Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on Thursday refuted reports that the service’s pilots are only flying nine or 10 hours per month.
In fact, Wilson said at a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation, pilots overall flew about 17.6 hours per month in fiscal 2017. Fighter pilots flew roughly 16.4 hours monthly, and mobility pilots flew 17.3 hours, she said. Bomber pilots, who typically fly longer sorties, typically flew 19.7 hours per month.
In a Feb. 14 Senate Armed Services readiness subcommittee hearing, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said that Air Force pilots are getting about nine or ten hours of flying time per month ― less than the Marines’ reported 14 to 16 hours monthly.
Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Seve Wilson told Inhofe he thought the Air Force’s monthly flight hours were “a little bit more than that,” but did not say how much. He added that the Air Force hopes to increase flying hours by about an hour per month going forward.
At the discussion with Secretary Wilson, John Venable, a Heritage fellow and former F-16 pilot, said pilots used to require about three weekly flights, or 15 to 20 hours of flight time a month, just to stay sharp with their current skills. Learning new skills would require four weekly flights, he said.
Wilson said that the Air Force is looking for ways to increase flight hours even further.
She noted that even when air crews go abroad and fly combat missions, such as those against violent extremists such as the Islamic State, they’re not practicing skills that would be required for a high-end fight against an advanced adversary such as Russia.
Wilson said that the Air Force’s aircrew crisis task force, which is trying to find ways to solve the service’s pilot shortfall and exodus of experienced pilots, is looking for ways to solve that problem and allow pilots to train for more complex missions.
“One of the things we’ve been trying to do is, when they’re back here in the United States, try to free up the white space on their calendars, to be able to train in a more intense way,” Wilson said.
Wilson said Air Force officials recently considered how to free up more time for training at their Corona meeting at the end of February.
“It’s one thing to say we’ve got 17 hours of flying time, but if it’s not really intense training, where you come back and you go, ‘wow, I’ve really ratcheted up my game today,’ it’s still not enough,” Wilson said.
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.