The Air Force is considering offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to pilots who agree to stay on for 13 more years, in what would be a major change to its Aviator Retention Pay program.
Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force's personnel chief, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel Wednesday that the Air Force is also considering offering pilots contract extensions — with lucrative bonuses attached — for one year or two years, in addition to the five- and nine-year extensions that are typically offered.
Last year, Congress authorized the Air Force to pay pilots as much as $35,000 per year to stay on, up from the previous cap of $25,000. This means that if the Air Force moves ahead with a 13-year contract extension and offers the full $35,000 annual bonus, pilots could net as much as $455,000.
The Air Force has grown increasingly alarmed over the last year about an exodus of fighter pilots, especially as the commercial airline industry embarks on a massive hiring wave driven by its own mandatory retirements. Grosso said that the Air Force isn't having a problem recruiting new pilots, but the service is struggling to compete with the lucrative job offers presented by airliners.
And fixing the pilot shortage will prove costly. Grosso said that at the end of fiscal 2016, the entire Air Force — active, Guard and Reserve — was short 1,555 pilots, including a shortfall of 1,211 fighter pilots. Since it costs the Air Force about $11 million for a pilot's year-long training to fly a modern fifth-generation fighter jet, Grosso said the fighter pilot shortfall amounts to at least a $12 billion capital loss for the Air Force.
In a follow-up email Thursday, the Air Force said it will offer different bonuses and contract lengths based on the kind of airframe pilots fly, as well as how big of a manning challenge each airframe is facing. For example, the Air Force is considering current and projected manning and retention levels for those airframes, the costs of training new pilots to replace those who leave, and how long it takes to train replacement pilots.
But the airlines' "help wanted" signs aren't the only reason Air Force pilots are leaving the service. High operations tempos for the last 26 years are also wearing out pilots and contributing to their exodus, Grosso said. And a 2015 exit survey showed pilots are fed up with cultural problems, such as too many duties unrelated to flying — or "queep" in Air Force parlance — and work-life balance problems.
Grosso said the Air Force is trying to tackle those cultural issues. The Air Force has reduced some of those additional duties and non-mission essential training, and outsourced some routine administrative jobs in squadrons to get pilots in the cockpit more, she said.
That is one reason the Air Force is considering offering one- and two-year commitments — to convince airmen to give the service a little more time to fix those cultural problems.
"Those things take time, and we have to build trust with our airmen ... after significant long periods of conflict where we took our eye off the ball a little bit," Grosso said. "One of [Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein's] primary goals is to revitalize the squadron. We think that's getting traction, but that will take time. If they're going to give us a year ... and see if we really mean what we say with some of these quality of life and quality of service [reforms], that gives them a chance to relook, and in another year, say, 'Are we doing better, is my family in a good place, did you do what you said you were going to do, Air Force?'"
The Air Force is also planning to max out its undergraduate pilot training classes to produce 1,400 new pilots a year. Increasing pilot production further will require more staff, facilities, operations, and maintenance resources, she said.
And Grosso said the Air Force is considering offering incentives to get airmen to accept assignments that are so hard to fill, many airmen would rather quit than take the job.
The Air Force said in the email that one possible non-monetary incentive being considered is to allow airmen their choice of assignments after they accept and complete those hard-to-fill assignments. The Air Force is also thinking about monetary incentives.
Stephen Losey covers Air Force leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times.