Short-Term Pilot Shortage Solutions for the USAF

I've written a couple articles recently comparing the financial angle of staying in the military for a full retirement vs. getting out halfway through to start an airline career 9 years earlier. My second article was prompted by proposals to increase the USAF's pilot retention bonus from $25K per year to as much as $60K per year. The USAF Chief of Staff (CSAF) and the Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) put forth their proposal because the Air Force is having trouble retaining pilots. In particular, the USAF is short 500 fighter pilots right now and expects that number to reach 700 in the near future. Here's the Op-Ed that CSAF and SECAF wrote on the subject. Part of me can't believe this.

Nearly every boy or girl who has ever watched Top Gun wants to be a fighter pilot...even if they won't admit it. It's one of the coolest jobs that humanity has come up with to date. Given that, it is both tragic and stupefying that the USAF is making that job so frustrating that it can't even retain the pilots it has already qualified. Believe me, there are a lot of reasons this is happening. (And though it isn't popular to admit it, the rest of the Air Force's pilot population is experiencing a similar shortage for all the same reasons.) In hopes of not sounding like a crotchety old grump, I'm not going to avoid discussing those reasons here. You can find them on forums and blogs throughout the Internet. The USAF is going to have to identify and fix the things that are impeding pilot retention, but I'm not going to try to solve those issues here either. Instead, I'd like to suggest some solutions to the shorter-term problem of being short by 700 fighter pilots.

Before we get started, here's a little background for our readers who aren't already military aviators.

First, how does the USAF get its fighter pilots?

This is a long and arduous process. Air Force pilots must be officers, which means they must be college graduates. Most pilots come from the USAF Academy or from college ROTC programs. Some are regular college graduates who apply to the Air Force and commission through Officer Training School (OTS.)

Selection for those programs is competitive. Once you're in one, selection for undergraduate pilot training (UPT) is even more competitive. The USAF only has four UPT bases with a limited capacity on how many pilots it can train each year.

For an officer lucky enough to get to UPT, the competition continues. The first few months of UPT are spent flying the T-6A. Every event at UPT is graded and after six months, roughly 30% of the class is selected to continue to the fighter/bomber track flying the T-38C. The last half of UPT is even more competitive. Low performers in the T-38C are sent to bombers, strategic ISR platforms like the E-3A, drones, or are retained as first assignment instructor pilots (FAIPs.) A lucky class of 5-7 T-38C students might get 2-4 fighter aircraft in their assignment "drop."

Statistically, the chances of becoming a fighter pilot in the USAF are minuscule. It's probably similar to the chances of any given high school athlete going pro. It's an extremely challenging process that leaves many dreams crushed and pilots disappointed. The Air Force, however, values the competitive nature of this system, hoping that it reserves fighter jobs for only the most qualified pilots.

Despite the downright brutal competitiveness of this path and the statistical improbability of success, the USAF has never needed to expend much energy to "recruit" fighter pilots. Whether it's the jobs ability to satisfy patriotic desire to directly combat our nation's enemies, or the raw coolness of flying fighter jets, the job has always sold itself....at least until now.

There are a lot of factors at play here. A huge factor is that the airlines are just starting to hit a peak in a 30-year hiring cycle. There are also a lot of quality of life (QOL) factors that detract from the attractiveness of the fighter pilot career path. Again, we're not going into depth on those factors.

Sufficeth to say: there is no excuse for the Air Force's inability to recruit and retain fighter (and other) pilots. The job is so amazing that the USAF should have boys and girls beating its doors down, begging for a chance to fly.

There's an apocryphal Air Force motto: "Flexibility is the Key to Airpower." I'd like to suggest that the USAF employ this Key in devising some new strategies for recruiting some fighter pilots. Some of these would be a significant stretch for a government bureaucracy as expansive as the US Air Force, but if "let's throw more money at the problem" isn't working then you have to at least try something else....

I don't necessarily intend all of these as long-term solutions to the USAF's problems. I've already demonstrated that money shouldn't actually play a significant role in a pilot's decision to stay or go. The fact is: unless the USAF can adequately address the QOL issues affecting pilot retention, none of the solutions I'm proposing will do you much good. They may get you a few hundred pilots in the near future, but you'll lose them all just as quickly. These are short-term band-aids to give you enough time to cure the underlying diseases.

So, here are a few ideas, respectfully submitted, that would help solve the USAF's immediate pilot shortfall (for fighter pilots or otherwise):

  1. Raise Age limits

    The USAF requires pilots to be no older than 30 or 31 by the time they finish UPT. Someone like Elon Musk would probably make a great fighter pilot. I realize you think you need to get some kind of return on your investment, but you're not able to retain young fighter pilots longer than 10 years right now. Why not hire some intelligent, experienced individuals who are as old as 40? If you're only going to get 10 years out of them anyway, you won't be losing anything.

  2. Allow Retreads

    The fighter pilot pipeline is extremely competitive. Many great pilots fall short at some point and end up flying other things. Most of them go on to gain thousands of hours of experience in combat, giving instruction, flying worldwide operations, leading crews and formations. I assert that many of these pilots could compete well against young UPT students and would perform very well as fighter pilots. Yes, they'll be older, but the same mentality that fixes #1 above would allow you to honestly consider this option.

    The USAF also abandons a lot of pilots (even fighter pilots) by sending them (more or less permanently) to fly drones or other platforms. Don't just let them back, beg them to come back! They've already proven that they were good enough to meet your standards. There is no excuse for complaining about being short on fighter pilots when you're the ones responsible for creating that shortage through your own assignment process.

    Just today I read in the great rumor mill known as Facebook that Air Mobility Command (AMC) is conducting an interest count for AMC pilots who would consider taking an assignment to fighters or bombers if one was offered. Unfortunately, it appears this is only research for a possible proposal from the AMC Commander to HQ USAF. However, I think it's absolutely a great idea.

    Be warned: a lot of the rumor mill discussion focused on the fact that taking such an assignment would make a pilot vulnerable to those highly-undesirable drone or other non-flying assignments. Admiral Akbar's famous line: "It's a Trap!" was repeated more than once. If this strategy were to work, you'd have to address some of those underlying QOL issues before you'd get large numbers of people to take the bait.

  3. Open Enrollment

    Fighter pilot selection has always been an extremely restricted process. Given your current shortage, why not competitively open up 50 or 100 UPT slots to the general population. You can stipulate that candidates be medically qualified and have a college degree, but beyond that make everything else competitive. I suspect you'd get several thousand applicants for 100 slots. You'd have your pick.

    If you wanted, you could even make this into a mega-PR extravaganza. Turn it into a reality TV show ala American Idol. Yes, you tried this once and failed miserably. The reality TV industry has had a lot of time to mature and develop since then. I assert that if you hired an actual Hollywood production company to help you with this, you could make it work this time around.

  4. Recruit a Lot More for RPAs

    The civilian drone market is exploding. Right now most drones are toys, but within the next few years it'll become a multi-billion dollar industry. Videography, law enforcement, fire fighting, real estate, agriculture, delivery, disaster relief...the list of industries that will need professional drone pilots goes on and on.

    Eventually, the civilian drone industry is going to realize that, like the airlines, it's a huge benefit to hire a former military drone pilot with thousands of hours of experience in real-world missions. One of the big reasons you have trouble retaining fighter pilots is that you have a horrible habit of giving them non-voluntary assignments to fly drones. All too frequently, that reassignment is permanent. What a terrible waste of a fighter pilot...especially when you're 700 short!

    The civilian population is full of individuals who would probably jump at the chance to be a military drone pilot. You've already given "drone pilot" its own Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) of 18X. You should be far more vocal about the opportunities to fly drones for the military. There is no reason you should have any trouble finding so many volunteers for the 18X AFSC that you have no rooms for 11Us (manned aircraft pilots forced into flying drones.)

    If you need a short-term fix here, try an open enrollment period for drone pilots. Hire several hundred people right off the streets. If you publicize and market it properly, you'll have more applicants than you can handle.

  5. Let Your Fighter Pilots Fly

    F-22 pilots love their job, but they hate the fact that they don't fly enough. In fact, many of them are lucky to get 100 hours per year. Quite frankly, that's pitiful.

    If we're talking about QOL issues, you're not going to keep people happy with that little flying. Sorry. That's just the way it is.

    This is also a problem for a pilot's future. At some point in time, even most fighter pilots get worn out and decide to take an easier life as an airline pilot. Recent changes to US regulations require all airline pilots to have at least 1500 flight hours. When you factor in non-flying assignments to drones, Air Liaison Officer assignments with the US Army, staff assignments, professional military education, and senior leadership assignments that involve little if any flying, it's very likely that a 100-hour-per-year F-22 pilot might not even reach 1500 total flight hours over a 20-year career! Sure the $60K/yr military retirement is nice, but not nearly as nice as 60K/yr plus an airline pilot's salary.

    Yes, the regulations allow military pilots to fly for the airlines with as little as 750 total hours. However, even this might be a stretch for many F-22 pilots.

    Like it or not, choosing to be a fighter pilot in today's USAF significantly limits job opportunities for work after the Air Force.

    Don't worry though, you can fix this pretty easily. Just give fighter pilots something else to fly on the side. You could give them something as simple as a T-6. They'd be able to practice many of the fundamentals of their regular jobs. They'd also be able to use the T-6 for meeting some of their recurring requirements for instrument flying and basic takeoffs and landings...at a significantly reduced cost. There are also simpler (and cheaper!) aircraft out there capable meeting many of these basic needs. How about buying a fleet of Extra 300SCs or (warning noisy website:) Zivko Edge 540s? These are world-class unlimited aerobatic aircraft that could realistically be used to even stay sharp on some more advanced air combat maneuvering. You could (quite literally) acquire and operate thousands of these aircraft for what it costs to buy and fly one F-22 for a year. You'd make your fighter pilots happier by keeping them flying more, and allow their career path one that at least gives them the option of getting an airline job in the future.

  6. Move More Fighter Pilot Jobs to the Guard/Reserve

    The USAF Reserve (USAFR) and Air National Guard (ANG) have squadrons all over the country. Pilots can hold full-time civilian jobs (airline pilot is probably the most common) while continuing to fly part-time with an USAFR/ANG unit. It's a great deal for everyone.

    For the USAF, part timers are incredibly cheap. It's actually embarrassing how much less they get paid for the same amount of work, compared to an active duty pilot.

    The USAF could move more of these fighter pilot positions to the USAFR/ANG where the part-timers might only expect to fly 100-300 hours per year anyway. They'd be arguably just as experienced and current as active duty pilots only flying 100 hours per year, but the USAF could have more of them for much cheaper. These individuals could have a day job with the airlines (where they'd continue accruing flight experience that has value for the military) while still filling the USAF's need for fighter pilots. The more fighter jobs the USAF can push out to this "Total Force" the better!

    How many truly full time fighter pilots does the USAF really need? How many combat engagements have the F-15C or F-22 taken part in over the last 15 years. (The answer is almost zero.) Instead of forcing pilots to cut all ties when they get out, give them more options to continue their service as a part-time fighter pilot. If we go to war, they'll deploy and fight like they always wanted to. In the meantime, the USAF could save tons of money by paying them less, to work less. It'll save you money and keep a large cadre of fighter pilots ready. (Yes, it takes a lot to stay current as a fighter pilot. What would you rather have? 700 empty cockpits or 700 pilots who are at least partially current and able to spin up in a week or two if a massive conflict were to arise?)

  7. Partner With the Airlines

    A friend of mine just sent me the link to a really interesting research project that the USAF commissioned through the RAND Corporation. The report examines some of the factors involved in the USAF's current pilot shortage and explores some possible solutions. The overall theme of the report was looking at how the USAF could work with the airlines to address the problem of our nationwide pilot shortage together.

    Sadly, a lot of the ideas they looked at will never happen because the USAF lacks the ability to provide an incentive for the airlines to agree to them. However, some ideas have some promise. Here are a couple possibilities based on what I read:

    The report noted that student pilots who have more than 1000 flight hours before starting UPT tend to perform much better and have much higher course completion rates than student pilots who start with less time. The USAF could partner with civilian flight training programs and regional airlines (who have their own recruiting and retention issues right now.) These three types of agencies could agree that as soon as a pilot gets 1000 flight hours, he or she goes to UPT and then spends 2-3 years as an active duty pilot. After that time, he or she has the option of going to a regional airline and flying there for 2-3 years. At that point, the pilot could go apply to a major airline while continuing to serve as a pilot in the USAFR/ANG.

    Another option would be to bring more pilots in through UPT than you do now. Let them fly for a year or two in the Air Force then send them to a regional airline for seasoning. After 2-3 years there, bring them back either full-time or part-time into the Air Force. The part-timers could continue flying with the airlines. The full-timers should have the option to go to the USAFR/ANG sooner than the standard 10-year service commitment after completing UPT. This option is a little messy right now. It'd require some changes to USERRA - the US law that requires civilian companies to let military reservists keep serving. It'd also require a lot of coordination/negotiation with airlines and pilot unions. It'd be hard work, but it'd be worth it.

  8. Fix the 1500 Hour ATP Rule

    The USAF's pilot shortage was unavoidable. The RAND report shows a strong correlation between airline hiring and USAF pilot retention problems. The entire aviation industry has known that this was coming and the USAF dropped the ball on addressing the problem. However, as bad as this shortage was inevitably going to be, one single factor is magnifying the problem by a factor of at least 6.

    In 2012 a new rule came into effect requiring all pilots on Part 121 aircraft (airlines) to hold an ATP. This means that a pilot has to accumulate at least 1500 total flight hours before even starting a job as the most junior regional airline pilot in the country. Before this change a pilot could start as an airline First Officer with as few as 250 hours.

    This rule was not based in any way on logic or science. It was purely an emotional response to the tragic crash of Colgan Airlines Flight 3407. The people who demanded this change were the families of those lost in the accident. They strong-armed Congress into mandating this rule without any consideration of the consequences. The Colgan crash was a horrible tragedy caused by shortcomings that need to be addressed. Requiring 1500 total flight hours does zero to address those problems though. The First Officer on that flight had more than 2200 hours and the Captain had far more.

    The fundamental effect of this new rule was to make it financially untenable for anyone to pursue the job of airline pilot without starting in the military. Obtaining just the ratings required for working as a pilot costs tens of thousands of dollars, on top of the college tuition a pilot has to pay to get a degree (also required by most airlines.) The regional airlines and other "entry-level" flying jobs out there barely pay enough to support a family, let alone pay back a mountain of college/flying training debt. When a pilot could get started working and paying back that debt at 250 total flight hours, the math worked...barely. Now that the threshold for starting to work as an airline pilot is 1500 hours, the math just doesn't work anymore.

    This means the major airlines are rapidly running out of regional airline pilots to fill their ranks, and the regionals aren't producing enough new ones to meet their own needs, let alone feed the major airline pipelines. The major airlines have to get their pilots from somewhere, and the new 1500-hour rule we got after Colgan essentially placed the majority of that burden on the military. What would have been an insatiable hunger for military pilots has become an irrational vampiric frenzy.

    Yes, regional airlines are starting to pay more. Airlines are considering contracts to train non-pilots in exchange for a commitment to work for at least 10 years (like the USAF does.) The industry will adapt; however, the military is still a better, more cost-effective source of pilots for the airlines than anywhere else as long as the 1500-hour rule exists.

    If the USAF wants to fix its pilot shortage, it needs to reduce the demand for pilots by screaming for Congress to repeal this ill-conceived rule. They can (correctly) argue that the rule does nothing to address the problems identified in the Colgan Air safety investigation. The USAF has a robust Safety apparatus that could re-analyze the Colgan crash and recommend some alternate (and actually meaningful) solutions. However, the USAF should also be shouting from the rooftops that the 1500-hour rule is a threat to our national security. That claim would not be hyperbole.

    The 1500-hour rule could be changed. It already allows some exceptions for issuing a Restricted ATP rating at 1250 or 750 hours, under certain circumstances. The USAF (and the airlines) should be pushing for a more formalized and logical approach to an RATP rating. The RATP should be available to all pilots at 250 (or maybe as high as 500) hours of total flight time. They can require a rigorous training program (like the current ATP CPT.) However, mandating that a pilot obtain 1500 total flight hours before starting this is illogical, a threat to national security, and a threat to the air travel industry in the United States...and thereby our economy in general. The USAF can and should be leading the charge in a fight to change this rule.

So there you have it. These are one guy's ideas for short-term ways to address your shortage of 700 USAF fighter pilots. Just throwing more money at the problem in the form of a larger pilot bonus will not do the trick. Sorry, but you're going to have to get more creative.

Remember, these suggestions don't do much to address the more fundamental, far-reaching QOL problems that created this shortage in the first place. You'll need to take some concrete, meaningful action to fix those problems at some point. However, this might allow you to check away and cool off the engagement for just a little longer. Hopefully, it'd be long enough for you fix those problems and get back into the fight. I've got plenty of ideas on how to do that too. If you want suggestions, you know where to find me.