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.
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.