Military Pilot Retention Too Low

Not enough pilots are staying in the flying services past their initial certificates of indenture terms of obligated service. A phalanx of generals and admirals, led by the USAF’s Vice Chief of Staff Steve Wilson (right), made the terrestrial trek from the Pentagon to Congress to tell them that.

Gen. Steven Wilson, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, told congressional leaders, “We can recruit pilots without a problem. The problem is retaining them. For the last five years, retention of pilots has declined. We need to keep 65% of pilots past the 10-year point,” when pilots’ post-training contracts expire. Gen. Wilson continued, “Today, we’re doing less than half of that.”

OK, so about 70% of pilots are ejecting as soon as they can, instead of the 35% expected historically and in Air Force (etc) budgets. And budget was one issue: Wilson and the other generals think that they can, essentially, bribe these pilots into staying. They can even make the case that paying pilots more saves a fortune, compared to the cost of training a replacement:

Wilson reports that the Air Force and Navy train a combined 2,000 new pilots per year at an ultimate cost of $10 million for a seasoned fighter pilot. Retaining 400 more fighter pilots for an additional five-year commitment, by Gen. Wilson’s estimates, would save the Air Force approximately $2 billion.

But money is not why the pilots are leaving. Why are they leaving? Frankly, it sounds like a leadership problem: too little flying, which has been declining, versus too much deployment away from home to do all that not-flying, which hasn’t let up at all.

Service leaders described the push of too little flying, together with long deployments, and the pull of comparatively lucrative airline pay that is drawing pilots out of the armed forces. Gen. Wilson says flying is why people join the Air Force and “today’s fighter pilots are flying 140 to 150 hours a year—that’s significantly down from before.”

Hey, we can remember when we considered it a confidence builder that near-peer adversaries provided their pilots with 2-8 hours training a month, while our guys got 20-25. Looks like flight hours have been halved, even when a pilot spends most of a year away from home in a deployment year, and a third of a year away from home anyway on a year that doesn’t contain a deployment to some global sphincter.

On the other hand, the tanker guys tell us that they have all the hours that they can handle, precision flying to support all those deployments, and often from deployed bases that aren’t on any tourist’s itinerary.

Pilots averaged 260 days away from home per year during deployment and 110 days away from home on temporary duty when not deployed overseas.

One of the problems with all the “sickeners” piled on pilot life in lieu of flying is that, while the Air Force (Navy, etc.) recruits young single pilots, at that ten-year point it has to retain families. You’ve made the pilot’s life miserable as a trade-off for a declining quantity and quality of flight time, and you’ve made his or her family’s life miserable, and they get nothing out of the flight time directly. So after that ten-year point you have pilots leaving, and freshly-divorced pilots remaining.

Wilson says that when pilots reach the 11-year mark, families ask whether it makes sense to “keep doing this when the airlines are hiring, paying a lot of money, and providing better stability.” Service leaders estimate the major airlines are hiring 4,000 pilots each year to meet the combined needs of industry growth and pilot retirements.

via Military Leaders Testify On Pilot Shortage – AVweb flash Article.

So that brings us to General Wilson’s argument for more money: maybe we can apply enough money to dull the attractiveness of the airline route, kind of Novocain for all the pain we’re making these pilots and their families suffer.

There’s a problem with that, and that’s this: anyone who’s considered an airline job for more than five minutes has discovered that airline hiring is highly cyclical, and the vast majority of airline personnel are ruled by one or another 20th Century, adversarial union, that mandates all personnel actions happen in strict seniority list order. In a hiring year, your speed of getting into the queue can make a difference of 100 or 200 seniority numbers — which can make a difference between employed or unemployed, next recession. Game-theorize this, and the guy (or gal) who goes airline early wins every time: the chance to go airline in 2023 is not worth the same as the chance in 2017, it’s worth hundreds (or thousands in really big and merged lines) of seniority numbers less.

One safety valve that the services have long had is the flying reserves, where in theory a pilot could keep flying Eagles or Warthogs while pursuing his or her airline career. (This is a win-win for both, as the airline and service flying cultures both benefit by cross-pollination). But that has lost a lot of its appeal as repeated long deployments in a period of endless war has made it almost as unpleasant as full-time service, from the family point of view.

We suggest that there has been another reason for the decline in pilot retention, and that is those ongoing wars, and, especially, the perception, true or not, that in those wars a combat pilot risks his neck for unclear American goals, and especially that the people who send him into harm’s way don’t care enough to pull him out if he gets in a jam. His squadronmates will circle over him; any ground forces in the area will try to come for him; the theater Special Operations Command has a plan, although often only token resources, to come and rescue him. But nobody in Washington, whether wearing suits or I-was-in-high-places medals, will do anything but give a self-promoting speech about him.

If the war we were engaged in was World War II, there would be no question of retention (even absent Roosevelt’s order freezing enlistments). In places like Libya or Syria, our pilots risk their lives to bomb one group of black-flag throat cutters on the behalf of another band of black-flaggers. And the leadership treats giving them half the training hours that were thought necessary when those leaders were junior officers as if it were doing its crews a big favor.

38 thoughts on “Military Pilot Retention Too Low

  1. PBAR

    Another reason is the administrative burden has gotten much, much worse in a flying squadron. Most of the support that used to exist in a squadron disappeared and so burdens such as approving travel orders, filing travel vouchers, etc. fall on the individual. I personally find it a waste of money for me to spend 20 minutes every day in Defense Travel System approving orders and vouchers. So the taxpayers are paying a Lt Col (O-5) to do what a senior airman (E-4) used to do.

    Add to that the explosion of ancillary training such as Law of Armed Conflict, Cyber Security, Human Trafficking, etc. that takes hours. There have been efforts to pare all that back but every empire in the AF pushes it’s own computer based training course as priority #1 and despite occasionally pruning, the requirements grow back like bad weeds.

    Of course, the BS deployments are what are driving this. I deployed to Jordan/Bahrain last year and met dozens of people there who had only a few hours a week to do (myself included) and most of that could have been done at home station and emailed forward. The Combatant Commands, once they get their hands on forces, refuse to give them up no way no how. For fighter squadrons in particular, not only are they deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan where they at least get to kill bad guys, but there are also what’s called Theater Security Packages that deploy to Japan, Korea, eastern Europe, etc. as deterrent forces. TSPs in particular are causing lots of Guard/Reserve pilots to flee. We should tell our “allies” they need to make up the shortfall and eliminate all of those TSPs. And while we’re at it, kill the Guam bomber deployments; enormously expensive and since bombers are intercontinental, they can get to theater in less that a day if needed. That’s just the PACOM commander refusing to give up his toys.

    Lastly, as you said, the lack of flying is driving people away. Simulators have made up for some of that but the fact that we are flying less than half the hours in fighter squadrons than we did during the Carter years is telling.

    1. Bloke_from_ohio

      AFCENT is being retarded again about this stuff. I just got back from a stint at an Army HQ as an individual augmentee. After a short period of leaving such decisions up the group and wing commanders, somebody in AFCENT decided to stop letting Airmen take leave or passes if they were serving less than 12 month tours. The reason for the shift back to the silly policy was optics. We were told point blank that airmen could not be allowed to take leave because it would look like we were underutilizing our people. Hurry up men look busy! I am all for mission driving these decisions, but being told it would look bad was the dumbest thing I heard in a long time.

  2. Steve

    Perhaps the USAF should consider the Army’s pilot manpower model, leaving ‘career’ flying to Warrant Officers that are truly experts in their field, and rotate officers through pilot positions and command/staff positions so that the officers understand the flying requirements enough to ensure policies, directives and resources support the overall mission as they rise into senior Service, Joint Staff and OSD positions.

    1. rotorhd

      Having experience in Army Avn, USAF and the airlines, I am not a fan of the Warrant Officer program. Some of my best friends are Warrants too. I think of it as out sourcing your pilots because your Aviation career track sucks.

      The USAF hates the Warrant Officer program and I doubt that they will ever go back to having Warrants. Maybe Sargeants flying UAVs, I’m sorry RPAs, but not not Warrants flying real manned aircraft.

      Most Army Commissioned Aviation Branch officers are inexperienced flightless birds. Many do NOT have the necessary flight or combat flight experience to be Aviation Company or Battalion commanders. I’ve observed newly Commisioned Officers finish flight school, serve 6 months in the flight platoon and then get shipped off to BN-BDE non-flying staff most likely doing “Battle Captain” 12 hrs a day, 7 days a week. Just like elsewhere in the DoD careerism track, many of these guys are PowerPoint wizards and ticket punchers, not aviators.

      In the USAF, pilots incur a 10 year commitment upon attaining your pilot wings. This is after 1-1.5 years of pilot training. In the Desert Storm era, the pilot commitment was only 4, then 6 years. At this point in life, many pilots have a family with young kids and many decide to eject. Many I talk to cite useless exercises/deployments, idiotic DoD-USAF bureaucracy, silly careerism requirements, out of touch PME schools, Master’s degree haze, Tranny/Gay/Multi-Cultural nonsense from Carter/James/Mabus/Fanning, poor leadership at many levels with a mix of Sqn-Group-Wing office politics, old mx heavy aircraft, reduced flying hour programs and finally many have personal observations of “good people” getting “shat on” a regular basis. So, many have 12 years of active duty and say “f$@% it, I’m out” and forgo a full retirement because of burn out.

      I think we need to look at all the DoD career tracks. Not everybody wants to be a 4 star general and putting everybody on the “up or out” lightening fast track makes no sense. There is the never ending shuffle to ticket punching jobs where nobody becomes really good at their job. Oh God, you missed the wicket or hoop at this level prior to your promotion board. You’re “f€%#£d!” I’ve observed sharp folks race through O-1 thru O-5/O-6 and then miss O-6/O-7. These were excellent expert leaders who could have done good elsewhere in DoD. Now they retired at 20 years and then frustratingly started over in the GS system as a gov worker or as a gov contractor in the many bowls of the gov’t bureaucracy.

      1. TF-BA

        Oh Noes Rotorhd! 0-6’s forced into great jobs stuck giving us the F-35! The shame!

        You are owning it otherwise. Eliminate the poor zero’s who get treated so very very badly bullshit and you win the internet for today. Oh and mile-a-way push button killers are always an ultra select group where “there can be only us” till you start taking casualties like the guys you support. Then shit gets much more egalitarian. Chicks do your job.

    2. Bloke_from_ohio

      The USAF culture is different than the Army’s. Pilots, navigators, ABMs, and other rated type folks are not platoon leaders or company commanders as CGOs. They are crewmen of whatever weapon system they are assigned to. They are supposed to be the technical experts. Support officers are more like Army officers than they are like the rated guys who usually lead them at the wing and higher level.

      Leadership comes later in a typical bag wearing USAF officer’s career than in the Army. A pilot might lead their peers in formations or serve as aircraft commander in multi seat airframes. But, they are not focussed on the same things as their Army or even non-rated USAF brothers wearing the same rank.

  3. Seans

    The problem is the same as the SOF community has. Its hard to retain people who can make better money outside, especially with families. When you aren’t either fighting or flying. Ask any fighter pilot if he rather be behind the stick of a fighter or a passenger jet, and spending his off time drinking with fellow fighter pilots are just spending time with the airlines. It’s going to be obvious. Same as the SOF community. Guys want to fight or fly. Its never been about money. It’s about the job and guys you work with. But when the job disappears, and try guys who are advancing care more about being politically correct. They don’t want to deal with administrative crap. The guys who are their to be pipehitters are going to bounce.

  4. emdfl

    Way back when(late ’60’s) I was a lowly E-4 ,zoomie in a critical field(VRB was X6 IIRC) I was asked by the SCMS why I was getting out and I told him it was because I had met too many assholes in positions of authority. Sounds pretty much like not much has changed.

  5. Jeremiah Weed

    In my opinion, it’s not the money. Wilson is on the trail when he points out that the USAF has no problem recruiting pilots. Then he gets lost in the time-honored paradigm of thinking you can solve all problems with money and/or technology.

    The USAF recruits really smart people who want to make a difference. They generally have inquisitive minds and are type-A personalities who seek challenges and love to solve problems. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that they have joined a risk-averse bureaucracy whose only concern is continued self-existence ran mostly by men and women whose only concern is the next promotion. True innovation is discouraged because it threatens the status quo.

    Men like Billy Mitchell, Curtis LeMay, Robin Olds, and John Boyd could not survive in today’s AF. It speaks volumes that the USMC considers Boyd a tactical genius, yet nobody in the AF has heard of him outside of the Weapons School.

    To retain personnel, the Air Force should try embracing those ideas and ideals that made people want to join in the first place.

        1. Hognose Post author

          Banned? Amazing (I just spent two hours immersing myself in the Dos Gringos’ back catalog).
          Patton: “A soldier who won’t **** won’t fight.”
          USAF: “We not only want guys who won’t ****, we want guys who won’t SAY ****.”

    1. Jrggrop

      Billy Mitchell couldn’t survive in the Air Corps during the 1930s, so I’m not sure that’s a good example.

      1. Jeremiah Weed

        Actually, it was the Air Corps (read “Army”) of the 1920s, as he was court-martialed in ’25. The AF considers him a pioneer and a legend, probably because it gave them their own bureaucracy.

  6. Trigger

    Add the Political Correctness movement to the list of why fighter pilots are leaving. Young pilots work hard to be the best, and along the way build the esprit de corps that makes fighting units so effective. The PC movement opposes this, and works to ban humor, morale, squadron heritage, traditions, bawdy songs,etc… The PC movement sucked the fun out of being a fighter pilot. Flying hours were halved, ancillary duties doubled, TDYs increased yet TDY pay/per diem fell. Deployments became less enjoyable, with squadron reindeer games highly discouraged, cross-country flying for proficiency disappeared. After enough of these events wear down the pilots enthusiasm, they look for greener pastures.

    1. Elaine

      Well, I have to put in my two cents worth. I agree with Trigger and Therapist and rotorhd. I think a lot of the PC and diversity crap being force fed to pilots doesn’t help. My son recently returned from deployment (helicopter pilot) and had to bunk with fifteen other people. He flew mostly night missions, trying to sleep in the daytime not easy with that many other people around. Buuuttt…..some of the female officers with lower rank than him had special accommodations. If women are ‘equal’ to men, then they should’ve had to suck it up and bunk wherever—no special privileges just because you are a woman.

      He said some of the PC classes he had to go through were laughable, especially the ‘gender’ ones. Luckily, he is good at letting a lot of BS go through one ear and out the other.

      He actually is getting to fly a lot —I know it’s helicopters and not jets, but is putting in long hours with continued training. Their squadron is very close and mostly single guys, so deployment not much of an issue at this point. I know deployment is rough on families in the military, but aren’t they prepared for that when they join?

      I agree with your last paragraph too Hognose. Go in do the job, be through with it, come home. This continued ‘war’ is ridiculous.

      I will also say, I have no business posting comments on here. I feel like I am invading ‘real men’ territory and women should stay away. And of course I am ignorant on so many of the topics—even this. I sure do enjoy coming to this blog and reading the articles and comments.

      1. DominicJ

        “. I know deployment is rough on families in the military, but aren’t they prepared for that when they join?”

        Yes and no.

        Young single men join and dont really care where they are based.
        They then get married, and deployments become problematic.
        They then have kids, and they become doubly so.

        None of those are deal breakers, if the “job” is worthwhile.
        But if 20 pilots are deployed, to “deter Russia”, equipped with 12 planes, only 4 of which are flyable, and one of those doesnt have a working radar, its hard to kid yourself that it is worthwhile. So you quit.

      2. W. Fleetwood

        Elaine. “No business posting.”? On the contrary, please continue to read and post. It is always interesting and on occasion illuminating to see a problem from new eyes.

        After all, it wasn’t the “real” tailors or the master seamstresses who caught that Clothes / Emperor thing was it?

        Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

      3. Alan Ward

        Speaking for myself, but I suspect many other commenters, you and your input are more than welcome.
        If the regulars can put up with me and some of the others, you also have something of value to add.

  7. Greg

    The irony is airlines, general speaking, prefer tanker and other “big” airplane folks to fast mover types. Not many of the former mil people I fly with were fighter jocks. Course, as does any pilot who came up the ladder via the civilian route, I still envy their experience.

  8. Seacoaster

    This is only going to get worse when we switch to the defined contribution (TSP IRA) pension plan next year. Guys won’t be handcuffed by all or nothing 20-year retirement, and will vote with their feet even more than they are already doing.

  9. Squid

    Hey, this is me! I got out at fourteen years, took a big pay cut, and never flew again. Reason: bad Skipper, it only takes one.

    Those who are going to stay will stay, those who are leaving for family, promotion, or other reasons will go. Some of the leadership does recognize this. When we had a detailer meeting years ago our detailer got very frank with us and said “There’ a multitude of reasons for you to leave but most of them are beyond the ability of the system to change. Since you cannot change deployments or OPTEMPO do your buddy who is staying a favor and when that survey comes answer that the reason you are leaving is not enough pay. That is something they can change.”

  10. Aesop

    Throwing more money at them won’t turn them into happy LGBTEIEIO Diversity Bean warriors, or make them put up with the infantilizing of service pilots, or play You Bet Your Career when nasally disjointed Airperson Sugar Pants throws a rape or harassment crowbar into their career’s turbine blades.

    Maybe the invertebrates in the E-ring could be culled first, and then replaced by men with calcium-hardened spines in anatomically correct positions, allowing their head free range outside their sphincters, and they could start enforcing some by-God discipline in their footie-pajama-clad worlds, and then focus on training some life-taking heartbreaking warriors to put into those cockpits battlespace management offices, like we did since some bright lad realized machineguns on spotter planes was a winning concept.

    In the short term if we just cancelled the F-35 Thunderjug, the services would have the funds to buy enough spare parts to bring the other 85% of their fleets back to “able to take off without an assistive tornado” category, plus buy enough aviation fuel to get them in-flight training hours that would surpass their monthly EEOC and Sexual Harassment Mandatory Reporting totals.

    And while you’re up, I’d also like a pony, and the home phone number of the Playmate of the Month.

    What they’ll probably do instead is get rid of live operators in the airframe at all, except when they’re the supercargo load, and we’ll see pilots being regarding as the trailer-fighting data-linked no-load geeks 8000 miles in the rear they’re all destined to become, within a generation.

    1. Boat Guy

      You called it Aesop; your crystal ball is in calibration. You’re also spot-on about the odds of such things happening.
      I still hold out hope that Mattis actually will cull the E-Ring herd, but I don’t see the -35 going away.

    2. jim h

      I love reading rants like yours and kirk’s. this is one of my favorites, and spot on. might wanna cc that one to whoever is currently screwing over rotor wing aviators in our side of the house too. well written, cheers!

      1. Aesop

        I’m pretty sure someone over where it counts is reading my stuff, and the other million tea leaves.
        I called the Mattis pick, but got shut out on the others.

  11. Badger

    Not much to add to Aesop’s take. I’d like once again to regularly hear the sound of an outbound fast-mover on burner knowing his buddy is rolling in from the inverted with his business-end pointed right at the Chief of Staff’s office as he crosses into the impact area, as a 3rd safety guy makes racetracks from above.

    Leadership change; and hand out a bunch of Washita & Arkansas stones so they can get to work.
    Happy Curmudgeon Day :)

  12. Bloke_from_ohio

    For immediate disemimination to all schools of strategy and policy

    0) Have a damn good reason to start a fight
    Prosecute that fight with vigor until you win. Then go the fuck home!

    1) Humanitarian “interventions” are just foolish wars you don’t know you have lost yet. They don’t qualify as good reasons under rule 0.

    2) Nation building is dumb. Don’t do it. I don’t care how much money the contractors will make, don’t do it.

    3) Regime change is stupid and alway makes things worse. See rule 0.

    4) Earnestly uttering the words “the enemy ofy enemy isy friend” or something similar during military planning is grounds for cashiering. Argument on this point is punishable by being slapped with a fish.

    1. Bloke_from_ohio

      Part four should say “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” autocorrect is weird today.

  13. Tennessee Budd

    Elaine, I’ll agree with others–your viewpoint is quite welcome here, as are you. It isn’t my blog, but I’d be astounded if Hognose felt any differently (I’d be an astounded former reader, at that point).
    I can’t stand commenters who are stupid, rude, or both. Ignorance isn’t stupidity. You, and I as well, are ignorant of some aspects of what is discussed here. I’m here to learn, and contribute my mite when the subject touches on something I do know. it would appear your purpose is the same.
    Again, feel welcome anytime!

    1. Elaine

      I appreciate all the kind comments. I’ve been coming here for quite a while, would always tell my husband, you need to read this or this. Well he worked, so he didn’t have all the time I do to waste. (But, it’s not wasting time on WM, is it?) I will tell you guys (and women), not for sympathy or pity. My husband died April 2016 (31 years married), it was/is devastating.

      He was a wonderful father/husband/provider. He was a Mechanical Engineer, born with grease under his fingernails. He could fix or do anything, electrical, plumbing, carpentry, mechanical. If he couldn’t fix it, it didn’t need fixing. Not a saint, just an all around good guy (like all of you).

      He did have one fault. There was another woman in his life, he called her ‘Baby’, his Kubota tractor. Oh, he loved driving her and working around here with her. She’s sitting out in the shed, missing him too.

      Thanks again all of you guys and thank you Hognose for a great blog. Keep all of the great articles coming. I love your spin on words.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Elaine, every reader and commenter is not only welcomed, but treasured. (Well, there’s one intermittently-banned exception, but it’s not you!)

        I am sure I speak for the community as a whole when I offer my condolences on your loss. I suspect we, too, would have liked your husband very much.

  14. Elaine

    Thanks you guys. One more thing about him and then I’ll be through. He was the Treaty Compliance Coordinator for destroying the chemical weapons in Anniston. When he interviewed for the job, they asked him if it bothered him working at a place with chemical weapons, he just grinned and told them he probably worked around more dangerous chemicals at the steel plant. They finished that job and he ended up doing the same thing at Bluegrass a couple of years ago.

    Years ago, him and my brother would laugh at the government people, moaning and groaning about how bad it was and they couldn’t wait to retire. Mike and my brother always worked in the private industry (except for a while with the FAA) and they had been through the fire—downturns, maintenance, etc.

    Anyway, don’t know if any of you have ever heard of The Knack (Dilbert), Mike’s favorite.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZKkYdelD2o

    Hopefully, that’s the right one, if not go to Youtube—hilarious—engineer humor.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Anniston, eh? We occasionally had to go there in my 20th Group days. They called a visit from C 1/20 (the unit in Springfield, MA, made up mostly of guys from NY and New England) a Yankee Invasion, and we called it Deployment to AnniSTAN.

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