The Complex

Air Force Warns: We Could Run Out of Pilots

The Air Force is flying into gale force winds as commercial airlines start a hiring spree while military aviators struggle with low morale due to cutbacks and idle jets. And the Air Force may see a shortage as pilots vote with their feet. Over the next year, the commercial airline industry is going to begin ...

Tech. Sgt. Michelle Larche/DVIDS
Tech. Sgt. Michelle Larche/DVIDS

The Air Force is flying into gale force winds as commercial airlines start a hiring spree while military aviators struggle with low morale due to cutbacks and idle jets. And the Air Force may see a shortage as pilots vote with their feet.

Over the next year, the commercial airline industry is going to begin hiring tens of thousands of new pilots as aging flyers retire and the industry regains its economic footing. That could put dark clouds in the way of the Air Force’s wild blue yonder as it tries to persuade pilots to stay in a service even as top officials worry that pilots don’t have enough yoke time.

"If pilots aren’t flying in the Air Force because of our readiness issue, we worry that a number of them are going to say, ‘I’m flying somewhere else,’" acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning told Foreign Policy in an interview this month. "If I’m looking at my jet parked on the ramp instead of flying it and I can get a job somewhere else flying, then I’m going to do that. So we are concerned that there is a sort of perfect storm approaching us in terms of flying retention."

Fanning said current retention rates are better than historical averages. But he fears there are a number of lagging indicators that don’t tell the real story of how furloughs, the government shutdown, and lower readiness rates will affect the force over the next few years. The Air Force has publicly raised the alarm about its lower readiness rates because of sequestration and budget cutbacks. It may be using the threat of a pilot shortage to convince its budget overseers in Congress to ensure the service is properly funded. But no one disputes the factors at play are real.

Those factors start with the commercial aviation sector. There are three issues the industry is facing that could affect the Air Force in a significant way. The biggest one is the change to mandatory retirements for commercial airline pilots. In 2007, the FAA changed the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65, keeping more seasoned pilots in the cockpits. But now thousands of those pilots are reaching retirement age and the airline industry, which is experiencing a comeback, will confront a shortage of experienced pilots across many airlines.

"That wave is just hitting," said one Air Force official.

The FAA also increased the minimum number of flying hours pilots must have after the crash in Buffalo, NY, in 2009 of a Colgan Air commuter flight that pointed out problems with more inexperienced pilots. There are additional crew rest regulations as well that require airlines to maintain more pilots on staff.

The numbers suggest the Air Force’s fears are grounded in reality: Some worst case scenarios suggest the airline industry — including international carriers — could hire as many as 50,000 pilots over the next 10 years, and some estimates are even higher. If the industry aggressively targets pilots serving in the U.S. Air Force, the service could be in for some turbulence. The Airline Pilots Association, the primary trade group representing the interests of pilots and which is tracking the issue, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It’s a major concern for the Air Force, not only in the next year or so, but for the next several, said Dick Newton, executive vice president at the Air Force Association in Washington. "As the current demand for pilots grow from the U.S. airline industry so will Air Force pilots be compelled to leave the service for civilian cockpits," he said. "Coupled with the recent grounding of Air Force flying squadrons as a result of sequestration, many Air Force pilots aren’t sure what the future is in store for them." Newton said as a result, many will seriously consider a civilian career which guarantees them flying time — and in most cases a more stable lifestyle for their families without deployments and frequent moves that are a hallmark of the military lifestyle. The Air Force is perhaps uniquely vulnerable to the threats of such private sector hiring binges. None of the other armed services has so many individuals whose skills so easily and directly translate outside of military service. The Air Force is watching all of this very carefully. In July, top Air Force officials from the service as well as the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve met to discuss a variety of issues with industry leaders. But the hiring frenzy the airline industry is embarking on became a central discussion point as thousands of Guard and Reserve pilots are already working for the airline industry. Airline executives meeting with defense officials gave the Air Force a heads up: They would be having to hire thousands of pilots. Then this fall, the Air Force four-stars met for an Air Crew Summit at Andrews Air Force Base, MD, to discuss the potential pilot shortage.

"That’s the level of attention this is getting," said one Air Force official.

It’s the active-duty side of the Air Force that is in the private sector’s crosshairs, since many commercial pilots are already serving in the Air Force’s Reserve and Air Guard components. And it’s as yet unclear just how many pilots the airline industry will hire. The forecast may not be dire yet. There is plenty of reason to worry, however. Thousands of pilots were furloughed in the wake of 9/11 and some may be asked back into service. Many have been grounded for years, while others may have found flying opportunities in the Guard and Reserve or in other jobs in the private sector. But only when the industry can determine what that "take rate" is will the Air Force begin to see how it should shape its own retention efforts.

The Air Force is already facing a pilot shortage in its combat air force, where the service has not been able to train as many pilots as it needs. The Air Force, Guard, and Reserve has a requirement for about 5,000 fighter pilots; there are about 4,400 — a shortage of about 600. That shortage could change depending on the budget number the Air Force is given over the next year or two.

To retain pilots, the service offers a fairly standard maximum retention bonus of $25,000 per year for pilots in years in which there are shortages. The Air Force had asked for a five-year commitment in return. Now pilots can sign up for nine years for a maximum of $225,000. And to sweeten the deal, the Air Force last year began offering 50 percent of the bonus in a lump sum. Air Force officials say they think the retention bonus program may prevent an exodus of pilots but say they just don’t know what the next few years will look like. During fiscal 2013, 132 fighter pilots out of 211 eligible took the pay — a 63 percent average. Overall, the take rate for the retention pay for all pilots was about 68 percent. Those are healthy rates by most standards. But it’s still anybody’s guess what effect a commercial airline hiring frenzy will have on Air Force pilots already experiencing a lot of down time.

"Pilots like to fly, they like to yank and bank," said C.J. Ingram, a program analyst at the Air Force. "They’re not getting the flying time, so that’s not making them happy."

 Twitter: @glubold

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