The dwindling number of squadrons in the Air Force is hampering its ability to get its new fighter pilots enough experience to reach their full potential, the head of Air Combat Command said Monday.
Once the pilots have graduated pilot training, it usually takes about three years to properly season them, Gen. Mike Holmes said during a talk at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Each squadron typically produces about four to six experienced fighter pilots each year.
As the Air Force has shrunk ― from 134 fighter squadrons during the Gulf War to 55 now, only 32 of which are active duty ― the service’s ability to produce experienced 11F fighter pilots has become severely constrained.
“I don’t want to just throw people through” pilot training, he said. “I need to make sure our goal is to produce experienced 11Fs, and not just guys that are flying fighters.”
But the Air Force is speeding up the process as quickly as it can, Holmes added.
“We’re gonna go right up against what we think are the limits for experience ratios for squadrons and move some experienced guys on and bring in inexperienced guys,” he said.
The active-duty Air Force will be working with Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units to look for more opportunities for pilots to get flying hours, Holmes said. Some active-duty lieutenants fresh out of pilot training will go to Guard or Reserve fighter squadrons ― which are also struggling to find enough pilots to fill cockpits ― if active-duty squadrons lack capacity to adequately train them.
The Air Force is also planning to move some of its lieutenants to Navy and Marine Corps squadrons ― which Holmes acknowledged have also been struggling with pilot production limitations ― to fly Navy EA-18 Growlers and Marine F-35s.
We’re going to look at every option that we have to take young people out of pilot training and push them out and get them experience,” Holmes said.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is wrapping up a study examining the ideal training balance between simulation and real-world flying, he noted.
“What’s the optimum number of sorties and simulators a year for an F-22 pilot, for an F-15 pilot or for an HH-60 pilot?” Holmes said. “It’d be different for every air frame. What is the optimum number, what can we afford out of that number, and how should we build our flying-hour programs as we go forward?”
\The Air Force is struggling with an alarming pilot deficit, which has now grown to a shortfall of 2,000 pilots out of roughly a 20,000-pilot population. The shortage is most pressing in the fighter pilot community, which is lacking about 1,300 aviators.
The two major factors driving this shortage are the relentless operations tempo and the hiring boom now under way in the well-paid commercial airline industry, which is drawing military pilots away from the service.
“History says the single most relevant factor for pilot retention in the Air Force is how much the airlines are hiring,” Holmes said. “I can’t pay pilots enough to offset what the airlines are paying. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.”
Holmes said ACC, along with the rest of the Air Force, has tried to improve retention by significantly boosting bonuses, increasing the commander support staff, hiring contractors in squadrons to take bureaucratic work away from pilots, and by dramatically reducing the number of 365-day temporary duty tours for fighter pilots.
Holmes said ACC has eliminated all 365-day TDYs for fighter pilots, except for those assigned to train international partners, where building long-term relationships with students is important.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.