Air Force facing growing crisis in pilot shortage

Published: Friday, November 24, 2017 @ 9:38 AM

Could dual-track pilot careers save Air Force pilots?

Faced with multiple deployments overseas and an airline industry on a hiring binge, fewer Air Force pilots are staying and have created a growing crisis for the nation’s air power.

The Air Force says it’s about 2,000 pilots short – out of a total force of about 23,000 — of the number it needs to carry out the United States security demands.

The service branch significantly pumped up aviation bonuses and promised pilots a reduction in administrative tasks not related to flying, but the numbers keep decreasing and have left Air Force leaders scrambling.

Commercial airlines, facing their own aviator shortages as aging pilots retire and the demand for air travel rises, have snatched some of the nation’s most seasoned military aviators into flying Boeing 767s instead of F-15s.

The “greatest problem” is within the ranks of fighter pilots — the Air Force says its short about 1,300 on active duty, in the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, said Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen.

The “greatest negative trends” between 2016 and 2017 surfaced in the bomber and mobility pilots ranks, she added. The Air Force did not immediately release shortfall numbers in those categories.

The shortage of pilots flying manned aircraft has reached about 1,800 while the remaining shortfall of 200 or so fly drones, according to Yepsen.

EXCLUSIVE: Top Air Force general says ‘all programs are at risk’

‘Burning out our people’

Kenneth E. Curell, 65, a former Air Force and Air National Guard fighter pilot who became an airline and corporate jet pilot, said he’s mentoring military aviators who face the dilemma of staying in or leaving.

“In my conversations with them, I ask what is the squadron environment and without fail their basic statement is everybody except a very few are considering walking out,” the Centerville resident and retired colonel said.

While Air Force pilot shortages have come and gone in cyclical waves, the impact is greater now because the force is smaller, Curell said.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson blamed one key reason for the growing loss of experienced airmen: “We’re burning out our people because we’re too small for what the nation is asking,” she told reporters this month.

RELATED: Air Force pilot shortage growing, top leaders say

An airline push to hire military pilots has impacted the only flying unit at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a commander says. The Air Force Reserve 445th Airlift Wing flies nine C-17 Globemaster III aircraft on troop and cargo missions around the globe.

The reserve unit has a shortfall of the full-time C-17 pilots it needs, according to Lt. Col. John F. Robinson, 445th Operations Group commander and a pilot. The wing, a mixture of full-time pilots — known as air reserve technicians — and traditional reservists, is authorized for 83 aviators, said spokeswoman Lt. Col. Cynthia Harris.

The unit is short 14 full-time pilots of the 36 authorized. On the reservist side, the wing has 55 part-time pilots, eight more than authorized, she said. Overall, it’s six pilots short of what’s allowed.

The shortage has had an impact on operations, Robinson said, adding fighter and tanker units were having a harder time filling cockpits.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing the Air Force to recall up to 1,000 retired pilots, but service branch officials said they did not intend to use the authority for now.

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However, the Air Force will allow up to 100 senior fighter pilots and weapon systems officers at 10 bases to stay at their current assignments three years longer than their initial tour of duty, Yepsen said.

The Air Force has targeted ramping up the production of pilots from 1,200 a year today to 1,400 by 2019, according to spokesman Capt. Kenneth Scholz.

“Our long-term fix for the pilot crisis is to grow our way out of this,” Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski, leader of the Aircrew Crisis Task Force, told reporters at the Pentagon last month. “And so, it’s going to take a while to get in place what we need to start producing more pilots.”

The one-star general called for more “stable and predictable budgets” to boost pilot production about 25 percent.

Top Pentagon leaders have pleaded with Congress to end sequestration – or a decade of mandatory spending caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011. Military and congressional leaders have blamed it for readiness woes, delays to launch aircraft programs, and contributed to an exodus of pilots leaving, among other fallout.

RELATED: House defense leader at Wright Patt, says Air Force pilot shortage growing

The pilot shortage has gained the attention of Congress.

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Air Force has been “hemorrhaging pilots.”

“This is an example where cutting the defense budget by 20 percent since 2010 has real consequences,” he said in an October visit to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, adding the service branch was short “thousands” of aircraft maintainers.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, blamed sequestration, “that’s pretty much cut a hole in our defense spending” that led to the manpower shortfall.

‘A tougher challenge’

Former Air Force pilots say too few aviators to fill cockpits is a cyclical problem they witnessed when they flew military jets decades ago.

“Unfortunately for the Air Force, they can’t, like the airlines, just go out and hire someone to come and be an F-35 pilot,” said William “Jay” Jabour, a prior Air Force fighter and test pilot and a retired vice commander of the former Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson.

“The Air Force really has a tougher challenge at bringing people in at what I call the mid-career levels whereas the airlines don’t have any challenge to do that,” the 66-year-old Beavercreek resident said. “…It’s just so much harder to bring people on because of the training requirements.”

It’s costly and takes time for the military to produce pilots. Becoming a jet pilot may take a minimum of two years for an aviator to earn his or her wings. Training a pilot to fly the latest generation F-35 stealth fighter costs taxpayers about $1.1 million, the Air Force said.

The military branch has offered bonuses of $28,000 to $35,000 a year that vary with each aviation community, capping the highest incentives to fighter pilots who can earn a $455,000 bonus if they stay another 13 years. 

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In some key jobs, prior incentives have not been enough. The “take rate” or the number of Air Force fighter pilots who took a signing bonus for at least a five-year extension dropped 4.9 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Overall, 34.6 percent of eligible fighter pilots took the incentive last fiscal year compared to 39.5 percent in 2016, data shows.

An exodus to the airlines

Many aviators complete their initial service requirements at or near the mid-point of their careers, a prime time for the airlines to hire them, experts said.

“There is currently a problem with retaining Air Force pilots after they have finished their active duty service requirement specifically because there has been a large increase in compensation offered at the major airlines over the past five years or so,” said Michael Mattock, a RAND Corp. senior economist who studied the issue and issued reports on findings.

Nationwide, the pilot shortage has hit the commercial world. A University of North Dakota study forecast major air carriers will need to hire more than 18,600 pilots by 2020 and within a decade the cumulative demand will be near 50,000 pilots, according to the Regional Airline Association.

In 2016, the major airlines and regional carriers who are members of the trade group Airlines for America employed roughly 88,000 pilots, according to the organization.

“Although our members are currently meeting their pilot hiring goals, most of their new hire pilots come from either the military or regional airlines, both of which are dealing with shortages of pilots,” Airlines for America spokesman Todd Burke said in an email.

Military aviators have become more prized because they’re likely to meet the standard of 1,500 hours in the cockpit to be hired as an airline co-pilot – a federal requirement that makes it difficult for civilian aviators to reach on their own.

Robinson said the C-17 pilots who stay at Wright-Patt have more control over their schedule than an airline pilot and aviators welcome the camaraderie that doesn’t exist at the airlines.

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‘A complex problem’

The Air Force faces a complex problem with pilot retention, Curell said.

The high tempo of deployments over more than 25 years has contributed to the exodus, he said. Air Force pilots live a round-the-clock lifestyle with long work days and administrative work unrelated to flying, he said.

“Most (airline) pilots are not expected to work 24-7 for their pay,” he said. “You fly the flights you are asked to fly and the time you have out of the cockpit is your time.”

“I think if you’re a family guy and you’re getting a lot of deployments, that might incentivize some folks to move out of the Air Force and into another flying job,” Jabour said.

Major airlines offer more pay in a shorter time than the military can match dollar for dollar, Curell said. And while the Defense Department has not lowered pilot selection requirements, fewer people qualify to meet the military’s rigorous standards, he said.

The Air Force career track for officers that takes aviators out of the cockpit for additional education and on to staff positions rather than flying was a key reason he said he left active duty.

He rose through the ranks as an enlisted aircraft maintainer and later as an administrative officer before he landed his first job in the cockpit.

He decided he wanted to keep flying. “I worked too doggone hard to get here,” he said.

By contrast, he noted, other countries have a dual-track system where an aviator can choose to remain flying or continue on a leadership track that would take them out of the cockpit and on to higher-ranking posts.

Once he left the Air Force, Curell did double duty flying jetliners for American Airlines and flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon in the Indiana Air National Guard.

But that, too, had challenges. He was away from home an average of 25 days out of the month meeting the demands of both jobs, he said.

“That’s 25 days out of your life and if you have family and children you get to the point where your kids are looking at you like, ‘Who are you again?’” he said.

It was difficult to meet the demands of a civilian employer, the Air Guard and family without upsetting one of them, he said, comparing it to balancing a three-legged stool with each leg a different length.

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Curell doubted the Air Force could grow its way out of the current dilemma soon.

“The Air Force will not ‘grow’ itself out of this downturn overnight and if that’s the cornerstone of their game plan, everyone needs to get comfortable hearing (Air Force) leadership bemoan their pilot shortage,” he said in an email. “They need to be acting differently than in the past, because they’re only doing now what they’ve done previously and that didn’t work in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ’90s.”

Navy and Marine Corps shortages

Like the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps boosted incentives to retain some experienced aviators.

The Navy is about 40 pilots short, with concern focused mostly on fighter and electronic warfare aviators, according to Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a Naval Air Forces spokesman in Coronado, Calif.

“We may be short only 40 pilots or so but the retention challenges we have is focusing us to be less selective and could be affecting the quality of our force,” he said.

The Navy has about 7,165 pilots who fly all types of aircraft and another 2,896 naval flight officers who are part of the flying air crew.

Flanders said it’s not just a compensation issue, but addressing readiness shortfalls to ensure pilots fly.

The House Armed Services Committee reported that senior military leaders testified 60 percent of the Navy’s F/A-18s cannot fly and the sea service is short more than 100 aircraft. The Budget Control Act imposed spending caps impacting training and maintenance, military leaders say.

“After years of continuing resolutions and in some cases sequestration, we have not had the funding for parts and flight hours that we need,” Flanders said.

Often, he said, parts are “cannibalized” off one aircraft to keep another in the fleet flying.

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Naval aviators who fly tactical jets, such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter and the E/A-18 Growler electronic warfare jet have had a reduction in flights hours per year — falling from an average of 250 hours in 2011 to about 190 in 2017, he said. An average for Air Force fighter pilots flying hours was not immediately available.

The Navy boosted re-signing bonuses to $35,000 annually for five years, or $175,000 in total, for test pilots and pilots who fly at the Navy’s famed Top Gun school in Nevada, Flanders said.

However, the Navy would like more flexibility in the length of time it offers aviators financial incentives to stay in uniform, he said.

The Marine Corps reported a shortfall of about 170 aviators on active duty, according to spokeswoman Yvonne Carlock.

The shortages were primarily in the F-35 and F/A-18 fighter jets and MV-22 tilt-rotor transport, she added.

The service branch has 3,373 flying officers, but a break out between pilots and other flying air crew was not available.

To boost retention, the Marines rolled out an aviation bonus this month. Active-duty fighter and attack jet pilots and those who fly the MV-22 transport may be eligible for a $40,000 aviation bonus paid over two years.

WHIO-TV’s Jim Otte contributed to this report.

Rising numbers leaving the ranks

The Air Force says a pilot shortage has grown in the active duty, Air National Guard and reserve ranks. Here’s a look at some key numbers:

Number of pilots short: About 2,000

Number of fighter pilots short: About 1,300

Total number of pilots: 23,000

Cost to train a fighter pilot: $1.1 million

Time to earn pilot’s wings: Two years

Top bonus to fighter pilots: Up to $455,000 for an additional 13-year commitment

SOURCE: U.S. Air Force

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Major Wright-Patt gate will temporarily close today

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2018 @ 10:00 AM
Updated: Friday, April 20, 2018 @ 2:14 AM

Major Wright-Patt gate will temporarily close

A major gateway will close at Wright-Patterson today for maintenance, impacting the travel of thousands of commuters.

Gate 19B off National Road will be closed from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., according to base spokesman Daryl Mayer.

More than 5,700 inbound drivers travel through the entrance and nearly 6,300 drive off base through the gate every work day.

Crews will work on “routine maintenance” at the gateway, Mayer said.

RELATED: Wright-Patt gateway to close as part of security upgrade

“Since that (gate) is open 24/7 normally, they never have a chance to work on it,” he said.

Motorists may use Gates 1B off Springfield Street and Gate 22B off Interstate 675 as alternatives, according to Wright-Patterson.

Gate 19B had a major makeover last year with $1.3 million in upgrades that added overhead canopies, more guard booths and a barrier system, Wright-Patterson has said.

RELATED: Security concerns prompt Wright-Patt to close major gateway

The base closed Gate 26A off Ohio 235 because of security concerns this month. The gate, which had more than 5,000 vehicles a day, remains closed.

A new $10.5 million replacement gate, combining the current Gate 26A and the commercial truck entrance at Gate 16A off Ohio 444, is due to open late next year.

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Air Force urged to pick Wright-Patterson for hundreds more jobs

Published: Thursday, April 19, 2018 @ 5:10 PM

            The F-35A Lightning II performs at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in June, 2017. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
            Ty Greenlees
The F-35A Lightning II performs at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in June, 2017. TY GREENLEES / STAFF(Ty Greenlees)

Wright-Patterson could add 400 jobs if Air Force leaders are persuaded by Ohio’s congressional delegation to locate a F-35 stealth fighter office to the Miami Valley base.

The Defense Department and the Air Force have not said how many bases are in contention for the F-35 Product Hybrid Support Integrator Organization. But Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Phil Parker said Wright-Patterson was likely “a top contender” for the Air Force jobs.

“I think it would be a real plus to our continued importance and growth inside the fence and even outside the fence with some of the contractors that might play a role in that development,” he said.

“I can’t speak to that it’s a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly makes a lot of sense with the capability we have” and the military and civilian workforce.

RELATED: Wright-Patt a contender to manage stealth fighter program

Parker said the Dayton Development Coalition is actively involved in working to attract the new jobs. Michael Gessel, Coalition vice president of federal programs, said he could not comment publicly.

Pentagon leaders have concurred with a report to create two separate offices — one for the Air Force and the other for the Navy and Marine Corps — to manage three different versions of the F-35. The Joint Program Office in Crystal City, Md., manages the program today which has been under development since 2001.

Wright-Patterson has an F-35 technical division office, but the additional jobs would add more responsibility for oversight and management.

“Wright-Patt is probably the only base in the entire Air Force where every single skill and competency relevant to the F-35 is already resident,” said Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant.

RELATED: Spending plan could give boost to Wright-Patt

In a letter to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, the Ohio congressional delegation cited Wright-Patterson’s technical workforce, area universities and command headquarters among key factors to bring the jobs to the region.

U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, along with U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, were among those who signed the letter.

“First, we make a good case and Wright-Patt is … the ideal place for this,” Brown, co-chairman of the Senate Air Force Caucus, said in a brief interview Thursday.

The congressional delegation cited the acquisition headquarters of the Air Force Materiel Command, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which manages aircraft programs, the Air Force Research Laboratory, which develops new aircraft technologies, and the Air Force Security Assistance and Cooperation Directorate, which handles foreign sales, among reasons to locate the office at the base.

In a recent interview, Turner, whose district spans Wright-Patterson and is the chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, said the base should “bode well” in the competition because of an experienced workforce managing aircraft programs and offices for foreign military sales.

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Wright-Patterson has a “long legacy … of working on advanced aircraft” and is close to Washington, D.C., he added.

“It will be an easy transition if it comes to Dayton, Ohio,” he said then.

The Fighters and Bombers Directorate, which oversees management programs such as the F-15, F-16 and F-22, and the B-1, B-2 and B-52, is headquartered at Wright-Patterson.

The base is the largest single-site employer in Ohio with more than 27,000 civilian employees and military personnel. The base has an estimated economic impact of more $4 billion a year.


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AF Thunderbirds return to practice, but more shows could be canceled

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2018 @ 5:02 PM

            The U. S. Air Force Thunderbirds in the diamond formation at the Vectren Dayton Air Show on Saturday, July 23, 2011. STAFF FILE PHOTO
            Ty Greenlees
The U. S. Air Force Thunderbirds in the diamond formation at the Vectren Dayton Air Show on Saturday, July 23, 2011. STAFF FILE PHOTO(Ty Greenlees)

The Air Force Thunderbirds return to training over the Nevada desert Wednesday, but have not announced a date the demonstration team will return to the air show circuit, the team’s leader said.

The team had suspended flights and canceled public performances since a tragic April 4 crash killed Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno during practice over the Nevada Test and Training Range.

RELATED: Thunderbirds cancel more air show performances after deadly crash

“While our hearts are still heavy with the loss of our wingman Cajun, we know he’d want us back in the air and preparing to recruit, retain and inspire once more,” Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, team leader, said in a statement Wednesday.

“These flights will focus on maintaining our team’s proficiency with the demanding manuevers of our air demonstration,” Walsh added. “They will also strengthen our confidence following a trying two weeks for the squadron.”

At the same time, the team will support a “robust investigation process” to ensure “the highest level of safety in our operations,” Walsh said.

He cautioned more cancellations of upcoming air shows are possible.

So far, the team canceled shows at March Air Reserve Base in California, in Lakeland, Fla., and upcoming “Wings Over Columbus” air show April 21-22 at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.

A memorial service was recently held for the fallen aviator.

RELATED: Excessive speed blamed for Thunderbird crash in Dayton

he crash was the most serious since a Thunderbird jet flipped over and ran off a runway at Dayton International Airport last June during a familiarization flight, trapping two crewmen until they were rescued by first responders.

An Air Force investigation determined excessive speed and landing too far down on a wet runway contributed to the incident.

The mishap injured then team narrator and F-16 pilot Capt. Erik Gonsalves, who was hospitalized for leg injuries, and destroyed the $29.2 million fighter jet on June 23, according to the Air Force. A second crewman who was a backseat passenger in the F-16D jet was uninjured, the Air Force said.

The Thunderbirds are scheduled to appear at the Vectren Dayton Air Show during the 2019 show season.

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A fair with a flavor: 17 countries part of Wright-Patt festival

Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2018 @ 4:14 PM

            Colorfully dressed in costumes, performers gathered at a past international fair of the Wright-Patterson International Spouses Group. CONTRIBUTED
Colorfully dressed in costumes, performers gathered at a past international fair of the Wright-Patterson International Spouses Group. CONTRIBUTED

A party in Dayton had an international flavor Tuesday.

People from 17 countries and more than 120 volunteers came together to celebrate the Wright-Patterson International Spouses Group’s International Fair at the Holiday Inn in Fairborn.

The cultures spanned Japan to the Spain, and Bali to the Philippines, among other places around the globe.

“We do it as thank you to the community for helping us to adjust to the local area and it’s a friendship gathering,” said Inma Kusnierek, of Springfield, co-chairwoman of the group and who is originally from Spain. “It’s just grown and grown and grown.”

Most of the attendees have ties to the Air Force Security Assistance and Cooperation Directorate, which processes foreign military sales at Wright-Patterson.

The funds raised from the event pay the tuition of one of the spouses or high school graduates to attend college, she said.


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