A Plan for Keeping the U.S. Air Force's Best Pilots in Service

U.S. Air Force attack aircraft A-10 "Thunderbolt" pilot reacts as he takes part in a landing exercise on a motorway near Jagala, Estonia, August 10, 2017.

The U.S. Air Force needs to make pilot service more competitive and rewarding.

President Trump’s recent executive order authorizing the secretary of defense to recall up to a thousand retired Air Force pilots to fill that service’s ever-growing shortfall is certainly welcome. It may indeed help temporarily quell the current fighter-pilot manning crisis.

But it’s a Band-Aid, not a cure. The long-term repercussions of implementation are unlikely to thwart the downward spiral of pilot retention, or the readiness of the Air Force.

The fighter-pilot shortage has grown increasingly worrisome over the last several years. The Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength rated the Air Force as “weak,” based in part on its current and forecast shortfall of fighter pilots. By year’s end, the service is projected to have fewer than 2,643 of the 3,643 active-duty fighter pilots it needs to execute its mission.

That problem is exacerbated by how long it takes to train competent pilots to replace those exiting the service. It takes two years for a pilot candidate to complete basic flight school and the fighter-training pipeline. But even then, those graduates aren’t ready for combat. Mission-qualification training at their gaining unit consumes another two to three months before new pilots are ready to follow someone else into combat as a wingman.

From there, it takes two years to become a flight lead, two more before they can upgrade to instructor and a total of seven years before an individual maximizes his potential as a fighter pilot.

Yes, bringing previously qualified fighter pilots back on active duty will help the Air Force recover all of that experience over the course of months, rather than years. The training required to requalify them would be minimal, as would be the cost, and enticing some of these “graybeards” to return will be relatively easy.

However, this solution introduces new problems that will exacerbate the current pilot-retention dilemma. In fact, it will help to mask several very real reasons pilots will continue leaving the service in the years ahead.

Many pilots who elect to separate or retire from the service do so to pursue more lucrative careers or a better quality of life. The average pilot flying with a major commercial airline earns more than $150,000 a year, but other even higher-paying professions are hungry for leaders with the experience and drive associated with the fighter community.

Financial gain and quality of life are reasons readily acknowledged by Air Force senior leaders. Rarely mentioned, however, are other factors that contribute to the decision to leave the service, such as falling performance standards, lack of flying time, and a lack of respect from the service for airmen’s values and beliefs.

Flight School graduation rates have skyrocketed from below 80 percent in the 1980s to the point where almost everyone entering flight school now graduates (even fighter candidates). Similarly, promotion rates to major have also inextricably grown from around 90 percent in 1997, to a recently announced rate of 100 percent for the next three to four years. Yet all this has occurred with no discernible improvement in the quality of candidates or instructors, or with the automation within the aircraft they fly.

Graduation or promotion rates of 100 percent either mean that no one performs so poorly that they fail to meet a service’s high standard, or that standards have been lowered to the point where even the poorest performers qualify for advancement. Either way, combining the two statistics means the Air Force now has a system with no discernible level of screening during the first sixteen years of a pilot’s career.

Lowering the flight training standards will likely only show itself in a near-peer combat environment. The drain on talent it can cause is easily masked by other issues, but the effects are no less real.

Highly competitive people thrive in teams with other high performers, where their performance is recognized and differentiated from that of less talented individuals. They tend to move away from organizations in which retention is the primary goal regardless of performance.

Pilots join the Air Force because they want to fly. Unfortunately, fighter pilots have been starved for flight time for at least the last five years. With few exceptions, fighter pilots believe their skills diminish when they fly two or fewer sorties a week. They sustain their skills if they fly three times a week, and they get better when they fly four or more times a week.

Fighter pilots have been averaging fewer than two sorties a week for the last five years, which can’t help but sap both their competency and the drive that brought them to a fighter cockpit. The leadership of the Air Force will counter that simulator time fills both gaps, but here they have lost sight of the big picture: that it fills neither.

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