Perennial pilot paucity puts Air Force in precarious position

The Air Force’s pilot corps is shrinking.

The service was 1,907 pilots short of its 21,000-person goal for manned aircraft as of October, according to the latest data provided to Air Force Times. That’s nearly 260 more open pilot slots than it had at the end of 2021.

A web of factors that include commercial airline hiring, military flight instructor shortages, changes in the U.S. war footing abroad, and the Air Force’s shrinking fleet has entangled the service into a long-running pilot shortfall that makes the service more vulnerable in a potential crisis. It has also snagged the Air Force’s policy shops that rely on a deep bench of expert pilots to shape the future force.

“We are managing our way through this, but it is something we are addressing,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told lawmakers last May.

Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots assigned to the 555th Fighter Squadron prepare for takeoff during exercise Emerald Strike 2023 at Grosseto Air Base, Italy, Jan. 27. (Senior Airman Noah Sudolcan/Air Force)

The service has nibbled at the edges of a 2,000-pilot shortage for years. Each year, it hopes to employ about 13,000 active duty pilots overall, plus another 8,000 or so in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.

On the active duty side, the Air Force wants 741 more people to meet its goal of about 13,000 pilots, That means about 6% of active duty pilot slots sit empty and most of those job openings are in the fighter community, service spokesperson Rose Riley said. About 80 spots are available on other airframes.

The Guard and Reserve have an even wider gap, which has held steady at about 1,200 airmen across the two components. About 15% of Guard and Reserve pilot jobs are vacant.

In a crisis, defense leaders would likely call on those units first to round out active duty deployments. In addition, a shortage within the reserve component creates a thinner bench of experienced part-time airmen without sure replacements in tow.

Heather Penney, a defense expert at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, argues the service’s plan to retire hundreds more aircraft without readily apparent replacements will make matters worse.

“In the 1990s, they divested too many aircraft, they closed down too many pilot training bases,” she said. “They simply don’t have the capacity to produce the number of pilots that they need, and they don’t have the aircraft required to absorb the pilots they do create.”

Air Force officials have seen hints of progress. The service closed out fiscal 2022 with about 200 more active duty pilots than it had three years earlier. Now, though, military officials and civilian experts alike argue the Pentagon needs to amass a more robust pilot corps to prepare for the next conflict.

An F-15E Strike Eagle pilot assigned to the 389th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron dons her flight equipment at an undisclosed location within U.S. Central Command Dec. 29. (Staff Sgt. Gerald R. Willis/Air Force)

Fighting the airlines for pilots

The Air Force’s efforts to bolster its number of pilots is hindered by two factors. First, the service spent more than two decades of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where pilots were worn out by nonstop deployment. At the same time, Air Force leaders must counter the headwinds of robust civilian-sector employment.

Second, most active duty pilots head into the private sector in their mid-30s, after amassing about 10 years of flight experience, Riley said. At that point in their career, airmen make about $135,000 a year in base pay and other financial benefits, plus bonuses and combat pay. This can make them attractive candidates for commercial airlines, which are also starving for workers. There, former airmen can fly for higher pay and less paperwork and other extraneous duties.

The 12 major U.S. airlines — Alaska, Allegiant, American, Atlas, Delta, FedEx, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, United and UPS — hired more than 13,000 pilots in 2022, according to data compiled by the consulting firm Future and Active Pilot Advisors.

That’s more than the previous three years combined, and the largest single-year hiring spree since 1990.

About 25% — or 3,280 — of the pilots hired by those 12 companies last year came from the military, the advisory firm told Air Force Times.

But money isn’t the only factor. Airmen leave for any combination of reasons, such as a desire for more stability at home, to avoid being shuffled into office jobs, or, simply, burnout. Others may feel like they got what they wanted out of military service, or that it’s time for a new challenge, Air Force leaders and former troops have said.
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