Air Force faced with 'new reality': fewer pilots

An F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft from Joint Base Balad, Iraq, refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker Sept. 3 during a mission over Iraq.

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 21, 2011

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — U.S. Air Force officials say the number of fighter pilots is likely to decline in coming years, due in part to fewer aircraft and training opportunities, fighter pilots increasingly assigned to non-flying jobs and the lure of lucrative jobs in commercial aviation.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re going to have less fighter pilots in the future,” said Lt. Col. Mark Daley, chief of the Air Force’s crew management branch at the Pentagon. “How does the Air Force adjust to that new reality?”

Answering that question is among issues expected to be addressed at a top-level Air Force meeting Thursday in Washington D.C., which is expected to bring together the Air Force chief of staff and leaders of the Air Force’s major flying commands, including U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Pacific Air Forces, Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command.

This week’s summit will focus on the changing demographics of the Air Force’s rated force — officers with an aeronautical rating, including pilots, combat systems officers, air battle managers and remotely piloted aircraft pilots, according to Daley.

Air Force officials and analysts attribute the projected decline in the number of combat aviators — currently more than 3,600 — to a number of factors, including fewer aircraft and fewer training opportunities.

A 2009 RAND report said that, by 2016, the Air Force will have fewer than 1,000 fighter aircraft in its inventory, which represents only 32 percent of the number in 1989. The Air Force currently has just over 1,900 fighter/attack aircraft in the active, guard and reserve forces, according to Air Force officials.

“With fewer aircraft, it is difficult for all pilots to fly enough to maintain their combat skills, and it is particularly difficult for new pilots to gain enough experience in their first flying tour to be prepared for follow-on nonflying and flying positions,” the report states.

If the Air Force doesn’t fix its capacity to train more pilots on fighters, “eventually there won’t be enough pilots produced to fill all the cockpits,” said Al Robbert, director of the Manpower, Personnel and Training Program at RAND Project AIR FORCE. The Air Force, he said, may “have to give up some combat capability in order to build a bigger training capability.”

Air Force officials agreed that training is an issue.

“We have more fighter pilot volunteers than we have training capacity,” said Air Force spokesman Maj. Chad Steffey, in an email to Stars and Stripes.

Daley said Air Force officials are reviewing the training component. Among solutions under consideration are to dedicate more jets to training, shorten the training period for new pilots, modify the training syllabus or add more students to a particular training class.

But some Air Force officials worry that such limitations, combined with uncertainty about the future in the wake of demands for steep defense spending cuts, will make commercial aviation seem an attractive prospect for some pilots.

Hiring of pilots over the next 10 years will be the best in the history of the industry, with the major airlines forecast to hire about 40,000 pilots, said Louis Smith, president of FltOps.com, a website that provides career and financial planning for pilots.

Factors contributing to the hiring surge include the expected retirement of many senior captains and a stronger demand for passenger seats and cargo, Smith said.

In the past, “when airline hiring was up, retention went down,” Robbert said. “Assuming the airlines see the military as a primary source of pilots, they will bid up their salary offers to get what they need.”

“Military planners will need to develop innovative methods to slow the pilot exodus. ...” Smith said.

To keep fighter pilots, the Air Force always has the option to increase re-enlistment bonuses, Air Force officials said.

Under the Air Force’s current Aviation Continuation Pay rules – in effect until Sept. 30 — Air Force active-duty pilots can earn up to $25,000 a year after completing their initial commitment, which is 10 years after earning their wings, if they sign up for five more years, according to the Air Force.

What the Air Force will have to do, Daley says, is change some fighter pilot assignments outside of the cockpit because there aren’t enough fighter pilots to fill them.

The Air Force might, for example, place mobility pilots, unmanned aircraft pilots, or even civilians, in some non-flying staff jobs currently occupied or designated for fighter pilots, Daley said.

That likely will be a delicate balancing act, experts say. For example, leadership development is a consideration, Robbert of RAND said.

“The Air Force, like all institutions, tends to draw senior leaders from the core mission of the organization, and that’s flying and fighting,” Robbert said. “If the fighter pilots are not getting the development in terms of experience in joint staffs and air staff and other places … they’re not going to be sufficiently prepared to assume senior leadership roles in the future.”

In an effort to learn from pilots about their concerns, U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander Gen. Mark A. Welsh III has, over the last several months, met with fighter pilots and other military fliers in Europe.

“The fighter community is faced with an increasing ops tempo, fewer fighters, less flying, more non-flying jobs and an unclear career sight picture,” Welsh said in an email addressed to USAFE fighter pilots this spring. “My gut feeling is that this combination contributes to good people leaving, but I doubt these are the only factors.”

When asked about his efforts, Welsh said in an email to Stars and Stripes: “I’m simply going straight to the source to get information from folks in my command about the reasons behind fighter pilot retention rates.”

Welsh will be among those commanders at the D.C. summit this week. But Welsh said even after that meeting, he will continue to work the issue.

“I have and will continue to share with Air Force leadership the common themes I addressed with the pilots in USAFE,” he said.

Capt. Joe Miranda, an F-16 pilot with the 480th Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, says he appreciates Welsh’s effort, one he feels is needed.

Miranda said pilots are frustrated by their inability to control their careers and by fewer opportunities to fly, among other things.

Miranda hopes to make the Air Force a career, but he said the majority of pilots he knows who are getting out “are the ones who want to do nothing but fly.” They switch over to the Air National Guard or reserves, where they can continue to fly full time, he said.

Miranda said he hopes Welsh “can influence some changes.”


An F-15E Strike Eagle from the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, launches heat decoys Dec. 15 during a close-air-support mission over Afghanistan.

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