Another Look at Pilot Retention

June 1, 2002

Since the September attacks, commercial airlines have been hiring fewer pilots, former military fliers have been applying to return to active duty, and the Air Force’s Stop-Loss actions have halted the exit of rated officers. Why, then, is USAF still paying “continuation” bonuses of up to $25,000 a year to some 5,000 pilots to get them to remain on active duty

“The fact is that Stop-Loss has only a temporary effect on the pilot force, as it does on the other career fields,” said Lt. Col. David Moore, the chief of rated force policy under the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel. “We foresee shortages in our pilot force for many years to come, and the solutions on which we focus need to point to the long term.”

In addition, Moore also sees the slump in civilian competition for pilots as a temporary phenomenon. “We expect the airlines to expand their hiring,” he said, “and we expect that to continue to be a long-term challenge for pilot retention in the Air Force.”

Nor is the lure of civilian jobs the only cause of pilot shortages. Despite recent efforts to spread the workload more evenly, the stress of deployments and day-to-day operations still is a major reason for separation. Although officials applaud the way members have responded to the war on terrorism, they concede that optempo has increased since Sept. 11.

Cause and Effect

There is no single cause of the Air Force’s present predicament, but some of the actions taken to reduce strength in the 1990s are at least partially responsible.

During the drawdown, the Air Force tried to protect its pilot resources, even though it had surpluses in the rated ranks at that time. Most pilots were exempt from involuntary separation and barred from voluntary early release. The only major effort USAF took to reduce rated strength was to cut the rate of pilot training. This achieved the desired force reductions, but at a price.

“Yes, the inventory came down,” Moore said, “but when we cut that far, it was going to have an inevitable consequence–not having enough pilots in certain year groups.” That unwanted effect would carry over for decades, he added, “because if you don’t manufacture a new pilot in a certain year group, that’s somebody you can never get back. Ten years later, that’s a senior captain or junior major that you aren’t going to have to fill a supervisory position.”

As the oversupply of pilots turned to shortages, USAF increased production from fewer than 500 new pilots per year to about 1,100 per year and increased active duty commitment for newly graduated pilots from eight years to 10 years. While the higher production rates promised long-term relief, there remained the more immediate problem of the lack of experienced midcareer fliers able to lead operational elements and hold rated staff positions.

Nor was the pilot shortage the only problem. “You’ve got to have enough sorties to get your people the level of training they need,” said Moore, “but to generate enough sorties, you also need enough crew chiefs to launch the jets, enough avionics technicians to keep the systems operating, enough aircraft controllers to sequence the traffic, and ultimately–and this is an important point–enough airplanes.”

That said, however, the pilot shortage remains the Air Force’s most pressing personnel concern, and USAF has moved on several fronts to remedy the situation. In the process, however, it has encountered new problems.

For example, the service’s effort to ease the shortage of seasoned fliers in the cockpit has led to a reduction in the number of rated officers in staff jobs, and many of those being filled are taken by navigators. USAF also invited recently retired pilots to return to active duty or, in some cases, to fill staff jobs as civilian employees. To encourage these recalls, Congress eased the dual-compensation laws which had barred retirees from drawing two federal paychecks at once.

In another move to meet the shortages, the Air Force has drawn more heavily on Guard and Reserve members to take jobs previously filled by active duty officers. The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command have furnished instructor pilots to Air Education and Training Command and to Formal Training Units with operational units. Others were brought back as test and check pilots.

In its struggle to hold the current rated force, the service asked for and received authority to sweeten the financial incentives for active duty pilots. In recent years, both aviation career incentive pay (flight pay) and aviator continuation pay (bonuses) have been increased. Even though pilots were included in the Stop-Loss order after Sept. 11, they still remain eligible for bonuses when they commit to additional service.

The Downside

These measures have helped the Air Force weather the immediate problems and continue to maintain an active operational force, officials say. However, most of these steps have only limited impact and some pose difficulties of their own.

The decision to cut pilot production rather than reduce the rated force during the drawdown is one example. Although it kept more experienced pilots aboard, it drastically reduced the number of younger fliers in the pipeline. It is largely this shortage of replacement pilots that is causing the service its current worries.

Doubling the pilot production eventually will help plug this experience gap, but at the moment, it too has some side effects. The increased student load requires more instructor pilots both at the undergraduate level and in the operational FTUs.

“You can’t simply increase production without having an effect on other aspects of the problem,” Moore said. “One of the most important is our ability to absorb new pilots into the system and get them trained and experienced over the long term. You can manufacture a whole bunch of brand-new pilots, but if they don’t have the kinds of flying experience you need, they are not going to be ready to move into supervisory positions and do the multitude of things that you need done.”

He went on, “The really crucial thing is not increasing initial production but making sure you have the ability to train those new pilots and bring them up to the point where they are properly experienced and seasoned where you can use them for the more difficult missions.”

Another logical step was turning to the Guard and Reserve for pilots to fill the instructor jobs and other positions calling for experienced officers. The Guard and Reserve traditionally have been well-supplied with pilots who didn’t want to remain on active duty but wanted to continue to fly. Moreover, most of these fliers have been seasoned by at least one term of active duty and kept current by their units.

In recent years, however, these backup forces have experienced some of the same difficulties as the active force. Since the drawdown, they have taken on a variety of additional missions. They now handle all of the nation’s weather reconnaissance and fighter-interceptor missions, more than half the tactical airlift, refueling, and rescue missions, and a substantial portion of the fighter, bomber, and airlift missions.

At the same time, the Air Force’s decision to cut pilot production during the drawdown has had an impact on reserve recruiting. The effect was slow in coming, but the Guard and Reserve, like the active force, now are finding it harder to fill their operational flying positions and can spare only limited numbers of pilots to fill instructor jobs and other positions.

As Moore said, “If you use Guard and Reserve pilots to do some of your active training, those are Guard and Reserve members who may not be available to perform the regular Guard and Reserve mission. So in some respects, it’s a zero-sum game. You can’t rob from one to pay the other.”

Moore argues that the nation needs to deal with solutions across the board in the Total Force.

Retirees Return

In December 2000, the Air Force tapped another source by inviting recently retired pilots, navigators, and air battle managers to return to active duty to fill headquarters rated staff positions.

“We have seen a surge since Sept. 11,” said Maj. Michael Franckowiak, the chief of the recall operations center at the Air Force Personnel Center. “That has caused us to increase the number of folks we have in the operation. We also have set up a call center in AFPC to take the requests and get those officers in contact with assignment officers.”

Lt. Col. James Mont, the chief of AFPC’s retired aviator recall program, explained, “The program was designed to bring back individuals who had been retired for five years or less. So that’s the target audience.”

“[Through March] 284 retirees have contacted us and expressed an interest in the program,” reported Mont. “So far, we have brought 102 back on active duty, and we currently have 99 active packages that we are working.”

The colonel, himself a recently recalled retiree, noted that Congress limited the Air Force to no more than 208 recalls and put an Oct. 1, 2003, deadline on the authority.

That cutoff date means few of the retired recallees can be returned to cockpit positions, Mont said, because needed refresher training calls for a longer active duty commitment.

The Air Force also has made a similar invitation to former active duty officers who are in reserve status or who severed all military ties. One, called the Limited Period Recall Program, allows an active duty unit to make a by-name request for a reservist to fill a specific slot. Another, called the Permanent Recall Program, accepts both reservists and separated officers who want to return for full careers. It has been this latter program that has seen the greatest surge in applications since Sept. 11, Franckowiak said. Most go to flying slots and serve for three or four years of active duty in reserve status, but the numbers still are small. Only slightly more than 100 such officers actually had returned to duty as of March.

Even being accepted does not mean that an officer will be returned to a cockpit. Maj. Woody Ganis, the chief of rated staff assignments at AFPC, noted, “For the folks who are returning to active duty, that are not retired, we look at them, see what their skills are at the time. If they are currently flying, we look at putting them in the cockpit. No guarantees. If they are not flying, then odds are they are going to a staff position like the retirees because we just don’t have a lot of available training time to take someone in off the street and get him spun up in the aircraft.”

For all their limitations, the recall programs have been a welcome boost to the service. As Franckowiak said, “One of the benefits we see in bringing these officers back on is that it gives us immediate experience that we need in the cockpits right now. So that’s the big plus.”

Like the recall effort, Stop-Loss has helped USAF for the moment. As Moore of rated force policy said, “Currently, Stop-Loss is in effect for all aircrews, all pilots, navigators, and air battle managers as well as for the majority of the Air Force.”

The Air Force has released the first set of officer and enlisted Air Force Specialty Codes from Stop-Loss, and every quarter, USAF will once again address the issue, looking at which troops will stay and which will be allowed to separate.

“My personal speculation is that, because aircrews are out there at the leading edge of the fight, Stop-Loss will be in effect for them for a while longer,” said Moore. “It probably will depend on how the war goes, and it’s going to be specifically tied, I am sure, to the mobilization of forces in the Guard and Reserve. It doesn’t make sense for us to be allowing people to leave out the back door if we’re calling up the Guard and Reserve.”

Still, the involuntary hold cannot be imposed indefinitely, and when it is lifted, the Air Force again will be struggling to retain pilots who are free to leave. Unless it can convince substantial numbers of them to increase their commitments, there could be another surge of losses.

Airline Pay Still a Lure

One of the biggest threats to retention remains the lure of high-paying airline jobs.

“It’s true that many airlines have furloughed pilots in the months since Sept. 11,” said Moore, “but we expect them to be hiring again in the coming year, and in the long term, we expect the airlines to place new orders and continue to grow. And, obviously, for the good of the country, we want the airlines to prosper, to succeed, and survive.”

However, the Air Force cannot afford indefinitely to give up too many of its most experienced aviators to the commercial carriers. To stop the hemorrhage of talent, it has fought for and won increases in flight pay and in the bonus for those who stay longer.

The bonus, known formally as aviator continuation pay, has been sweetened in recent years. Under current rules, a pilot can qualify for up to $25,000 for each year he or she agrees to stay beyond the initial eight- or 10-year commitment acquired from initial flight training. Shorter commitments pay less ($15,000 per year for three years or less), but under recent rule changes, officers now are allowed to trade these rates for higher ones by lengthening their commitments. The program also allows pilots to take a hefty portion of the money as a partial up-front payment.

Lt. Col. Robert J. Sirois, the chief of operational programs at AFPC, gave a dramatic example of how much the bonus can amount to over a full career.

“The first pilot to take an agreement this year had just finished the eight years of his active duty commitment from pilot training. He took a long-term agreement for 25 years of aviation service at $25,000 per year. So that would equate to a 17-year agreement at $25,000 per year. Pilots in their first year of eligibility also are authorized to take 50 percent of the bonus in cash up to a cap of $150,000, and then the remaining payments would be prorated over the remaining years.”

For the pilot in the colonel’s example, the bonus could amount to $150,000 in cash and another $275,000 over the rest of his career. His total take from the up-front cash and annual increments would be $425,000 over and above other pays and allowances.

There is no guarantee that the bonus will be available when the pilot shortage is over, Sirois conceded. “But,” he added, “once a pilot is on the bonus, the Air Force has made a commitment to pay out through the length of the agreement. And, as you can see from the pilot who just took a new 17-year agreement, we’ll be out there at least until the early 2020s.”

Retention Is Still Down

About 5,200 pilots (almost half the active duty inventory) are under bonus agreements. The program costs the Air Force about $130 million per year, but that is a small fraction of what it would cost to train an equal number of new replacement pilots and bring them to the same experience level. Officials say there has been some improvement in pilot retention rates in the past year but they still are below the needed levels.

Sirois said, “There are a lot of different ways to encourage people to stay longer, but one of the ways is to try to bring them closer to what they might be making with the airlines.”

Flight pay also has improved in recent years, particularly for more experienced pilots. Until the late 1990s, an aviator’s pay began to decrease after 18 years of commissioned service. The new law states that the rate peaks at $840 per month for fliers with more than 14 years of aviation service and does not drop until 22 years of aviation service. This means that a pilot beyond the midcareer point can draw some $35,000 per year in flight pay and bonus installments in addition to the normal pay of his or her grade.

The increases are justified, officials say, because surveys show that pilots generally perceive they can make even more money in civilian life. In one recent poll, many pilots said they expect to make at least $50,000 more on the outside than in the Air Force even with flight pay and bonuses. Interestingly, however, the officials note that polls on the factors influencing company-grade pilots to leave service show that availability of comparable civilian jobs dropped from the second most important factor in 1999 to the fourth in 2000.

Higher pay in the civilian world still is a formidable “pull” factor, but the surveys say that many pilots are driven to leave by a variety of “push” factors such as dissatisfaction with the service itself. Choice of assignments, additional duties, and high optempo consistently show up as top reasons for leaving.

In recent years, the Air Force has tried to address the work-related dissatisfactions with programs that spread assignments more equitably and make deployments more predictable. The efforts appear to have had some success, but with the current manpower shortages and the added demands of the war on terrorism, the stress on pilots is not likely to ease any time soon.

Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “The Wild Blue Yonder Is Shrinking,” appeared in the March 2002 issue.