Air Force is losing pilots, and the headwind is getting worse
By SIG CHRISTENSON | San Antonio Express-News | Published: September 25, 2016
SAN ANTONIO (Tribune News Service) — At the controls of a T-38 training jet high over Hondo, 1st Lt. Alex Lauer dueled at up to 485 mph against Capt. Christopher “Fiat” Umphres, who has 450 combat hours in Afghanistan.
Lauer was “shot down” just once in the mock dogfight, demonstrating his growing skills.
Lauer, 24, is near the end of an innovative 12-week course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph that has increased graduation rates in the Air Force, which is struggling to fill a huge fighter pilot shortage as aviators burned out by deployments, budget cuts and extraneous duties flee for jobs elsewhere.
The shortage stands at 723 pilots this year and is expected to worsen, reaching 1,000 in 2017, with no immediate way to plug the gap because the Air Force needs two years to transform a young officer into a fighter pilot. While active-duty pilot training will increase from 200 this year to 285 in 2017, it won’t begin to replace the lost talent and institutional memory.
The Air Force has cut the number of active-duty fighter squadrons to 31 over the past 20 years, from a high of 54 in 1996.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, in a briefing with reporters last month, blamed a good economy and airline hiring for the problem. Some estimates say airlines will recruit 2,000 pilots per year for the next decade.
The crisis stems from crushing budget constraints under the congressional sequester, too many nonflying tasks that distract pilots from their main job and a perception that the Air Force doesn’t value them, several pilots said.
Even as the Air Force built a fiscal firewall to protect its training units from budget cuts, flying hours went down substantially in many fighter squadrons. Pilots, especially those with families, may be weary of repeated deployments, but some find the drop in sorties stateside over the past 20 years more concerning.
The Air Combat Command wants inexperienced fighter pilots to fly nine sorties a month and its veterans to fly eight. The average this year is only 7.2.
“It’s not about the money. This is not a bunch of fighter pilots saying, ‘Hey, pay us more or we’ll leave and go to the airlines.’ said Umphres, 30, an instructor with the 435th Fighter Training Squadron here. “Nobody joined the Air Force to be a fighter pilot because someday they wanted to work for Delta.”
“The Air Force right now has taken something that was every 8-year-old’s dream job and they’ve made it so difficult or frustrating or incompatible with their family life that they feel like they’re being forced to leave and do something else.”
Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, recently called the shortage a “quiet crisis” and outlined plans last week to provide greater support to fighter squadrons.
Goldfein, an F-16 fighter pilot with 4,200 hours in the cockpit, also cautioned that the Air Force could not meet America’s defense needs if the sequester remains. Even with 5,600 airmen added this year, bringing the total to 317,000, retention is a servicewide problem, he said.
“Pilots who don’t fly, maintainers who don’t maintain, controllers who don’t control, will walk,” he recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And there’s not enough money in the Treasury to keep them in if we don’t give them the resources to be the best they can be.”
As the shortage worsens, pressure will only grow for instructor pilots like Umphres, who does three “double turns” a week. That’s two grueling instruction sorties a day, pulling up to six G’s in mock combat, each lasting about four hours with pre-flight and post-flight briefings.
As the 435th’s flight commander, he puts in an additional four hours that include scheduling the next day’s sorties. It’s less of a problem for Umphres than for others. He lives alone at Randolph while his wife studies law in another state.
The mathematics of the problem is simple. There are fewer instructor pilots than students in the Air Force training command’s T-38 and T-6A squadrons. Umphres’ squadron has 40 instructors and 22 T-38C Talon jets, and it graduated 160 pilots in the fiscal year that ends Friday, pilots who move on to their final phase of instruction.
The threat to a certain military culture is more complex. Lt. Col. Jason “Ugly” Earley, the 435th’s commander, mentioned Air Force “tribes” while bemoaning the lapse of hallowed fighter pilot traditions. He wouldn’t elaborate. Other pilots cited the banning of bawdy songs from squadron bars, now called “heritage rooms.”
Some problems, such as time away from family, aren’t new. Gen. Mark Welsh, who recently retired as Air Force chief of staff and is now dean of Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, said pilots also faced a high deployment tempo when he was young.
But the service can’t consistently fight, fly and train the way it would if its maintenance units were fully staffed and supplied and its planes weren’t so old, he said. The F-15 fighter, for example, was introduced 40 years ago. The venerable B-52 bombers were first deployed in the 1950s.
The Air Force has worked to address the problems, moving 4,500 personnel specialists and administrators into its squadrons from other units, but it has 500 fewer aircraft than it did 10 years ago.
And the extra tasks that drive pilots crazy are the biggest new concern, said Welsh, a San Antonio native who served at Randolph.
“When I was a squadron commander, I didn’t hear people complain nearly as much about additional duties because we had other people doing them,” he said.
In a recent blog, retired fighter pilot Nate “Buster” Jaros recalled having to monitor the progress of plans to move into a new building, right down to making sure the toilet paper was ordered.
Then there’s money. Earley, 42, calls it the least of the bigger issues but said the prospect of “equitable compensation” appeals to pilots whose aviation incentive pay and bonuses have remained stagnant for years.
Flight incentive pay, based on a pilot’s age and years as an aviator, is around $650 a month for most and hasn’t changed in decades, he said.
The bonus, at $25,000 a year, is the same as during the last big pilot shortage, in the late 1990s. Goldfein wants to increase it, but another former Air Force chief of staff, retired Gen. Ronald Fogleman, said some in Congress want a differential bonus program “where you pay fighter pilots a larger bonus than pilots in other career fields.”
He hopes Goldfein will push back against the proposal because the Air Force has so many pilots “in bombers, airlift, tankers and special operations,” that “a differential bonus will create second-class citizens where there are none” and worsen the pilot retention problem.
But money can’t buy what fighter pilots say they really need: love. They’re bothered by the idea, pushed down from higher echelons, that pilots aren’t different from anyone else in the Air Force.
Umphres says it bothers people when the service tries to convince them “that fighter pilots are not special.”
“We’re willing to work our butts off, but when you then turn around and tell us that we’re not any more valuable to the Air Force than the guy who’s running the commissary, that kind of rubs us the wrong way,” he said.
Welsh, 62, has heard the complaints about getting rid of the crude songs in the bars that aren’t called bars anymore. He sang some of them when he was younger.
But pilots can still call it a bar among themselves, and they can sing other songs, he said, recalling how his father, a highly decorated fighter pilot in World War II and Vietnam, reacted when Welsh shared his squadron’s songbook while home from Kunsan Air Base in South Korea in the late 1990s.
“He said, ‘Why in the world would you ever sing stuff like this?’”
Good time to be a pilot
Ask Alex Lauer what he thinks of entering a service that is hemorrhaging pilots, and he’ll smile and say it doesn’t get him down.
“I think this is a really good time to be a young pilot in the Air Force,” he said.
Lauer, of Sammamish, Washington, will graduate from the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course at Randolph in October and head to the Basic Course, where he’ll fly the F-15. He’s among the 45 percent of all Air Force pilots who came out of ROTC programs, in his case at Central Washington University. Another 45 percent graduated from the Air Force Academy, and the rest from officer training schools.
Meanwhile, Lauer has flourished in a squadron that uses a new, more collegial approach to teaching the fundamentals of aerial combat, where instructors encourage students to bring up issues and concerns they might have kept to themselves in the past, so “we also end up fixing the things that we didn’t even know they screwed up,” as Earley put it.
“We can open up to each other and we can say, ‘Hey, look, I asked you to do this and you didn’t do that. Why?’ In the past, a student might have said, ‘Yes, no, I don’t know,’ and not want to give any additional answers,” said Earley, an F-15 and T-38 pilot with 2,600 hours over his career, including about 50 in combat.
So far, the attempt at a new training culture has cut attrition 85 percent.
Using a video screen and whiteboard in a complex built in 1930, Maj. Matthew “Crater” Hannon went through the high and low points of Lauer’s dogfight. It was the first time Lauer had defended himself from an “aggressor,” and if mistakes were made, he still had reason to smile.
“He did pretty well. We’re teaching a young man to look over his shoulder and fly a high-speed aircraft, which has a very small window of error before you’re no longer effectively flying your game plan,” said Hannon, an A-10 veteran of Afghanistan, where he flew close to 400 combat hours.
“So Lt. Lauer learned how crucial it is to not only recognize a trigger by the bandit — the trigger meaning once I see (an enemy maneuver his jet) or I see a bandit respond in a certain manner — what’s my response?”
Lauer had a split second to make the right, life-saving decision.
After 16½ years in the Air Force, Hannon, a former instructor at the elite Air Force Weapons School in Nevada, is applying a fighter pilot’s perspective to events unfolding both in the squadron and at home, where his kids, Jack, 8, and Reese, 11, are an ever-larger issue in deciding his next move.
Whether he stays or goes is up in the air. He’s waiting to see if Congress approves Air Force efforts to give pilots a $48,000 annual bonus.
“I would fly fighters for this country for the rest of my life, if it were an option. The only reason I wouldn’t do that is at the expense of being the very best father that I could be to my children,” said Hannon, 38, of Seguin. “And not at the expense of not being able to teach my son the rules and the game of football, not being able to show my daughter how she should be treated on a date.”
Nowhere to go but up
At a conference in Florida this past week, Goldfein, the Air Force’s 21st chief of staff, reflected on how training time helped prepare him for his first night of battle in the Gulf War. He’d flown at Red Flag, a Nevada exercise that gives pilots a taste of what to expect.
Only his squadron commander had been to war before, but as the mission ensued, he and his fellow pilots saw everything they had experienced at Red Flag — except when an enemy MiG fighter crashed.
“And so for those that built that exercise to give young aviators the first 10 sorties so they could survive combat, gentlemen and ladies, it worked,” Goldfein told the crowd. “And so I came to believe that high-end training against the most difficult threat, in the most difficult environment, is nothing short of a moral obligation.”
One of three focus areas over the next four years, Goldfein said, will be to stress the importance of the squadron, “where we succeed or fail as an Air Force.”
“It’s where our culture resides,” he said.
How to do it is the question.
“The limited things that the Air Force can do itself to impact this, one of them is a refocus on letting aviators do what aviators are supposed to do, which is fly airplanes and not do additional duties,” said Fogleman, the retired Air Force chief of staff, who has flown fighters, transports, tankers and rotary-wing aircraft, including 315 combat missions.
“The other thing they can do is they can advocate to the Congress to increase the money for readiness, spares, fuel for flying hours, and they can advocate for increased bonuses,” he continued. “Together, I think this can make a difference.”
When it comes to retention issues, Welsh, one of the other retired chiefs of staff, thinks there are three kinds of pilots.
The first plan to stay in. They love what they do, are challenged by it and will deal with the daily frustrations of life in the Air Force and work to make improvements. The second group, pushed by personal or family considerations, will get out, and there’s no stopping them.
“And then there’s the third group, which is the group that kind of likes what they do and might stay if we can remove some of these frustrations,” he said. “Understanding the things that bother them the most and working on solutions to those issues is really where the focus needs to be.”
Back at Randolph, Earley ran though the same categories: deployment-weary pilots and families headed out the door, those who might well stay if given better bonuses, and the ones who will fly through the turbulence.
“I want to stress the most important one of those three is being part of something bigger than yourself. That’s what keeps people in the military,” he said. “That’s what motivates people to serve our nation.”
Goldfein, who ran a fighter squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy, during the 1999 Kosovo air war, has said morale and readiness are linked. Asked how he would rank the current state of Air Force morale and readiness, he repeated what Earley had said, almost word for word: “Morale comes from being part of something bigger than yourself.”
“I’ve never had an airman come back from a deployment raving about the quality of life downrange. They come back and talk to me about the mission. They talk about whether they were valued,” Goldfein said. “Whether they contributed and made a difference. That’s what makes high morale.”
©2016 the San Antonio Express-News
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In a September, 2015 file photo, Second Lt. Duston Obrien, 435th Fighter Training Squadron upgrade pilot, and Maj. Gavin Peterson, 435th FTS instructor pilot, perform a pre-flight check at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. The 435th Fighter Training Squadron conducts Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals student training in nearly 50 T-38C Talon aircraft and trains IFF instructors for Air Education and Training Command at large.
502ND AIR BASE WING