With an Air Force pilot shortage that has hit 2,000, and commercial airlines in a hiring boom, service leaders are brainstorming ways to address a deepening crisis, eying improved financial incentives and a host of administrative actions to improve quality of life for aviators and their families.
For the long term, Air Force recognizes it has to widen its pilot training pipeline by 25 percent to address stiffening competition for pilots nationwide.
Navy and Marine Corps also are taking special steps to retain more experienced pilots but, so far, those service branches haven’t seen the exodus of mid-career pilots battering the Air Force, particularly its fighter aircraft community.
Air Force needed 3,781 active duty fighter pilots by the end of September. It had fewer than 2,700. Its fighter pilot shortage grew by 200 career officers in the past year alone.
“Within our pilot crisis we have multiple crises,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Koscheski, director of the Air Force Aircrew Crisis Task Force which was established earlier this year to recommend actions to address aircrew shortages across active duty, Guard and Reserve forces.
“We are concerned that the fighter pilot shortage is the canary in the coal mine,” Koscheski said. “We’re worried about a mobility pilot shortage with the airline hiring and the draw it has.” Shortage of instructor pilots is another concern.
A majority of the 23,000 pilots Air Force needs for its total force are flying air mobility missions in transports and tankers. These pilots, when not flying, are “carrying a disproportionate load” of aviation staff assignments and training billets that fighter pilots can’t fill given their own acute shortage, Koscheski said.
Aviation community managers are used to seeing pilot retention issues rise and fall based on various factors including hires by airlines, pace of military operations or the relative pull of aviation bonuses. But current pilot shortages for Air Force are acute and expected to grow.
A recent Congressional Research Service report said the sharp rise in airline hires reflects industry expansion to meet passenger demand. Fleets of commercial aircraft are expected to double in size over the next 20 years. In the past three years, major air carriers have been forced to raise pilot salaries by 20 percent to fill their cockpits. Meanwhile, a large percentage of airline pilots, possibly 40 percent, will reach mandatory retirement age of 65 in the next 10 years.
Another factor is a 2010 law that toughened hiring standards for airlines and put a premium on the experience of military pilots. By the time they complete their initial 10-year service obligation out of flight school, military pilots typically have the 1,500 flight hours to qualify for an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.
“This is a unique period because (multiple) things have happened, all about the same time,” said Koscheski. “This also is a long-term problem, really a national pilot crisis. Airlines, especially regionals, are running short of pilots as well.”
Other factors drive Air Force pilot attrition, however. In exit surveys, pilots are citing cultural issues that affect their quality of life and their service time including “dissatisfaction with excessive duties unrelated to flying and inability to maintain work-life balance,” said CRS in its report.
The task force has proposed reducing administrative requirements on aircrews, reducing requirements for fighter pilots to fill 365-day deployments, reducing off-station exercises, cutting ancillary training and hiring contractors to handle some administrative duties. Air Force also looks to increase training capacity with new squadrons, add incentives for instructor duty and is engaging with industry on cooperative solutions to mutual pilot shortages, the CRS said.
At a State of the Air Force press briefing last week, Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force Chief of Staff, said his service wants to retain every pilot it can as it builds capacity to produce more. The nation overall, he said, doesn’t produce enough aviators to meet demands of military, business and commercial aviation. The military, therefore, intends to work with industry to solve the crisis, he said.
The long-term fix, said Koscheski, “is to grow our way out of this. And so, it's going to take a while to get in place what we need to start producing more pilots.”
That effort is made more difficult by Congress failing routinely to pass stable, predictable defense budgets on time, forcing the services to operate at least through the first three months of every fiscal year under a “continuing budget resolution” which freezes program spending at previous-year levels.
Last year, Congress did increase peak aviation incentive pay (flight pay) payable after 14 years of service from $840 a month to $1,000. It also raised the ceiling on pilot retention bonuses, from $25,000 a year to $35,000. The services vary actual bonuses based on need, trying to keep enough pilots with experience for every type of platform. Recently, the Air Force has been fallen woefully short.
Pilots are offered bonuses after completing their initial 10-year commitments. They take it or they leave active duty.
“You’re sitting at the 11- or 12-year point of your career. If you sign a five-year or longer bonus, you’re essentially committing until retirement” at 20 or more years, Koscheski said.
In fiscal 2013, every Air Force pilot community exceeded or came close to meeting the target of a 65 percent bonus take rate. Bomber pilots had an 81-percent take rate, rescue pilots 94 percent and fighter pilots 63 percent.
By fiscal 2017, however, Air Force rescue pilots alone surpassed the target. Only 35 percent of fighter pilots, 44 percent of air mobility pilots and 46 percent of bomber pilots opted to remain on active duty.
Part of the problem is Air Force got smaller yet missions and operational tempo haven’t eased, Koscheski said. With fewer aircraft, deployments are more frequent and pilots spend more time away from families. Yet when pilots come home, they find the flying hours they crave cut due to tighter budgets and maintenance challenges. Not until squadrons begin pre-deployment training to restore their readiness are pilots satisfied again with their cockpit time.
“It’s multiple compounding problems that are starting to snowball here,” Koscheski said.
Pilots hired by airlines soon have compensation packages that far exceed what the military could offer. Aviators also know that the sooner they accept industry jobs, the sooner they set their seniority number for the airlines.
“They know that thousands more pilots will be in the pipeline behind them, which is going to directly relate to their quality of life in terms of schedules and aircraft they fly. It’s all based on seniority in the airline industry,” said Koscheski.
“We’re emphasizing the value proposition in the Air Force,” he said. “Money is a factor but it’s not the factor, because people join to do amazing things, work with amazing people and with the world’s greatest technology, and live a life that matters. … We cornered the market on that. And we’re trying to balance that with what’s the right amount of financial compensation.”
The defense authorization bill for fiscal 2018 requires a U.S. Comptroller General report on the severity of the national pilot shortage by April 30, to include how airline compensation is impacting military pilot retention; the wisdom of requiring the services to make a business case for raising pilot bonuses above $35,000, and the adequacy of Air Force efforts to improve non-monetary incentives to retain more pilots.