Air Mobility Command wants to put airmen at the forefront of addressing the Air Force's aviation retention issue.

In mid-April, AMC commander Gen. Carlton Everhart reached out to airmen via Facebook and email to solicit ideas on how the Air Force can better retain talent. In just over a month, Everhart received more than 600 responses relating to issues pilots face and what the service can do to help, Everhart told Air Force Times during a May 25 interview. 

After receiving the comments, Everhart stood up the AMC Aviation Retention Task Force, led by Brig. Gen. Samuel Mahaney, the deputy director of operations for AMC at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

"Mahaney and his folks have those [responses] and are working on getting me some quick wins around the end of June that we can do internally," Everhart said. In the long term, he said, AMC can work with Headquarters Air Force to bring the ideas service-wide.

Mahaney said the 12-person task force read through the responses and started brainstorming solutions that will be presented to Everhart around the end of June or beginning of July.

The Air Force is facing both a fighter pilot and mobility pilot shortage.

Photo Credit: Senior Airman Christian Sullivan/Air Force

The Air Force is facing a pilot shortfall in both the fighter and mobility communities, which comes at a particularly bad time for AMC as it is already running hard worldwide.

Nearly every three minutes, one of its planes takes off somewhere around the world to refuel aircraft, move personnel or supplies, conduct medical evacuations or other missions. And nine out of 10 refueling tanker missions flown as part of the war against the Islamic State involves AMC aircraft — more than 33,000 sorties in 2016.

Air Mobility Command is short approximately 315 pilots out of 7,940 total force pilots — roughly a 4 percent shortfall overall between active duty, the National Guard and Air Force Reserve. And over the next four years, Everhart said approximately 1,600 pilots will become eligible to separate from the service.

Quality of life

Some of the problem areas the task force identified based on airmen's input include the assignment process, quality of life, culture, operations tempo and development of airmen.

For example, when it comes to quality of life, airmen want the Air Force to protect their time before and after a deployment. While getting ready to deploy, airmen need time to make sure everything is in order. After they return from deployment, they want to focus on their families, Mahaney said.

"Protecting that time frame from other requirements [or additional duties] is one of the suggestions we've gotten," he said.

Acknowledgement of employed spouses is another concern, and airmen want that taken into account during the assignment process.

"They want to ensure [their spouses] have the opportunity to excel in their careers as well," Mahaney said, adding that considering the needs of school-age children is also a priority.

Everhart said one suggestion he thinks can be taken up to the Air Force level is the length of deployments.

"Why do we have to go and deploy a mobility type of pilot into a generalist area that they really don't need to go into," he said. "We can look across the entire population and go, 'Maybe it doesn't have to be a pilot.' It can be someone else to fit that."

One of the driving factors of the task force and soliciting input from airmen is to build trust, Everhart said.

"We've heard you," he said. "We're listening to you. I think it's there, but I just want to make sure that we have a good, solid foundation of trust."

Everhart said it's a combination of understanding the needs of the nation, the military and airmen, and then finding a good middle ground.

"We want the airmen's input to be in the lead here," Mahaney said. "They're the folks who are experiencing this day in and day out."

Everhart wants to take a hard look at Air Force policies and practices to see what makes sense and where change and flexibility are required.

"We need to demonstrate to airmen they are valued, heard, and, wherever possible, enhance quality of service and quality of life for our airmen and their families," he said. "Their voice in this process is critical."

Working with airlines

Along with the task force, Air Mobility is also working with the airline industry to address the national pilot shortage in a way that benefits both parties.

On May 18, Air Force leaders met with airline industry officials to collaborate on how to address the national pilot shortage.

AMC and the Air Force want to tackle the pilot shortage alongside the airlines, which are boosting their efforts to recruit military pilots.

Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein hosted the meeting, which included senior officials from the active duty, Guard and Reserve components of the Air Force, as well as aviation leaders from the Army and Marine Corps. On the civilian side, senior officials from all of the major airlines, representatives from regional airlines, Rand Corp., the University of North Dakota, the National Air Carrier Association, Airlines for America, Civil Air Patrol, and the Regional Airline Association attended the meeting in Alexandria, Virginia.

Everhart said those representatives shared what they perceived was happening with the shortages.

"Not only with pilots but also with industry itself as far as mechanics, maintainers and things like that," he told Air Force Times.

The Air Force has a huge requirement to retain pilots, Everhart said, and the airlines have a huge requirement to hire them, so both parties are working toward solutions that complement — instead of hinder — one another.

The airlines are hoping to hire, at minimum, somewhere around 3,500 pilots, he said.

"Depending on who you talk to, it can really go a whole lot higher than that per year on who they want to hire," Everhart said.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein discusses the national pilot shortage with airline executives at the National Pilot Sourcing Meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 18. The meeting was to discuss opportunities to improve collaboration between airlines and the military to ensure high-quality pilots for the need of the nation.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Jannelle McRae/Air Force

The group hashed out five working areas during the five-hour meeting that address some of the issues going on with the shortage:

1. Increase the luster in aviation, including coming up with ways to make going into the aviation industry a desired opportunity for the nation. 

"We are working hard to find ways to start conversations and develop a curiosity and passion for aviation that will span future generations," Everhart said. "There is a need to re-energize a nationwide interest in flying as an occupation. Partnering with Civil Air Patrol, ROTC and across industry is critically important. Getting people enthusiastic about aviation and into the air needs to be a collective nation-wide campaign."

2. Investigate ways to reduce the cost of getting civilian aviation certifications, for example by using the GI Bill or debt relief.

"We want to make it where if you want to go and get an academic scholarship to, say, aviation, you can actually go do that," Everhart said. "Right now, it's kind of can you or can you not. There's some questions about that."

3. Understand mission analysis or data analysis.

"What is our capacity to produce pilots?" Everhart said. "When I say our capacity, I'm talking about the civilian world and military world. What is the exact requirement?"

Different pieces of data say more or fewer pilots are required, he said, so there needs to be a good baseline.

4. Look at alternate pathways to receive pilot wings.

The military has a set standard of how to accomplish that, but can there be alternatives as far as accelerating those timelines, he said. One idea is to create a national aviation academy.

5. Share resources across all facets of aviation business.

Perhaps airmen can join the Guard or Reserve, then switch to the commercial world, and after a few years they come back and serve in the Guard or Reserve for another three or four years.

"We are working now to get people who are going to lead these working groups, and then we'll have follow-up meetings, he said.

Everhart said the exact frequency hasn't been set, but at a minimum the meetings would be twice a year.

There's no end date to addressing the national pilot shortage, he said, because "it's not a temporary challenge — it's an enduring one."

"We saw it in the '70s, '90s, 2000s, and we're seeing it now," he said. "We have to constantly think about this."


Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at cpanzino@militarytimes.com.