. There are no quick solutions.
“For the next 10 to 15 years, the shortage will not let up any,” Robinson said.
“I think there are limited options,” Pittman said.
“The Air Force can redouble efforts to make pilot careers in the Air Force more appealing by, for example, reducing the additional administrative duties expected of pilots,” Mattock said. And “the Air Force can lobby Congress for an increase in the maximum AvB (aviation bonus pay) available to pilots.”
A survey of Air Force crews presented on the blog “War on the Rocks,” suggests that freeing pilots of administrative duties may be an idea whose time has come.
Some pilots are warming to the idea of a career track that focuses on flying and less on administrative tasks, according to blog authors Jesse Friedel and Matt Cancian in a September 2018 “War on the Rocks” post.
“The Air Force should strongly consider establishing a technical fly-only track in the long term, while in the short-term increasing airman and contractor support for administrative functions,” Freidel and Cancian wrote. (Col. Friedel is identified as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and an F-16 pilot. Cancian served as a Marine captain from 2009-2013, the blog says.)
A “flying-only track would probably keep some pilots on the active force from leaving,” Robinson said.
Pittman lived the problem — he is a six-year Air Force veteran who flew for 27 years in the Reserve. One attraction that kept him serving was: He could stay in the cockpit.
“I had many jobs (in the Reserve),” Pittman said. “But all those positions still involved flying. It was a still a flying billet, a flying slot.”
In time, Air Force officers who rise through the ranks fly less and less. It’s unavoidable, according to those who have served.
“The Air Force is a service where historically the pilots have been commanders; they run the Air Force,” Lane said. “They need that career-broadening experience.”
Pittman called it the “up or out career model.”
Pittman pointed to pay, saying the Air Force has historically resorted to bonuses to keep pilots on board.
“They pay very, very large bonuses,” he said. Typically, the bonuses could reach six-figures, spread out over the length of a pilot’s renewed commitment, he added.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, is chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces. The issue of pilot retention has been on the subcommittee’s radar, he said.
Turner said he understands the current shortage is about 1,800-plus pilots. The committee asked the Air Force to perform a “real analysis” of the gap.
A report to the committee is due Dec. 7.
The committee is also looking at demands on pilots. Today, only officers can control UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). A question committee members are asking is: Can enlisted airmen or warrant officers undertake the flying of UAVs, as well as others, “that can free up pilots for flying planes,” Turner said.
And Turner believes education should be considered and perhaps pushed.
“There was a time when people would dream of being a pilot,” Turner said. “And today, they have real opportunities to get training.”
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