Learning to Live With the Pilot Retention Problem

Jan. 1, 2001

Despite the prestige, glamour, and career opportunities associated with being an aviator, the Air Force will likely be battling its severe pilot shortage for years, as the service has found the shortage resistant to easy fixes. Moreover, the shortfall is concentrated almost totally in the corps of experienced pilots, the ones most valuable and most difficult to replace.

Some reasons for the shortage are familiar. A booming economy creates lucrative private-sector job opportunities, while quality-of-life concerns, such as excessive deployments, family disruption, and frequent moves, have spurred pilots to leave the force at rates higher than expected.

However, other factors also are driving pilots from the service. For starters, each aircraft tasked to support an ongoing contingency operation-frequently, they are fighters-has only a limited number of experienced pilots available to it. New deployment patterns that some consider overuse affect these pilots most. One study found half the total pilot shortage is in fighters, approaching 20 percent of requirements.

The high operations tempo of recent years combined with the force drawdown after the Cold War have created deployment levels many pilots have found unacceptable over the long-term.

The Air Force made “a conscious decision to keep cockpits at 100 percent,” while deliberately understaffing management positions reserved for pilots, because flying is the service’s primary mission, said Col. Jim Brooks, chief of the Air Force’s operational training division at the Pentagon, in an interview.

The unusual peacetime pilot shortage is not expected to fully dissipate until after 2010, according to the service. The problem has shown some short-term improvement, as the current 1,200 pilot shortage is 300 less than the service projected a year ago. Officials cite two reasons for optimism: The creation of the Aerospace Expeditionary Force structure last year, which restored some predictability to pilots’ lives, while a recently approved increase in aviator continuation pay is expected to address some financial concerns.

No Quick Fixes

Wide-ranging efforts by the Air Force to eliminate the persistent shortages appear to have temporarily stemmed growth in the shortfall. However, the Air Force is going to have to live with the problem for quite a while. That is the conclusion of “The Air Force Pilot Shortage: A Crisis for Operational Units?”-a new study prepared by Rand under Air Force contract. It predicts that the problem indefinitely will continue to produce shortages in staff positions and threaten pilot experience levels in operational units.

The problem is that the easiest solution-retaining more pilots-has not proved possible in the current economic and geopolitical world. Efforts to improve quality of life-including the creation of the Expeditionary Aerospace Force-and reform of pay, benefit, and retirement packages have all shown potential to keep pilots in uniform, yet the problem persists.

Higher pay and bonuses alone will not fix the problem, as analysis has shown pilots essentially lose lifetime income with every year they remain on active duty instead of leaving for airlines-even when enhanced bonuses and retirement income are taken into account.

Ironically, the services during the drawdown of the 1990s reduced new pilot production at the same time that worldwide deployments began to dramatically increase. Now, there are too few pilots in the pipeline to fill the pilot rosters because larger classes of pilots have become eligible for separation from the service. Also, “the shortfall is most critical among those who collectively must fill key staff and cockpit jobs and provide instruction and leadership to newcomers in operational and training units,” Rand notes in the report.

Therefore, boosting the number of new pilot trainees will not fix the problem.

Large increases in pilot production, the simplest supply-side solution, have the undesirable side effects of harming overall pilot experience levels. “Experienced” pilots are forced to fly an ever greater share of unit flying hours the more new pilots are trained, meaning inexperienced pilots take even longer to gain the necessary flying hours to be considered experienced and move into staff or leadership positions.

It currently takes nearly three years for a pilot to become experienced. The time required could grow longer than a typical assignment if young pilots are limited in their flying hours by the unavailability of senior pilots to train them. Pilots would then be facing new assignments before they were considered ready to assume new responsibilities.

Rand found that the most vexing issue facing today’s Air Force is not a shortage of pilots in staff positions but general lack of experienced pilots in the force. Rand calls the problem “serious enough to compromise the ability of fighter units to accomplish their primary missions and meet their [Aerospace] Expeditionary Force … demands.”

The Air Force thus far has been able to fill all of its cockpits. For this reason, some critics have complained that the “pilot shortage” is an Air Force fabrication. They argue that USAF is seeking additional funding to address a problem that is, in actuality, a “paper shortage.”

The authors of the Rand study disagree with the claim. So does Gen. Richard E. Hawley, the retired former commander of USAF’s Air Combat Command. “It’s a bogus argument to say this is a manufactured shortage,” said Hawley, noting that having pilots in staff positions, not just flying aircraft, gives officers needed management experience.

Insatiable Airlines

Serving to drive flying officers from the service is a factor that is unique to pilots-the lure of airline jobs. The market for commercial airline pilots is currently large enough to hire the entire Air Force pilot roster, and this indicates a protracted battle for experienced aviators is in the works.

The service is in the midst of what Maj. Gen. Michael C. McMahan, Air Force director of personnel force management, described last year as a “make-or-break” two-year retention period. The numbers of separating Air Force pilots barely scratch the surface of the private sector’s demand for experienced pilots, meaning jobs will continue to be plentiful for aviators who want them.

According to Kit Darby, owner and president of Aviation Information Resources, Inc., an aviation career placement firm, commercial airlines hired about 5,000 former military pilots in 1999, and major carrier demand for “quality and experience” means that trained military pilots will continue to be valued assets to airlines.

In an interview, Darby noted that military pilots are in “fixed supply.” Estimates are that commercial carriers hired more than 19,000 pilots in 2000, most drawn from the ranks of 700,000 licensed nonmilitary pilots in the United States. These carriers have turned to other sources of pilots because not nearly enough former military pilots are available, he said, and the 19,000 new hires will be the fifth consecutive record year for airline hiring.

Commercial carriers are actively gunning for military pilots. In a July press release, Aviation Information Resources announced the start up of an aviation job fair. “The Airline Pilot Career Seminar and Airline Forum is geared toward civilian and military pilots who are seriously pursuing careers as airline pilots,” read the statement.

Staff Positions Questioned

Although nonflying staff positions reserved for pilots account for a major portion of the pilot requirement, eliminating nonflying pilot positions is not an option, according to Rand. The study found that such a move would prove difficult not only because many of the positions belong to non­Air Force entities but also because cutting the positions would reduce the experience in important management posts.

“OSD has a staff-a big one,” Hawley noted. “Congress certainly isn’t short on staff. Why do they think the Air Force can operate without one?”

Further, pilot staff positions have been scrubbed several times in recent years as the service has attempted to find and reclassify positions that do not necessarily require pilots.

“I would not argue that every billet we have rated [for pilots] needs to be rated,” Hawley said, because “there is a tendency in any organization to exaggerate requirements.” However, he added, pilots are not getting a great deal of career-broadening management experience, and staff positions should not be considered candidates for indiscriminate cuts.

Being a pilot undoubtedly pays a career benefit to those who remain in the service. All but one of the current Air Force four-star generals are pilots. The exception is Gen. Lester L. Lyles, an engineer, who is the head of Air Force Materiel Command.

Despite the complex case, the Air Force still has critics. One of these is Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who has argued that the Air Force must change the way pilots are assigned and classified. Last fall, Harkin urged Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen to direct the service to clarify its needs by performing another scrub of pilot requirements.

Harkin said DoD should review staff requirements to determine if pilots are needed to fill these types of nonflying positions currently designated for them and more fully evaluate the merits of implementing a fly-only career path for pilots wishing to stay in the cockpit.

The need to fill staff positions with pilots has not been explained well, concluded a 1999 General Accounting Office report on the matter. The Congressional watchdog agency found that DoD had not “comprehensively assessed whether all of their required positions truly need to be filled with active duty military pilots.”

Confusion reigns even on the issue of how many pilots are assigned to nonflying positions. According to Rand, 16 percent of the total Air Force pilot requirement is nonflying; GAO reported that “the Air Force’s nonflying positions currently represent slightly more than 20 percent of its total pilot requirements.” Consequently, the severity of the shortage was unclear to GAO because, in its view, there may still be staff jobs reserved for pilots that could be filled by other officers.

The Rand study notes skeptically, “Some argue that nonflying billets do not represent valid requirements [and] so simply removing these requirements will substantially mitigate any apparent crisis.” It countered that insufficient experience “can degrade the readiness and capability of operational units even if all the cockpits remain filled.” The Air Force has reduced pilot requirements by 39 percent during the past decade, while nonflying positions have been cut by 56 percent, Rand notes, adding, “Any padding that may have existed in staff requirements certainly has been substantially reduced.”

A Fly-Only Career

What about moving toward a “fly-only” career path

Senior Pentagon officials have said this “could be a consideration in the future.” However, noted Hawley, the current pilot shortage has already created a de facto fly-only career path; most USAF pilots are doing nothing but flying.

“We’ve done that, essentially,” he added, noting today a typical pilot probably spends about 17 years of his or her first 20 in the cockpit. This is what leads to the unfilled staff billets. However, formalizing such a fly-only program invites new problems such as creating a class structure that could overtax the non-fly-only pilots, who would become the only options for headquarters desk jobs.

GAO found some pilots were concerned about this fact as well. Though many welcomed the prospect of a fly-only career, others are concerned about the career imbalance. “Many pilots are now being asked to remain in cockpit positions, which means they are not being given the opportunity to serve in other types of career enhancing positions,” said the GAO report. “Some of these pilots have become concerned that they will not be competitive for promotion.”

Giving those staff positions to other career fields would not be easy, either, Hawley said, because the Air Force is dealing with many other shortages in the officer ranks. “There’s not a great surplus of other types of officer expertise out there,” he said.

Inexperience Looms

In Rand’s view, declining experience levels in flying units confronts the Air Force with its most serious immediate problem.

The report contends that a fly-only policy would further exacerbate existing problems in management positions, while not solving the inexperience issue either. “The only real way to fix this is on the demand side,” Hawley explained, and the service has already increased pilot production to what it considers the highest sustainable level.

To resolve the experience level deficit and safely increase pilot production, “the most obvious [solution] is for units to fly more, but the additional flying hours need to be programmed into the Air Force budget,” Rand states. “This difficult and time-consuming process is complicated by the recent inability of fighter units to generate enough training sorties to fly their currently programmed hours.”

Consequently, says Rand, the service is unlikely to obtain approval for additional flying hours.

For years, the Air Force has been unable to accurately predict the number of flying hours needed. It consistently flies fewer hours than the number that is funded and reprograms the excess funds to pay other expenses. For example, in Fiscal 1999, hours flown were below expectations at the beginning and end of the year but surged to unpredicted highs during Operation Allied Force. The net result was that the service got its overall flying hour prediction nearly correct, but training hours were slashed to accommodate the demand for combat and support sorties, further slowing the accumulation of flying experience for inexperienced Stateside pilots.

Absent better flying hour predictions and funding increases, solutions to the shortage will be hard to carry out.

Restructuring Benefits

Air Combat Command is attempting to increase fighter squadron sizes from 18 to 24 primary mission aircraft, a move ACC hopes will free up pilot staff positions through consolidation. While ACC has enlarged some of its wings and squadrons, its ability to further increase squadron sizes is hampered by a lack of base closure authority, officials say.

Since 1995, 12 combat air force squadrons have been enlarged from 18 primary aircraft to 24, and ACC is actively looking for more ways to consolidate the fleet, according to Lt. Col. Robert Burgess, chief of the global attack branch of ACC’s plans and programs directorate. However, said Burgess, additional moves are “awful hard to do” without closing bases or purchasing additional aircraft.

More radical changes could result in even greater reductions in the pilot shortage, but these, too, require another base closure round, Hawley said.

As ACC commander, Hawley briefed Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters on a proposal that showed nine Numbered Air Forces require 216 pilots in staff positions, while a “potential restructure” that eliminated five NAFs would only require 139 pilots in staff positions.

Similarly, 20 fighter wings with 364 pilots could perhaps be reduced to 12 wings with 237 pilots, freeing 127 more pilots from staff positions, the proposal explained. All of this is a “good idea whose time has not yet come,” Hawley said this summer.

Another recent Rand report shows that, for the time being, eliminating a NAF within ACC could create unacceptable problems. Currently, ACC can only count on about 80 percent of its Air Operations Center officials as experienced, under ideal conditions, according to the report “The Warfighting Capacity of [ACC’s] Numbered Air Forces.”

During wartime, the NAFs supply personnel to run the AOC, coordinating the air campaign. There are shortages of key personnel in each of the three NAFs within ACC, meaning the units must pool resources to properly run an AOC for any operation larger than a small-scale combat operation, the study found.

It said, “Each NAF could itself barely provide the trained personnel” to support an operation requiring about 300 sorties per day from four independent bases, a deployment level known as a quick-response package. Further, the study found that, to support larger operations, each NAF “would have had to rely on people who may not have been adequately trained or experienced, and/or borrow properly qualified people from somewhere else.”

The study was chartered by the Air Force to examine the possibility of eliminating one of the NAFs, thereby consolidating ACC operations into two NAFs.

A Total Force Solution

Total Force solutions to the shortage must be investigated, Rand believes. Some new pilots could serve in Guard or Reserve units, or experienced Guard or Reserve pilots could be used as instructors in active duty units to address the experience problem.

Rand found that these solutions offer great potential, but steps must be taken to ensure Total Force solutions do not harm pilots’ careers-which would deter them from agreeing to participate-and that they do not actually inspire pilots to leave the active duty for Guard or Reserve duty, as was the case in an earlier trial during the 1980s.

In 1999, the Air Force leadership agreed to reduce fighter pilot production slightly to 330 per year to help remedy the experience problem. It simultaneously decided that “30 new pilots [per year are] to be absorbed by Guard and Reserve units,” Rand notes in the report.

Overall, Rand concludes, “We hope the Air Force will pursue the Total Force initiatives despite the implementation problems. These policies can be effective, however, only if the [aircraft utilization] rate problem is resolved in time to ensure that operational units will be able to fly their programmed flying hours.”

Adam J. Hebert is associate editor of Inside the Air Force, a Washington, D.C.­based defense newsletter. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine- “For Bombers, Does START Equal Stop?”-appeared in the October 2000 issue.