These are desperate times for the Air Force.
To carry out its assigned missions at a time of rising tensions with North Korea and increasing demand for air power to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Air Force is losing too many of its best pilots. They're not being lost to enemy fire, but to the lure of higher salaries, more flying, less stress, and an all-around better quality of life in the civilian world.
“The big thing is we can’t keep up with the airlines. Their pay continues to go up and up,” said Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski, the Air Force’s air crew task force director, who’s charged with fixing the problem.
One Air Force pilot, who just retired after 24 years, told the Washington Examiner that while he loved serving his country and flying one of America’s front line attack planes, the constant moves and the increasing workload required by a smaller number of people in his squadron drove him to put his family first.
“The airlines made it easy,” he said, asking not to be named because he has just accepted a job with a major airline. “In my second year with the airline, I will be making $30,000 a year more than I did in my last assignment as a colonel in the Air Force,” he said.
The colonel’s story is typical of a steady stream of pilots voting with their feet.
“And at some point, families make a decision: that they just can't keep doing this at this pace,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. “That's the biggest thing we're facing, is we're burning out our people, because we're too small for what the nation is asking.”
Today’s Air Force requires 20,000 pilots to fly everything from top-of-the-line fighter jets to transport planes to helicopters to drones. This year, the service reported it was down 1,500 pilots. But the latest figures released Friday show the problem is only getting worse, with a shortfall of 1,926. That’s nearly one of every 10 who have left without being replaced.
With the civilian airline industry projected to double over the next 20 years, this isn’t a cyclical trend the Air Force can ride out.
Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, says the problem is the country is simply not training enough pilots to meet the demand in both the military and the civilian sector because it takes a lot of time and money, and airlines are happy to let the Air Force do the heavy lifting.
“I mean, you do the math, right? Takes 10 years to raise a fighter pilot,” Goldfein said. “Takes you $10 million. You're 1,000 short. That's $10 billion of capital investment that just walked out the door.”
One sign of the Air Force’s desperation is a new program to lure recently retired pilots back to active duty for a one-year stint.
The idea was to get experienced pilots to man staff jobs, or serve as instructor pilots to free up younger officers to get more training, and more hours in the air, which is one key to retention.
The program had a modest goal of attracting 25 to return to active duty, but the one-year term of service turned out to be not much of a draw.
So far, only three pilots have signed up.
So, the Air Force requested and received authority to offer more appealing three-year assignments in the hope of getting about 200 retired pilots to re-up to help out during the crunch.
But it’s not just competition from the airlines that has the Air Force sucking wind. It’s also the years of congressionally-imposed spending caps and budget uncertainty that has made it difficult for the service to ramp up its pilot training to meet the demand.
The Air Force can train about 1,200 pilots a year. It’s hoping to get the number up to 1,400 and then eventually to 1,600, an increase of 25 percent in training capacity over the next few years.
“Our long-term fix to the pilot crisis is to grow our way out of this,” Koscheski said. “It’s going to take a while to get in place what we need to start producing more pilots, and obviously, one of the biggest things we need is stable and predictable budgets.”
Right now the Air Force is doing what the other services are doing while they wait for an infusion of cash that Congress is promising to deliver before Christmas. It is prioritizing overseas operations and sacrificing readiness back home with the pilots, planes and aircrews that are waiting in the wings.
“The biggest threat to us right now which is the Budget Control Act,” said Wilson, noting sequestration, which caps spending at last year’s level, is still the law of the land.
“If we go through sequester again, a 2,000-pilot shortage will be a dream. People will walk.”
“It’s a crisis, because it affects our warfighting,” Koscheski said. “Our numbers are low, and when you look at our readiness, our pilot experience, our manning is directly related to our readiness and our combat lethality.”
The tug of war with the airlines is not limited to pilots. Aircrews and maintenance personal are also in high demand, contributing to the exodus.
“We've got to get them airborne because pilots who don't fly, maintainers who don't maintain, controllers who don't control, they will not stay with this company,” Goldfein says.
And it’s not just the Air Force that’s feeling the effect. Across all services, the U.S. military produces about 2,500 pilots a year, while the airlines hire about 4,000.
Officials say they are adopting new training techniques using more sophisticated flight simulators, and they note there is no shortage of pilot candidates, if only they had the money and the resources to train them all.