After devoting eight years of his life to the Air Force, John Weigand was tired.
He loved flying F-15s and T-38 trainers, and he loved serving his country since joining the service in 1984. But the high operations tempo of the early '90s was starting to wear on him – not only deployments to help enforce the no-fly zone above Iraq, but also Red Flag training exercises, and TDY after TDY, which kept him away from his family.
So in 1992, when the Air Force offered then-Capt. Weigand a pilot retention bonus that would have incurred a seven-year service commitment – and in those days, turning the bonus down likely would have meant the end of his career – he decided it was time to trade in his Air Force blues for the uniform of a United Airlines pilot. Instead of being on call round-the-clock, and away from his family for months on end, Weigand settled into the comfortable life of knowing his flying schedule two weeks in advance and having long periods at home, not to mention a higher salary than the Air Force could ever offer.
"There was no comparison from a quality of life" standpoint," said Weigand, who is now also a United recruiter, trying to attract more pilots.
Weigand's story is common – and the Air Force is growing increasingly concerned that the lure of civilian airline jobs will become even stronger in the months and years ahead.
The Air Force is scrambling to head off what could be a major exodus of fighter pilots for the private sector, which would exacerbate an already-serious shortfall of fighter jocks. And if the Air Force can't hold on to its front-line pilots, that could have dangerous repercussions for the United States' ability to fight and win wars.
"Air superiority is not an American birthright," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at the State of the Air Force press conference Aug. 10. "It's actually something you have to fight for and maintain."
The "quiet crisis" of the fighter pilot shortage is the most serious manning shortfall the Air Force is currently facing, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said. It has grown from about 500 to 700 over the past year, James and Goldfein said in a July Defense One op-ed – representing roughly 21 percent shortfall. In an Aug. 23 interview at the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Scott Vander Hamm, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations at Air Force headquarters, said that if nothing is done to stop it, the shortage could swell to about 1,000 pilots by 2022.
Civilian airlines are hiring about 3,000 to 3,500 pilots annually, said Lt. Col. John Hale, commander of the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, in an Aug. 30 interview. The Air Force, which turns out between 1,000 and 1,200 pilots per year, is seen as an ideal place for airlines to recruit, he said.
"It's almost an unprecedented hiring boom with the airlines," Hale said. "There are very attractive civilian opportunities right now, which, it's difficult to argue, are luring away service members – especially pilots and fighter pilots."
The Air Force is pulling out all the stops to try to fix the problem. James is pushing Congress to double pilots' Aviator Retention Pay from the current $25,000 annual maximum to $48,000. This would be the first increase in 17 years – and it means that some pilots who sign up for the maximum nine-year commitment could net $432,000.
1st Lieutenant Drew Lyons, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot with the 492nd Fighter Squadron, and 1st Lieutenant J. Paul Reasner, a weapons systems officer, step to their aircraft for a sortie in support of exercise Red Flag 16-4 at Nellis Air Force Base. The operations tempo in the Air Force is wearing people out, service officials say.
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew/Air Force
As the retention bonus has stagnated since 1999, its effect has been dulled by inflation, James said. The effect is shown in alarmingly low "take rates" of pilots from all backgrounds who decide to accept the six-figure bonuses.
The problem is especially acute for fighter pilots – and growing worse. In fiscal 2013, 62 percent of the fighter pilots offered retention bonuses accepted, which was about 5 percent higher than the average number of bonuses accepted by fighter pilots over the previous five years. But by fiscal 2015, that rate had plunged to 47.8 percent, the Air Force said. And as of Aug. 1 – the latest information available – only 34.4 percent of fighter pilots had accepted the bonus. Since there were still two months left in the fiscal year, those numbers are incomplete and could rise – but there's not much time left.
In fact, take rates for all pilots are also pretty bad. The Air Force has an overall target of 65 percent, but only hit 55 percent last year, and had recorded 42.9 percent for the first 10 months of 2016. But fighter pilot rates are by far the lowest. Hale said the Air Force estimates that upping the pilot retention bonus could boost the take rate by roughly 10 percentage points.
PILOT TAKE RATES
The Air Force offers some pilots Aviator
Retention Pay of up to $225,000 if they
commit to serving up to nine years more,
but leaders are concerned that many
pilots are turning them down. The service
hopes 65 percent of pilots take the bonus,
but is often missing the mark -- and in the
case of crucial fighter pilots, falling far short.
Type of pilot 2015 2016
Bomber (11B) 57.1 38.5
C2ISR (11R) 55.3 53.7
Fighter (11F) 47.8 34.4
Mobility (11M) 55.7 42.2
Rescue (11H) 78.4 73.8
SOF (11S) 56.0 43.6
Unmanned (11U) 60.9 55.2
Overall take rate 55.0 42.9
The pilot shortfall is straining the Air Force in several places, James said. Pilots are already dealing with frequent deployments overseas that separate them from their families, she said, and when they return home, they often have to turn right around and head to another training exercise stateside – the same kind of operations tempo that convinced Weigand to leave more than two decades ago.
But James lauded short-staffed pilots for getting the job done under tough circumstances.
"It's the busiest Air Force that I have certainly ever seen in my 35 years of working on defense matters," James said. "But they are doing it."
Goldfein cited the recent two-week experience of the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath to illustrate the pressures wings are under these days. In the first week, Goldfein said, 48th Wing Commander Col. Evan Pettus deployed a squadron on short notice to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Within 24 hours of their arrival, that squadron was attacking the Islamic State militant group in northern Syria, he said. In the second week, Pettus deployed another squadron to attack a high-value target in Libya. And 24 hours after that Libya strike, a team arrived to give the wing a major nuclear surety inspection.
"That's the kind of op tempo that we're dealing with," Goldfein said. "Very often, to be able to get the level of readiness we need forward, to be able to engage where the combatant commanders need us the most and the quickest, we end up absorbing that risk [of lower staffing levels] in home station."
The Air Force not only needs to keep up its abilities to fight violent extremist groups such as ISIS, Goldfein said, but also needs to be ready to respond to other potential flare-ups with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Vander Hamm said the Air Force has frontloaded all of its pilots into operational combat squadrons, so they aren't undermanned. As a result, he said, other duties such as staff positions, training and testing end up bearing the brunt of those shortages. But if the Air Force doesn't pull itself out of this dive in pilot staffing, operational squadrons could eventually start falling short as well.
"It could translate to, we don't have enough, in about 18 months, to fully man those frontline operational squadrons," Vander Hamm said.
He worries that keeping operational squadrons at 100-percent manning while pilots are short-staffed is wearing out his fliers, but said that is the least-bad option available to the Air Force.
Maj. Thomas Hayes, a pilot with the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, walks onto the flight line at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, on Feb. 18.
Photo Credit: Joseph Eddins/Air Force
"They're tired," Vander Hamm said. "We have tired iron, we have tired people. But it's the right thing to do to man those units at 100 percent. If we manned them any less, it would only be worse."
The Air Force's steep reduction in fighter force structure has also contributed to the problem, Vander Hamm said. In the Desert Storm era, the Air Force had 134 frontline operational squadrons, but that's now down to 55 squadrons. Despite that reduction in capacity, the Air Force continues to see a great deal of demand for airpower.
Hale said the 77th is now fully manned, but when he came on about a year ago, the squadron was facing some shortages. He would not say how many fighter pilots there are at the 77th, or estimate how short the squadron was. But Air Combat Command responded quickly to address the pilot shortfall problem when it was brought to their attention, and got the 77th up to full strength. Prior that, however, the squadron's pilots had to make do.
"Anytime there's a shortfall, there are a couple of areas where individuals in the organization end up getting increased responsibilities," Hale said. "There's increased administration that the squadron members have to carry out. There's also increased flying, which is a double-edged sword. Increased flying is good because preparedness and readiness are high. However, there are other duties that my fighter pilots have to do that sometimes take a hit because of the increased load of flying."
James and Goldfein's recent moves to end some of those additional duties or reassign them to support staff are a positive change, Hale said.
"A lot of those duties that were burdening my pilots, especially when there may be a shortfall, are now being realigned, removed or put in a position where they do not fall on the actual fighter pilots," Hale said. "So we are freeing up additional duties to allow fighter pilots to fight and train. That would be a huge relief."
One such duty is unit deployment manager, the individual responsible for much of the paperwork and administration required to move the squadron to a temporary duty location or deployment theater, and keep records on each pilot in the squadron, Hale said. But now, the squadron's administrative section will do that job, and he hopes that before long, a civilian permanently assigned to the squadron will take over.
The population of pilots hardest-hit by airline recruitment is senior captains, who are about to become majors – those who are nearing the end of their service commitment and becoming eligible for the retention bonus.
When asked how the Air Force can halt the exodus of fighter pilots, Goldfein said leaders must focus on improving both their quality of service and quality of life.
"We've been through this before," Goldfein said. "Airlines have been in hiring mode before, and we've had to work our way through that."
But this time, Goldfein said, the Air Force has been in combat mode for roughly a quarter century. The higher operations tempos mean more time away from home, which is straining fighter pilots, and contributing to the crisis the service is facing. If the Air Force can beef up its bonuses and lessen some of the financial strain pilots may be feeling that could cause them to go elsewhere, Goldfein said, "our studies have shown that the force will respond."
But beyond money, the Air Force must also demonstrate that it cares for deploying pilots and their families, to ensure their quality of life doesn't suffer and cause them to lose their enthusiasm for the service, he said.
"The Air Force is a family, and we take care of each other," Goldfein said. "There's a culture in the Air Force such that, when an airman is deployed, we take care of that family. And that doesn't happen always in the private sector."
The Air Force also needs to give pilots some flexibility in their assignments to hold on to them, Vander Hamm said. And the Air Force must make sure
pilots have enough time home with their families by being smarter about how it schedules training exercises, so when airmen are not deployed, they're actually home.
To improve pilots' quality of service, Goldfein said, the Air Force needs to focus on keeping them in the air.
"The reality is, pilots who don't fly, maintainers who don't maintain, [air traffic] controllers who don't control, are not going to stay with the company, because we're not allowing them to be the very best they can be," Goldfein said.
It's not merely airline hiring causing the problem, James said. The Air Force needs to up its pilot production, and Air Force leaders are already working on it. The service will soon announce the standup of new F-16 training units, and expects to announce the locations of those units by December, she said.
The Air Force hopes to increase the number of pilots it produces each year from roughly 1,200 to about 1,400 to help replace those who leave, Hale said.
While the Air Force has been able to man graduate pilot training units – the ones that teach green pilots how to be fighter pilots – at 100 percent, it doesn't have enough fighter pilots to do undergraduate training, teaching new pilots the basics of flying in the T-6 and T-38 trainers, Vander Hamm said. As a result, the service has had to rely on other types of pilots, such as mobility and bomber pilots, to teach undergraduate pilot training.
But Weigand is confident the airlines will have a strong hand to play when trying to lure pilots – no matter what the Air Force does. United alone expects to hire several thousand new pilots over the next five years. Throw other major airlines such as American and Delta in the mix, each with their own hiring needs, and the pilot community is looking at a major seller's market.
"Military guys can do math," Weigand said. "The law of supply and demand will tell you that there's going to be a struggle here. $48,000 a year … will pale in comparison to what they could do if they came to the carriers, based on today's collective bargaining agreements."
Hale, however, disagrees.
"I have accepted the retention pay," he said, "and all things considered, especially when you factor in the services the Air Force provides my family, I think anyone could argue that I make just about as much as an airline pilot. However, I have the satisfaction of serving my country. The satisfaction of serving is something that you really can't get anywhere else."
According to pay charts provided by the aviation consulting firm KitDarby.com, pilots at Delta, American and United can earn over $200,000 after just a few years on the job. In the Air Force, when flight pay and basic allowance for housing are factored in, captains and majors with a decade of flying under their belts, earn salaries of roughly $100,000 to $120,000. A $25,000 annual retention bonus makes up a little of that pay gap, but a $48,000 bonus would go a lot further.
To no one's surprise, the military is seen by airlines as a very fertile ground for pilot recruitment.
"When we recruit pilots, we know that the military pilot offers a known quantity, a known background," Weigand said. "Military pilots are trained with rigor and discipline. Not that civilian folks are not, but the discipline and rigor that [military pilots] learn from the very start of their pilot training … is excellent. There are so many [civilian pilot training programs] that sometimes we don't know what we're getting."
An Air Force veteran with 1,000 flight hours in the cockpit of a fighter jet – who has dealt with the high stakes and immense pressure that come with military service – is seen as a much safer bet than someone who has 1,000 hours in less demanding circumstances.
Military pilots are also valued for their ability to learn and quickly adapt to changing circumstances, Weigand said, as well as for their leadership and communication abilities. The stellar reputation military pilots have means they can get their full air transport pilot license – which allows them to fly commercial airlines and which usually requires 1,500 flight hours – with just 1,000 flight hours. Military pilots could even get a restricted license with as few as 750 flight hours, although they wouldn't be able to fly internationally until they get more experience.
Not a few pilots try to get the best of both worlds. Hale said he's had several colleagues leave active duty for the airlines. But many of them opted to stay in the Guard or Reserve, so the Air Force isn't entirely losing their experience.
Life at an airline differs from being in an Air Force operational squadron in many ways, Weigand said. Today, when his on-call days are up, "you put your flying bag down and come home." he said. United pilots commonly have 14 or 15 days off a month – usually scattered throughout the month, although some do get their two weeks off all in a row. As pilots advance in their careers with airlines, they can bid for days off, bid for flying larger airplanes, which pays more, or perhaps select where they want to live.
Making the adjustment from flying a 68,000-pound F-15 to a roughly 175,000-pound Boeing 737 was somewhat tricky for him – but doable, Weigand said. He also had to adjust to the responsibility of safeguarding the lives of about 200 people aboard an airliner, as opposed to just himself and maybe one co-pilot in the F-15.
"Obviously, performance-wise, it's a completely different platform than the F-15," Weigand said. "My first six to eight months at the airline were a challenge, flying that big of an airplane compared to what I had been flying. It's not harder, it's just a different challenge."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.