The Air Force Needs More Pilots: Can It Afford to Train Them?

May 1, 2023 Topic: Air Force Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Air ForceMilitaryPilotsPilot ShortageDefense Spending

The Air Force Needs More Pilots: Can It Afford to Train Them?

What does it cost to train a pilot? More than you might think.

The United States operates some of the most advanced and capable tactical aircraft ever to take to the skies, but what does it cost to train the pilot? More than you might think.

Back in 2019, the U.S. Air Force worked with the RAND Corporation to conduct an analysis of what the branch spends on bonuses and incentive pay aimed at retaining existing pilots, versus the cost of recruiting and training new pilots to replace them. According to the 73-page report, this comparison was of particular import at the time (and today) because the commercial-airline industry has been aggressively pursuing qualified pilots to replace its own aging workforce, encouraging highly-trained Air Force pilots to get out of the military and take on cushier jobs ferrying passengers between New York and LA.

Related: How long does it take to become an Air Force fighter pilot?

New pilots versus old, in terms of dollars and cents

There are a number of variables to take into consideration when trying to determine the right pilot force structure. High levels of retention mean high levels of expertise, but it also means higher personnel costs across the board as aviators continue to progress in their careers toward higher pay grades. An all-senior pilot force also creates problems as those senior pilots begin to reach retirement age. Conversely, an all-junior (or recruited) pilot force offers lower costs in terms of payroll and bonuses, but comes with the high initial cost of recruitment and training.

Obviously, the right structure is a mix of the two, with a number of senior aviators sticking around being the pay structure, bonuses, and incentives make it worthwhile as compared to commercial or civilian endeavors, and a number of aspiring aviators coming in each year to train for their military careers. This offers a mixture of experience, skill sets, and costs that allows the pilot corps to be sustainable over the long haul, but in order to manage this balance, the Air Force must have a thorough understanding of what such a mixture will cost for the purposes of budget allocation.

Of course, the first step in making this determination is assessing exactly how much it costs to train a person off the street to fly a hundred million dollars worth of state secrets into enemy airspace and live to tell the tale.

Related: How fighter pilots plan combat missions

Pilot training costs vary widely

In order to assess the cost of training a pilot, RAND had to consider a number of things outside the direct expenses incurred by the student (housing, payroll, etc), like the cost per flight hour for aircraft leveraged and the support costs incurred by maintaining these training fleets. Costs from each stage of training, from flight screening all the way through assignment to formal training units, were included.

The analysis found that the cost of training pilots varied greatly based on the platform. For instance, it costs about ten times more to train a pilot to fly America’s premiere air superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor, than it costs to train a pilot to fly a C-17 cargo plane. This, of course, makes a great deal of sense seeing as aircraft like the F-22 costs far more per hour to operate than more utilitarian platforms like the C-17.

Related: What is Air Force fighter pilot training like?

Here’s how much the U.S. Air Force spends training its pilots:

The chart below shows the Air Force cost of training one pilot on each platform, according to the RAND Corporation analysis from 2018, as well as today’s updated figures when adjusted for 2023’s inflation, using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.

Aircraft 2018 Dollars 2023 Dollars
A-10 $5,961,000.00 $7,194,795.47
B-1 $7,338,000.00 $8,856,804.09
B-2 $9,891,000.00 $11,938,218.76
B-52 $9,688,000.00 $11,693,202.24
C-130J $2,474,000.00 $2,986,063.41
C-17 $1,097,000.00 $1,324,054.80
C-5 $1,397,000.00 $1,686,148.18
F-15C $9,200,000.00 $11,104,197.01
F-15E $5,580,000.00 $6,734,936.88
F-16 $5,618,000.00 $6,780,802.04
F-22 $10,897,000.00 $13,152,440.00
F-35A (basic) $10,167,000.00 $12,271,340.00
F-35A (transition) $9,467,000.00 $11,426,460.12
KC-135 $1,196,000.00 $1,443,545.61
RC-135 $5,447,000.00 $6,574,408.82

Figures obtained from “The Relative Cost-Effectiveness of Retaining Versus Accessing Air Force Pilots” by the Rand Corporation

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.

This article first appeared at Sandboxx News.

Image: Shutterstock.