Faced with multiple deployments overseas and an airline industry on a hiring binge, fewer Air Force pilots are staying and have created a growing crisis for the nation’s air power.
The Air Force says it’s about 2,000 pilots short – out of a total force of about 23,000 — of the number it needs to carry out the United States security demands.
The service branch significantly pumped up aviation bonuses and promised pilots a reduction in administrative tasks not related to flying, but the numbers keep decreasing and have left Air Force leaders scrambling.
Commercial airlines, facing their own aviator shortages as aging pilots retire and the demand for air travel rises, have snatched some of the nation’s most seasoned military aviators into flying Boeing 767s instead of F-15s.
The “greatest problem” is within the ranks of fighter pilots — the Air Force says its short about 1,300 on active duty, in the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, said Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen.
The “greatest negative trends” between 2016 and 2017 surfaced in the bomber and mobility pilots ranks, she added. The Air Force did not immediately release shortfall numbers in those categories.
The shortage of pilots flying manned aircraft has reached about 1,800 while the remaining shortfall of 200 or so fly drones, according to Yepsen.
‘Burning out our people’
Kenneth E. Curell, 65, a former Air Force and Air National Guard fighter pilot who became an airline and corporate jet pilot, said he’s mentoring military aviators who face the dilemma of staying in or leaving.
“In my conversations with them, I ask what is the squadron environment and without fail their basic statement is everybody except a very few are considering walking out,” the Centerville resident and retired colonel said.
While Air Force pilot shortages have come and gone in cyclical waves, the impact is greater now because the force is smaller, Curell said.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson blamed one key reason for the growing loss of experienced airmen: “We’re burning out our people because we’re too small for what the nation is asking,” she told reporters this month.
An airline push to hire military pilots has impacted the only flying unit at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a commander says. The Air Force Reserve 445th Airlift Wing flies nine C-17 Globemaster III aircraft on troop and cargo missions around the globe.
The reserve unit has a shortfall of the full-time C-17 pilots it needs, according to Lt. Col. John F. Robinson, 445th Operations Group commander and a pilot. The wing, a mixture of full-time pilots — known as air reserve technicians — and traditional reservists, is authorized for 83 aviators, said spokeswoman Lt. Col. Cynthia Harris.
The unit is short 14 full-time pilots of the 36 authorized. On the reservist side, the wing has 55 part-time pilots, eight more than authorized, she said. Overall, it’s six pilots short of what’s allowed.
The shortage has had an impact on operations, Robinson said, adding fighter and tanker units were having a harder time filling cockpits.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing the Air Force to recall up to 1,000 retired pilots, but service branch officials said they did not intend to use the authority for now.
However, the Air Force will allow up to 100 senior fighter pilots and weapon systems officers at 10 bases to stay at their current assignments three years longer than their initial tour of duty, Yepsen said.
The Air Force has targeted ramping up the production of pilots from 1,200 a year today to 1,400 by 2019, according to spokesman Capt. Kenneth Scholz.
“Our long-term fix for the pilot crisis is to grow our way out of this,” Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski, leader of the Aircrew Crisis Task Force, told reporters at the Pentagon last month. “And so, it’s going to take a while to get in place what we need to start producing more pilots.”
The one-star general called for more “stable and predictable budgets” to boost pilot production about 25 percent.
Top Pentagon leaders have pleaded with Congress to end sequestration – or a decade of mandatory spending caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011. Military and congressional leaders have blamed it for readiness woes, delays to launch aircraft programs, and contributed to an exodus of pilots leaving, among other fallout.
The pilot shortage has gained the attention of Congress.
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Air Force has been “hemorrhaging pilots.”
“This is an example where cutting the defense budget by 20 percent since 2010 has real consequences,” he said in an October visit to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, adding the service branch was short “thousands” of aircraft maintainers.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, blamed sequestration, “that’s pretty much cut a hole in our defense spending” that led to the manpower shortfall.
‘A tougher challenge’
Former Air Force pilots say too few aviators to fill cockpits is a cyclical problem they witnessed when they flew military jets decades ago.
“Unfortunately for the Air Force, they can’t, like the airlines, just go out and hire someone to come and be an F-35 pilot,” said William “Jay” Jabour, a prior Air Force fighter and test pilot and a retired vice commander of the former Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson.
“The Air Force really has a tougher challenge at bringing people in at what I call the mid-career levels whereas the airlines don’t have any challenge to do that,” the 66-year-old Beavercreek resident said. “…It’s just so much harder to bring people on because of the training requirements.”
It’s costly and takes time for the military to produce pilots. Becoming a jet pilot may take a minimum of two years for an aviator to earn his or her wings. Training a pilot to fly the latest generation F-35 stealth fighter costs taxpayers about $1.1 million, the Air Force said.
The military branch has offered bonuses of $28,000 to $35,000 a year that vary with each aviation community, capping the highest incentives to fighter pilots who can earn a $455,000 bonus if they stay another 13 years.
In some key jobs, prior incentives have not been enough. The “take rate” or the number of Air Force fighter pilots who took a signing bonus for at least a five-year extension dropped 4.9 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Overall, 34.6 percent of eligible fighter pilots took the incentive last fiscal year compared to 39.5 percent in 2016, data shows.
An exodus to the airlines
Many aviators complete their initial service requirements at or near the mid-point of their careers, a prime time for the airlines to hire them, experts said.
“There is currently a problem with retaining Air Force pilots after they have finished their active duty service requirement specifically because there has been a large increase in compensation offered at the major airlines over the past five years or so,” said Michael Mattock, a RAND Corp. senior economist who studied the issue and issued reports on findings.
Nationwide, the pilot shortage has hit the commercial world. A University of North Dakota study forecast major air carriers will need to hire more than 18,600 pilots by 2020 and within a decade the cumulative demand will be near 50,000 pilots, according to the Regional Airline Association.
In 2016, the major airlines and regional carriers who are members of the trade group Airlines for America employed roughly 88,000 pilots, according to the organization.
“Although our members are currently meeting their pilot hiring goals, most of their new hire pilots come from either the military or regional airlines, both of which are dealing with shortages of pilots,” Airlines for America spokesman Todd Burke said in an email.
Military aviators have become more prized because they’re likely to meet the standard of 1,500 hours in the cockpit to be hired as an airline co-pilot – a federal requirement that makes it difficult for civilian aviators to reach on their own.
Robinson said the C-17 pilots who stay at Wright-Patt have more control over their schedule than an airline pilot and aviators welcome the camaraderie that doesn’t exist at the airlines.
‘A complex problem’
The Air Force faces a complex problem with pilot retention, Curell said.
The high tempo of deployments over more than 25 years has contributed to the exodus, he said. Air Force pilots live a round-the-clock lifestyle with long work days and administrative work unrelated to flying, he said.
“Most (airline) pilots are not expected to work 24-7 for their pay,” he said. “You fly the flights you are asked to fly and the time you have out of the cockpit is your time.”
“I think if you’re a family guy and you’re getting a lot of deployments, that might incentivize some folks to move out of the Air Force and into another flying job,” Jabour said.
Major airlines offer more pay in a shorter time than the military can match dollar for dollar, Curell said. And while the Defense Department has not lowered pilot selection requirements, fewer people qualify to meet the military’s rigorous standards, he said.
The Air Force career track for officers that takes aviators out of the cockpit for additional education and on to staff positions rather than flying was a key reason he said he left active duty.
He rose through the ranks as an enlisted aircraft maintainer and later as an administrative officer before he landed his first job in the cockpit.
He decided he wanted to keep flying. “I worked too doggone hard to get here,” he said.
By contrast, he noted, other countries have a dual-track system where an aviator can choose to remain flying or continue on a leadership track that would take them out of the cockpit and on to higher-ranking posts.
Once he left the Air Force, Curell did double duty flying jetliners for American Airlines and flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon in the Indiana Air National Guard.
But that, too, had challenges. He was away from home an average of 25 days out of the month meeting the demands of both jobs, he said.
“That’s 25 days out of your life and if you have family and children you get to the point where your kids are looking at you like, ‘Who are you again?’” he said.
It was difficult to meet the demands of a civilian employer, the Air Guard and family without upsetting one of them, he said, comparing it to balancing a three-legged stool with each leg a different length.
Curell doubted the Air Force could grow its way out of the current dilemma soon.
“The Air Force will not ‘grow’ itself out of this downturn overnight and if that’s the cornerstone of their game plan, everyone needs to get comfortable hearing (Air Force) leadership bemoan their pilot shortage,” he said in an email. “They need to be acting differently than in the past, because they’re only doing now what they’ve done previously and that didn’t work in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ’90s.”
Navy and Marine Corps shortages
Like the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps boosted incentives to retain some experienced aviators.
The Navy is about 40 pilots short, with concern focused mostly on fighter and electronic warfare aviators, according to Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a Naval Air Forces spokesman in Coronado, Calif.
“We may be short only 40 pilots or so but the retention challenges we have is focusing us to be less selective and could be affecting the quality of our force,” he said.
The Navy has about 7,165 pilots who fly all types of aircraft and another 2,896 naval flight officers who are part of the flying air crew.
Flanders said it’s not just a compensation issue, but addressing readiness shortfalls to ensure pilots fly.
The House Armed Services Committee reported that senior military leaders testified 60 percent of the Navy’s F/A-18s cannot fly and the sea service is short more than 100 aircraft. The Budget Control Act imposed spending caps impacting training and maintenance, military leaders say.
“After years of continuing resolutions and in some cases sequestration, we have not had the funding for parts and flight hours that we need,” Flanders said.
Often, he said, parts are “cannibalized” off one aircraft to keep another in the fleet flying.
Naval aviators who fly tactical jets, such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter and the E/A-18 Growler electronic warfare jet have had a reduction in flights hours per year — falling from an average of 250 hours in 2011 to about 190 in 2017, he said. An average for Air Force fighter pilots flying hours was not immediately available.
The Navy boosted re-signing bonuses to $35,000 annually for five years, or $175,000 in total, for test pilots and pilots who fly at the Navy’s famed Top Gun school in Nevada, Flanders said.
However, the Navy would like more flexibility in the length of time it offers aviators financial incentives to stay in uniform, he said.
The Marine Corps reported a shortfall of about 170 aviators on active duty, according to spokeswoman Yvonne Carlock.
The shortages were primarily in the F-35 and F/A-18 fighter jets and MV-22 tilt-rotor transport, she added.
The service branch has 3,373 flying officers, but a break out between pilots and other flying air crew was not available.
To boost retention, the Marines rolled out an aviation bonus this month. Active-duty fighter and attack jet pilots and those who fly the MV-22 transport may be eligible for a $40,000 aviation bonus paid over two years.
WHIO-TV’s Jim Otte contributed to this report.