Capt. Andre Walton runs a B1-B Lancer through its preflight checklist May 5 at an air base in Southwest Asia. (Staff Sgt. Joshua Garcia / Air Force)
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More than 500 rated officers who left active duty want to accept an invitation from the Air Force to rejoin.
When the service rolled out the offer in January, officials figured 100 or so former officers would apply. So far, 526 former airmen have turned in paperwork to serve up to four years: 394 pilots, 111 navigators and 21 air battle managers.
"I am amazed," said Lt. Col. Dewey DuHadway, who oversees rated force policy for the Air Staff.
The Air Force needs pilots, navigators and air battle managers to help fill about 1,600 vacant flying and staff positions.
Several factors led to the shortage, from a total force drawdown from 2005 to mid-2008 — lots of experienced officers left in those years — to unexpected demands for pilots. The most immediate reason is the growing need for pilots to fly remote-controlled aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper and small planes such as the MC-12. Those high-priority programs have pulled pilots away from staff tours, leaving rated positions unfilled. The MC-12 alone needs 300 pilots, a requirement that didn't exist a year ago.
Former rated officers interested in the program must submit their paperwork to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, by Dec. 31. Each applicant is then matched with an assignment officer who works with him to consider postings.
Many of the former rated officers haven't kept track of new missions and don't know the range of positions they qualify for, said Maj. Christopher "C.J." Johnson, who leads the rated officer return program office and flies as an air battle manager.
"Some questions are very basic ... ‘What kind of job do you have for me?'" Johnson said of the many telephone calls and e-mails between the center and the officers trying to decide where they might fit in.
Assignment requests run the spectrum.
Some applicants leave it up to the Air Force to decide.
"We have a lot of people who are just eager to be back into the fight," Johnson said.
Others have families and don't want to move.
The program is open to retired or reserve-status rated officers who are 60 years old or younger, and left service as a lieutenant colonel or below.
Selection boards at the personnel center have the final say on applications, said Adriana Bazan, chief of the center's voluntary return section. Sitting on the board is a colonel as the president and three colonels or lieutenant colonels, including at least one pilot.
The board reviews the applicant's officer evaluations, flight records and other relevant information, Bazan said.
Two boards have met already and considered 16 applications, Bazan said. The Air Force made offers to all 16 applicants and 12 accepted. No dates have been set for when the officers will report for duty.
As the selection process gets up to speed, a board will meet weekly to consider 17 to 20 applications. Right now, it takes three to four months to process an application. The Air Force wants to trim the time to 65 to 90 days.
Officers who take flying positions get three-year contracts plus time for aircraft training, with the option to extend to four years if commanders agree.
Officers offered staff positions must commit to two years with the possibility of adding another two years with commanders' approval.
During the contract, returned officers can be deployed, like the other active-duty airmen they serve with.
At the end of the contract, the rated officer is free to return to civilian life.
The officers are paid based on their rank and years of service. For example, a lieutenant colonel who retired at 20 years will start with the pay of a lieutenant colonel at 21 years. They are not eligible for the aviator continuation bonus but can receive flight pay.
Retired officers won't get retirement pay while back on active status. However, their new active years of service will be used to recalculate and increase their retirement pay once they return to civilian life. They can't compete for promotion, though.
Officers on reserve status will get retirement credit for the time they serve. They can compete for promotion as Reserve or Guard officers.