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Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson visits Langley AFB, highlights pilot shortage

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson talks Thursday about the future of the service at Langley Air Force Base.

ROB OSTERMAIER/DAILY PRESS (TNS)

By HUGH LESSIG | The Daily Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 3, 2017

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson chatted with fighter pilots Thursday at Langley Air Force Base. Her only wish: a bigger crowd.

A pilot shortage across the Air Force "is a very big deal" and defies a single, easy solution, Wilson told reporters during a break between meetings. Having been sworn in on May 8, she's now getting out out of Washington to visit airmen and hear about their needs.

Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982, the third class to include women. Instead of going to flight school, she earned her master's and doctorate degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England.

She served on the National Security Council staff under President George H.W. Bush during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. From 1998 to 2009, she represented New Mexico in the House of Representatives.

She was the first service secretary to win confirmation in the Trump administration, with a 76-22 Senate vote.

The challenges she faces were outlined earlier this year in congressional hearings on military readiness. Air Force officials testified that 54 percent of major aircraft weapons systems would qualify for antique license plates in Virginia. In other words, the aircraft are more than 25 years old.

The Air Force ended the last fiscal year with 723 fewer fighter pilots than required and a shortage of about 3,400 maintainers. Those shortages translate into a lack of flying time, which goes against the grain of F-22 Raptor pilots in the 1st Fighter Wing, based at Langley.

The service is losing pilots to commercial airlines, but that's not the only challenge, Wilson said. It's the stress of added deployments, lack of time at home and other issues.

"It's a variety of things," she said. "I am very concerned about it, and it's not going to be a single fix. It's going to be a hundred swings of the ax."

The Air Force is talking to the commercial airline industry, she said, where there are concerns about lack of passenger jet pilots.

"We're looking at nationwide, what are the requirements and what can we do to creatively meet the needs," she said.

People are not the only concern, she said. The Air Force must modernize its various air frames.

"The Air Force is too small for what the nation is expecting of it," she said, "and we have to start turning that corner."

The Air Force has proposed a budget that focuses on modernization and making sure pilots are ready to fight. Like other branches of the armed services, she said Congress must find a way to get rid of spending limits under the Budget Control Act.

"We cannot continue to meet the needs of the nation under the constraints that were imposed by the Budget Control Act," she said. "We need to figure out a way to move beyond that."

Military leaders, including those in the Air Force, have repeatedly requested congressional authority for another round of military base closings. Wilson declined to say if Langley Air Force base is well position to withstand another Base Realignment and Closing commission because that type of deep analysis hasn't been done.

However, she said a base's value comes down to how it contributes to the overall mission, not just the physical facilities

"It's not about hangar space," she said. "It's about the ability to conduct the mission and to train."

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©2017 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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