RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The geriatric jokes don’t bother Maj. Rodney Kyzer.

At 50, Kyzer works with airmen who weren’t born when he joined the Air Force. The first time, that is — in 1977.

Kyzer rejoined the service ranks this summer after a seven-year retirement that tanked when the economy did. An unemployed financial adviser, he gave up a bucolic life in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for a second chance at an Air Force career.

“We’ve been given a second opportunity to relive the dream,” said Kyzer, an air defense planner for the 603rd Air and Space Operations Center at Ramstein and the first recalled volunteer to get an overseas assignment.

Facing a critical shortage of pilots, navigators and air battle managers, the Air Force initiated a voluntary recall to active duty for retired rated officers — those who had worked in the much-needed specialties — and for Reserve officers up to 60 years of age in the grades of lieutenant colonel or below. The application period ended Dec. 31.

The response far exceeded expectations, with 1,129 applicants for 500 slots, according to Air Force figures. As of December, 385 officers were back on the job or had orders in hand. Recalled officers can expect to be working in their new assignment from two to four years, depending on job and other requirements, according to the Air Force.

Officials said returnees have ranged from those who retired last year to F-111 Aardvark pilots who last flew in Desert Storm.

“I don’t think they thought there would be such a demand, but we’ve never had an economy like this in our lifetime, either,” Kyzer said.

The sluggish economy nudged Maj. Jim Davis back to active duty, two years after he retired from piloting C-17 military cargo planes. In the interim “I flew for two different airlines,” he said. “One went out of business. The other, with the downturn in the economy … furloughed a bunch of us.”

Davis, 44, now has a desk job with U.S. Air Forces in Europe headquarters at Ramstein, where he manages other rated officers on staff. At Ramstein alone, he said, there are 22 rated officers on voluntary return to active duty.

“Some of the guys coming back were fully employed and are coming back because of a sense of duty, the opportunity for advancement, the chance to do an assignment they would never have had otherwise,” Davis said.

Air Force-wide, most of the applicants — a total of 788 — are pilots.

Driving the service’s first voluntary recall since 2001 is the need for manned and unmanned aircraft pilots for what the Air Force calls intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, according to Air Force officials.

The Air Force has recently seen tremendous growth in the unmanned aircraft field, training more pilots last year to fly those aerial systems from ground operation centers than pilots to fly bombers or fighter jets.

The need for experienced pilots coupled with the economic constraints on the airline industry presented a unique opportunity to fill shortfalls “not only in the growing ISR industry, but also rated shortfalls across the force,” Air Force officials said.

So far 40 individuals have been placed with or are pending to be placed with unmanned aircraft system flying billets, Air Force officials said.

The Air Force decided to end the recall Dec. 31, as planned. In November, it announced plans to cut 3,700 airmen, a move to curb ranks swelled by good retention and a poor economy, and to get more airmen into critically needed career fields, officials said.

Davis and Kyzer said the transition back to active duty has had some hiccups. Kyzer’s active service started Aug. 2 and he didn’t get his first paycheck until October.

Bringing 500 rated officers back on active duty is expected to cost more than $60 million, officials said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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