There is virtually no training currently accomplished at low altitude, and tasks easily accomplished at medium altitude can overwhelm pilots flying in the weeds. If—when—the need arises to re-enter that structure in a combat environment, there won’t be time for slow learning curves or multiple do-over sorties that are now the norm throughout the flight training pipeline. The competence and confidence that comes with screening will renew an elite mindset in the fighter force that will enable mission success, further unit cohesion and foster an individual’s desire to stay.
The last of the measures the service must address is the space in between the faucet—their graduation from flight school—and a pilot’s first opportunity to leave the service.
If the Air Force is going to avoid the mop-grabbing mode in the future, it needs to begin their retention efforts the moment a pilot leaves flight school. People are smart; they know when they are valued, and when an organization feigns interest up until a crisis. The current bonus system begins only when pilots are approaching their option to leave. The Air Force should increase flight pay to a point where pilots feel valued from the moment they leave flight school until they are eligible for the bonus—and the service should sustain those pay and bonus levels throughout their flying careers.
While the moves suggested above may seem costly, the alternatives are staggering. It cost $6 million a year to train an Air Force fighter pilot in 2013. Pilots receive a ten-year service commitment on graduation from flight school. If it cost the service several million to retain a $60 million talent for another ten years, it would more than pay for itself on paper, while elevating the competency, cohesion and combat capability of our fighter force.
John Venable is a senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation.