Top Air Force leaders and lawmakers are warning that a pilot shortage of 2,000 could cripple the service, leaving it unready to handle its responsibilities.
“With 2,000 pilots short, it’ll break the force. It’ll break it,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said on Thursday during the annual State of the Air Force news conference.
The Air Force needs 20,000 pilots minimum to fly its wide range of aircraft, including fighter jets, helicopters, transport planes, support attack planes and cargo aircraft. At the start of the year, it said it had 18,500 pilots, well short of its minimum.
As of last week, the shortfall has jumped to a full 2,000 — meaning about 10 percent of its positions are unfilled. The majority are fighter pilots.
The problem is not that the Air Force is having trouble recruiting. It’s that airlines are offering bigger paychecks, and pilots are leaving when they are up for reenlistment.
The Air Force has tried to get its pilots to stay by offering contract extensions of just one or two years with $35,000 bonuses. That’s much less of a commitment than the five- and nine-year extensions typically offered.
Even with those numbers, it’s a deal for the Air Force.
“You do the math. It takes ten years to raise a fighter pilot, it takes you $10 million,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said last week.
With 1,000 pilots leaving the Air Force, Goldfein said, “$10 billion of capitol investment that just walked out the door. So we’re first and foremost looking to retain everyone we can.”
But it’s not clear the tactic is working, according to key members of Congress.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRedistricting reform key to achieving the bipartisanship Americans claim to want Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities MORE (R-Ariz.) unloaded his frustrations during a confirmation hearing last week for Shon Manasco, President Trump’s nominee to serve as assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs.
“You are facing a personnel crisis … And what confounds me is the Air Force comes over to say, ‘We just need more money.’ … You are — you are addressing this issue of pilot shortage from exactly the wrong direction,” McCain said.
“We need to compensate them, but $50,000, $70,000, whatever the hell it is, that's not going to attract them because they can be outbid,” McCain said.
McCain says it’s not money that is causing pilots to flee the force. It’s that they aren’t getting to fly, partly because the last round of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration cut flying hours and grounded nearly one-third of Air Force planes.
“It's a lifestyle,” said McCain, who was a Naval pilot when his plane was shot down over Vietnam.
“I talk to too many [pilots] all the time. They say, 'Senator McCain, all I want to do is fly. I want to be in combat.' That's what they're all about. … So this whole idea of trying to outbid the airlines on the keeping people in the Air Force is foolish,” he said.
John “JV” Venable, a retired Air Force pilot with the Heritage Foundation, told The Hill that the service has failed to “put in good care and feeding of our pilots” due to funding shortfalls and the gutting of basic support personnel in squadrons over the past five years.
“When I retired from the service, I did my own retirement paperwork. I did everything because we had gutted the support personnel,” he said Monday. “Things have only gotten worse since then.”
Venable recounted that in conversations with 16 pilots at an air base this past spring, “all of them were on the cusp of leaving,” but held off after hearing recent comments by Goldfein, who had promised to “revitalize the squadron.”
“Every person said they were going to give it one more assignment to see if he could come through. It’s a huge opportunity and I’m not sure they’re seeing that opportunity being fulfilled,” Venable said.
Goldfein and Wilson say they have both called upon Congress to lift budget caps, but could not say whether lawmakers will do so this year.
“My responsibility is to explain [to Congress] that we trust them to drive this, to take this off cruise-control and drive this, and we trust the Congress to make those decisions,” Wilson said.
In another effort to bolster the force, President Trump last month signed an executive order that would allow the service to call upon 1,000 retired airmen to return to active duty to address the shortage. Air Force officials later said they would not be taking up such an option.
And this past spring, Goldfein met with commercial airline executives to try to find ways to stop a flow of experienced pilots leaving the service.
The Air Force is also exploring allowing airmen to take a sabbatical from the military for several years to fly with an airliner.
“We as a nation don’t produce enough aviators … to adequately service the requirement for military, business and commercial aviation,” Goldfein said. “So this is a national-level issue that we’re working with industry.”
But despite its best efforts, the pilot shortage continues to grow.
Wilson said the biggest reason for this is that the Air Force is too small and therefore “burning out our people.”
“I met someone last week who has just come back from his 17th deployment. Seventeen deployments,” Wilson said.
“At some point, families make a decision that they just can’t keep doing this at this pace. And I think that’s the biggest thing we’re facing is we’re burning out our people because we’re too small for what the nation is asking.”
Venable predicts the problem is likely to get worse before it improves.
“We have nickeled and dimed [pilots] for a long time. We have tried to keep them at the last minute with these promissory notes and bonuses and the like, but then just as soon as your vulnerability to leave goes, the Air Force takes away that love. It’s almost insane how the Air Force is expecting their pilots to operate.”