New Gains on the Pilot Retention Front

Feb. 1, 2003

The Air Force has dramatically reduced its pilot shortage since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as the war on terror has inspired higher retention rates and the voluntary return of hundreds of pilots who had left the service.

Short 1,200 pilots in September 2001, the Air Force managed to cut the deficit nearly in half by December 2002. The service, needing 13,280 pilots, finished the year with 12,648. That was 632 pilots, or five percent, short of requirements. As recently as last April, the service forecast the shortage would be 915 pilots at year’s end.

The pilot shortage, which developed into a serious problem in 1997, has been felt most acutely in unfilled staff positions reserved for fliers.

Officials say the improvement stems from many factors, not the least of which is a renewed patriotism that has come with the missions of defending US airspace and defeating terrorists overseas.

Maj. Gen. Richard A. Mentemeyer, USAF’s director of operations and training, said the increase in retention is largely attributable to the global war on terror. “Even though people are gone from home a lot more … they feel very good about what they are doing, and so do their families,” he noted.

It’s happened before, Mentemeyer continued. After the Gulf War, pride in the Air Force mission led to “some pretty high retention rates.”

Retention began to suffer when the Air Force mission became less clear. Pilots were being deployed around the world repeatedly and unpredictably, and they were faced with an enticing alternative: lucrative and stable airline jobs.

“Over the years, people were on their third and fourth rotation and not seeing a lot of change” through the 1990s, Mentemeyer said. That led to dissatisfaction and lower retention.

At the same time, the Air Force had cut back new pilot production and was competing with the airline industry’s voracious appetite for new pilots. By 1999, the Air Force was short 1,355 pilots.

A series of initiatives has stabilized the situation, but officials note that the logistics of the problem mean the deficit will continue to be large through at least 2011. The classes produced when pilot production was cut in the 1990s will always be small. The Air Force cannot solve the problem simply by cranking out new pilots, because there are not enough experienced pilots to train larger numbers of inexperienced fliers.

Still, the pilot shortage clearly has eased even in the face of high optempo. “It is really what you are doing during that optempo that has an impact on retention,” Mentemeyer said. “When you come in the military and you get to do what you came in the military to do, you tend to hang around,” the general said.

Recent Successes

The factor that has most improved pilot staffing levels is the recent return to the Air Force of more than 250 pilots who had left active duty, according to Lt. Col. David Moore, USAF’s chief of rated force policy. After 9/11, the Air Force undertook rated-recall programs to bring back pilots who had retired or separated recently.

The removal of Stop-Loss, instituted after the 2001 terrorist attacks, also went better than expected. There was concern that when Stop-Loss ended there could be an exodus of pilots. This exodus never occured and the service retained more pilots than expected, Mentemeyer said, even in low-density, high-demand areas.

For example, retention of unmanned aerial vehicle operators was a major concern heading into the end of Stop-Loss, but “all the numbers we’ve got show they’ve hung in there,” he said.

Pride in the mission has also translated into a major improvement in the number of pilots agreeing to stay after their initial service commitments are completed. Before Sept. 11, the Aviation Continuation Pay “take rate” was about 30 percent, Mentemeyer said.

“This year, it is up to 47 percent—and that is the long-term bonus,” he added.

Normally, the Air Force would be happy with a take rate of 50 percent, he said, because if things are in equilibrium the service “could never handle 100 percent retention.” The Air Force does not need as many colonels as captains, so, over the long haul, a certain amount of pilot attrition is expected and at times encouraged.

Years To Go

Pilot staffing is not in equilibrium, however. Improved retention has reduced but not eliminated the pilot shortage, which will not dissipate completely until the small production classes of the mid–1990s have completely worked their way through the system. Pilot production fell to fewer than 500 a year, compared to three times that many before and twice as many since.

Though the long-term goal is for about 50 percent of its pilots to sign on for additional years, the service is trying to hang onto every experienced pilot it can.

“With these small year groups, … in theory, if we could retain 100 percent, that would be great,” Moore said. Mentemeyer noted that the three-year shortage of pilots “just flows through the system until it squirts out the other end, which is what we are really looking forward to some day.”

The Air Force changed the service commitment for new pilots from eight years to 10 beginning in 2000, but Air Force Academy upperclassmen at the time were “grandfathered” under the old rules. Therefore, the service will not “see any effective increase in population until at least ’09,” Mentemeyer said.

Just before the longer service commitment kicks in, the shortage is expected to return to its worst levels. The last available estimate was that the shortfall will peak again in 2008 and 2009, at nearly 1,000 fewer than required, according to Col. Jim Brooks, chief of operational training under Mentemeyer.

The lingering shortage has most affected pilots assigned to staff assignments. Air Force policy is to ensure all cockpits are filled, meaning officials in headquarters and staff positions feel the brunt of the shortage.

“We are literally sharing some of the pilots on the staff now,” Mentemeyer said. “We used to have the luxury of having an F-16 pilot in almost every office on the Air Staff,” but today a single pilot may be available to three different offices needing Falcon expertise, the general said.

However, staff positions are considered critical for career development. There is concern that, if pilots spend too many assignments flying, it could hurt them professionally. Although less than a fifth of USAF’s officers fly, pilots absolutely dominate the Air Force’s top leadership positions. The shortage means many of today’s pilots are being kept away from those staff jobs that will prepare them for later roles as senior leaders.

Mentemeyer said most pilots are not complaining about cockpit time, though, since flying is what pilots joined the Air Force to do.

Juggling Experience

One of the most vexing problems for the Air Force in solving the pilot shortage is balancing the need for new pilots with the need for experienced pilots.

Although USAF may have turned the corner on pilot retention, years of attrition have left the service in a tough position, according to a 2002 Rand report “Absorbing Air Force Fighter Pilots: Parameters, Problems, and Policy Options.”

The service is now training about 1,100 new pilots annually, the number needed to maintain long-term inventory levels. Rand said the Air Force wants to turn about 330 of these into fighter pilots, but the fighter community only has the ability to absorb about 302 new fighter pilots each year. Yet even 330 fighter pilots falls “far short of the 382 needed to fill existing requirements,” the report added.

Consequently, “there are too few pilots in the active component, yet so many new pilots are entering the force that operational units cannot absorb them without jeopardizing readiness and safety,” said Rand, adding, this may be “the most challenging aircrew management problem” in Air Force history.

The war on terror has paid unexpected dividends in this area as well. Rand noted that there is no single solution to the experience problem and that demand for new pilots will outstrip the ability to absorb them “unless pilot retention behavior can show marked improvement.”

Mentemeyer pointed out that Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom not only have increased retention but also quickly generated experienced pilots.

When pilot production was increased, it quickly filled the ranks with “a lot of young, inexperienced people,” he said. But because of OEF and ONE, there are now lieutenants with 300 combat flight hours and pilots with experience the Air Force simply did not have before in “many year groups,” Mentemeyer said. “That is going to pay big dividends for the Air Force for the future.”

Having experienced pilots at all career levels will continue to be critical for USAF because the lure of the airlines is not going away.

“Many pilots are unaware that there are still opportunities at every level” in the commercial aviation industry, according to Aviation Information Resources, Inc., a pilot placement firm. Former military pilots are always in high demand, but they will be competing against some 8,000 pilots the airlines cut after 9/11. (See “Grim Days for the Airlines,” p. 76.)

USAF is keeping its Aviation Continuation Pay program in place and has even expanded the ACP bonuses to include certain navigators and air battle managers, who remain in short supply.

Independent analyses have found that, even with continuation bonuses, military pilots earn considerably less than they would in airline jobs. But as Mentemeyer noted, there are those who want to “stay in uniform now that we are in [a] contingency, rather than be flying in airlines. … We were going through some really unique times and still are.”

Straining the Training

In the days after 9/11, when nonstop Combat Air Patrols were being flown to guarantee air sovereignty over US cities, fighter pilots began to accumulate severe training backlogs. The units flying Operation Noble Eagle CAPs overflew their regular flying hours significantly, leaving precious little time for other flights. And the demands of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan meant that other aircraft and crews normally available for continuation training were tied up elsewhere.

With a few exceptions, the Air Force has worked through this problem and is getting pilot training back to the necessary levels. Fighter pilot training levels are now in good shape, despite the dual pressures placed on them by Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom.

According to Col. Ted Kresge, chief of Air Combat Command flight operations at Langley AFB, Va., fighter units are plentiful enough that they have been able to rotate taskings and keep up with both overseas commitments and training requirements. “Everyone hurts for a finite period of time, then they get over it,” he noted. Air Expeditionary Force schedules have helped simplify these rotations.

The impact of a contingency on training is “abrupt and severe,” Kresge said, adding that the use of scheduled AEFs and the predictability they offer is “the best thing that ever happened to flying units.”

For a time, the dual requirements of homeland security and overseas needs exacerbated the training problem.

For example, at the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing, which was responsible for maintaining the CAPs over New York City and Washington, D.C., pilots were forced to balance the higher operational requirements with the need to maintain proficiency for a scheduled AEF deployment.

According to Wing Commander Col. Michael G. Cosby, the 177th normally flies 3,950 hours per fiscal year. In Fiscal 2002, flying hours increased nearly 50 percent to 5,788—with the same number of aircraft. Further, the wing will support Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle taskings simultaneously, when 10 F-16s and more than 200 airmen are deployed as part of AEF 9 this spring.

Officials say that training for heavily tasked units such as this one has been eased considerably by the end of round-the-clock CAPs and the switch to greater reliance on aircraft on ground alert for homeland air defense needs.

When it comes to AEFs, not all pilots have benefitted to the degree that the fighter pilots have. Typically, fighter pilots have stuck to the AEF schedules, allowing for downtime and training after a deployment before coming up for another overseas assignment.

The situation has been different for pilots in low-density, high-demand aircraft.

Absent Stop-Loss measures, there will always be some attrition for every weapon system, so it is very important to keep the schoolhouse open and turning out new pilots, said Maj. Gen. Richard A. Mentemeyer, USAF’s director of operations and training. For a time, the most critical training shortfall was in the Airborne Warning and Control System community.

Initial training for AWACS pilots and battle managers was nearly shut down last year because of the demand for the system. In fact, the United States temporarily had NATO E-3 AWACS patrolling its borders so that the American E-3s could be deployed overseas.

“We were able to do alternatives and joint planning because there are actually Navy, Coast Guard, and Army systems that can—I won’t say replace the AWACS—but they can do a lot of that mission,” said Mentemeyer. Consequently, the Air Force was able to bring some of the AWACS aircraft back to Tinker AFB, Okla., to resume training. Readiness levels are still not back to normal, he said, but “we put a stop to the decline.”

Preparation of Air Force Combat Search and Rescue pilots remains a major concern. The CSAR community is as heavily tasked today as ever, Air Combat Command officials say. When deployed, search and rescue pilots spend the majority of their time on alert and unable to perform training of any real value.

According to Maj. Gary Henderson, ACC’s HH-60G weapons and tactics program manager, CSAR taskings have doubled since 9/11 with no difference in force structure. The Air Force is attempting to limit less-critical CSAR deployments, but the units are in high demand for every combat theater.

Kresge said the search and rescue community is currently facing “serious” training problems and is in an unsustainable position.

Mentemeyer noted that if there were a major contingency along the lines of a confrontation with Iraq, USAF would probably shut down the schoolhouses and “put every asset we could against that contingency, but you only want to do that for a short period of time.”