Air Force Trying To Attract Civilian Pilots


The Air Force is turning the tables on the aviation industry and is trying to attract trained civilian pilots into its corps. The Air Force is looking at two pathways to bring in pilots whose flying skills and general abilities will let them bypass some of the military training that all new Air Force officers go through. “Somebody who is exceptional and extremely well qualified might be able to bypass undergraduate pilot training altogether. We would put those folks through an Air Force fundamentals course … to bring them up to speed on Air Force differences, teach them how we fly, teach them the things that they need to know to make a difference,” Maj. Gen Craig Wills told Stars and Stripes. It’s also looking at working with colleges and universities that offer undergraduate aviation programs and include some military-style curriculum so that when they graduate they can skip some of the Air Force training if they decide to join up.

The Air Force is short pilots now and is training about 250 fewer than the 1500 a year it has set as a goal and attracting some from civvy street might be a partial answer. “Potentially, we could have an opportunity where we have added to the number of pilots at a relatively low-cost point,” Wills said. “Obviously, the number one thing is the quality of the training and the standard of these officers. That’s non-negotiable.” The Air Force is also trying to get more diversity in its cockpits, which are now occupied overwhelmingly (more than 80 percent) by white males. There is, of course, more to being an Air Force pilot than being a great pilot. “The most important thing on that program is you still have to be willing to fight and kill and potentially die for your country to serve as an Air Force officer. And that’s a pretty big lift,” Wills said.

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  1. This is what separates our boys and girls in the Military from the rest of us….so easy to forget.

    There is, of course, more to being an Air Force pilot than being a great pilot. “The most important thing on that program is you still have to be willing to fight and kill and potentially die for your country to serve as an Air Force officer. And that’s a pretty big lift,” Wills said.

  2. When will the Air Force learn pilots want to fly for a career and not perform staff or additional duties. Not all pilots want to be generals, many would be happy being aviators for a career with a reasonable salary to provide for their family. Hey AF, get a clue, let pilots fly! My requests in 1980 were ignored, I tried to go back on active duty in 2005/06 during another pilot shortage and was told I had been out of the military cockpit too long and could not pass a military check ride and was offered a staff job instead. Guess what, I turned that down. I’d go back to teaching in the C130 simulator and aircraft, like I was doing in 1980. Guess being one of the 80 percenters and older now is non-qualifying. Larry Kampa, Major, USAF Retired, AA Retired, still like to fly and teach.

  3. “The most important thing on that program is you still have to be willing to fight and kill and potentially die for your country to serve as an Air Force officer. And that’s a pretty big lift,”

    That should scare the snowflakes away.

  4. In UPT, we had one student with over 3500 hrs of crop dusting time a a commercial pilot ticket. He flew the T-41 fine. The T-37 was easy until instrument and formation came along. The T-38 almost knocked him out of the program. Finished in the bottom third of the class.
    I never knock those folks that worked their tails off to get there via the civilian route. It is time consuming and a hard road. The real issue is they have no common standards of training.
    Should the AF go this route, they need to come up with a course that fills in those missing training blanks.
    In addition, they do need to offer a career progression path for full time pilots that don’t want to be CSAF.

  5. Another BIG problem not mentioned is that in order to be a USAF pilot one has to qualify to be an officer and that requires a college degree. When I was 25 years old and a SSgt, I had earned Commercial SMELI certificates and had over 350 total hours all on my nickel at USAF Aero Clubs which operate much like the ‘real’ USAF. But because I didn’t have a degree, I could switch over and fly but — of course — I’da promised an arm in the future had they let me fly. I was a few years too late to make use of the Cadet program in the 60’s.

    NOW, because the USAF is hurting, they’re training exceptionally qualified enlisted to become drone pilots so that the rated pilots they were using to do that work can be put back in the cockpit. OK … smart move but why not extend that to enlisted pilots altogether? Enlisted drone pilots who do well ought to be given the chance to move over to “real” airplanes? They could choose the airplanes they’d be trained to fly, if necessary, but they’d still be rated. They might say … “You have X years to finish a degree OR say you must be a grad of the Jr College of the USAF” and have X years service. There are all sorts of permutations I could think of. We all know that it’s harder to fly a small GA airplane than point a mega-powerful jet military airplane that weighs so much it autolands.

    Any enlisted who could pass the tests has already shown that they’re a willing participant in the ‘game’ of being in the USAF … give ’em a chance. Sr. Officers in the USAF can’t see the forest for the trees in front of them … they’re too busy figuring out how to be PC and make their next promotion. Here’s your idea, boys.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve had candid conversations with USAF pilots who were peeped that they had to do desk time to get promoted, too. Why not say you can’t go above O-5 unless you do Sr Schools and serve in staff position.

    A General Officer acquaintance of mine was one of the very early U-2’s in the 50’s and – later – SR-71 programs in the 60’s. HIS degree was in music. How the hell does a degree in music entering the USAF make one more qualified than — say — a Technical Sergeant with 10 years service time and a pilot with civil ratings in his wallet? Except to show that you’re willing to show that you played someone elses ‘game’ for four years and earned a sheepskin, it doesn’t show anything. I’d bet on that Technical Sergeant all day long. You know what George Washington said about his enlisted men … “They are very cunning and bear considerable watching.” I’d bet they’d wind up being the best fighter pilots … but what do I know … I just spent 21 years in the USAF mostly involved with flight test and licking my chops every time one of the airplanes I supported flew by. I even flew the F-15E from the back seat and the PIC commented that I did exceptionally well.

    Anyone want one of my arms in the future? I’ll go back in. General Brown … are ya listening … again ?

    WAKE UP USAF! You don’t need to fly a bunch of CAP airplanes to Denton, TX trying to cajole CAP kids to fly … all ya gotta do is invent some ability for the personal records system to ID enlisted people who already posses ratings and what they are and how many hours they have. The solution is right in front of you !! Call me … I’ll tell you how to solve this problem by month’s end.

    • And, oh by the way. Dick Rutan was a USAF Aviation Cadet when he first became rated. He wound up flying 325 missions in the F-100 in Viet Nam over several tours and bailing out once. His degree is in basket weaving, as I remember it, and was done later so that he could meet the litmus test to remain or become an officer. Some of the other services have a path for enlisted w/o degrees to become officers … it’s time for the USAF to wake up.

      Better still, the most famous pilot of all — Gen Chuck Yeager — enlisted during WWII and was recognized by his Commander at George AFB, CA — when he was a T-6 mechanic — as an excellent prospect and was initially a flying Sergeant when he finished flight school.

      Public Law 658 – The Flight Officer Act — may need to be re-established if the shortsighted senior officers inside the USAF can’t solve this problem. I volunteer to be an advisor. I’m now too old to serve but I’ll help other enlisted to get their chance …

    • Another idea would be for the USAF to reinstate the Warrant Officer ranks … much like the Army. Those that finish flight training and become rated would remain Warrant Officers unless they finished a degree and a billet was open and availble.

      And. other ‘tidbits’ I discovered today …

      “The U.S. Army created almost 3,000 enlisted pilots from 1912 to 1942. Seven pre-War enlisted pilots and four World War II enlisted pilots became U.S. Air Force generals.”

      “Enlisted pilots destroyed 249.5 enemy aircraft and 18 became aces. Lt. William J. Sloan was the leading ace of the 12th Air Force with 12 victories.”

      “The last enlisted pilot continued to fly as a non-commissioned officer until he retired in May 1957.”

      The USAF Aviation Cadet Program — 1947 to 1961 (for pilots):
      “The Aviation Cadet Training Program continued to remain as a principal source of the Air Force’s pilots and navigators and they wore the same basic uniform as Air Force officers.”

  6. You know, I can only make one comment and it’s not criticizing the USAF. I spent 5 years in the USAF. They taught me how to fly and that enabled me to turn that into a 32-year career with Delta Air Lines. The jab though is that when I went through, the commitment was only 5 years, now it is 10 years. That’s far too long IMO. After 5 years, one has time left to pursue a different career if you so choose. With a 10 year commitment, it’s not so easy. Relatively speaking, I don’t think the cost of training a pilot is anymore now than then when different year dollars are factored in. The USAF was perfect for me and I wouldn’t change anything. It is the best choice if you are going into the military, IMO. But 10 years? I don’t know if I would do it again.

    • That’s EXACTLY what kept me in for a career, Daniel. Once you get close to 10, it’d be a shame to throw the time away. That said, I had a conversation with a Reserve F-16 jock who flies for the Green Mtn Boys in Vermont. HE was an enlisted Navy type, got out, did a degree at ERAU and then joined the Air Guard. He found ways to do mostly active time and has now retired. I had no idea you could do that. IF I’da known that, I may well have done it myself but … too late now … I’m in the checkout line waiting to meet the cashier 🙂

  7. Little argument with the points already made, but I believe there is another: the effect of the increasing number of academy regular officers in senior staff positions. They came to be able to “raise the standards of officership” by retroactively demanding degrees, emphasizing the difference in OER standards, and devaluing pilot and crew skills. All this in the name of improving the Air Force. Pleae don’t misinterpret me; ovarall, I believe their intentions were good and possibly even necessary for the effectiveness if the service. But I also believe the implementation was poor…unfair, sometimes humiliating, and possibly even detrimental to the desired process.

    In my eyes, there ended up to be two distinct career attitudes:

    1. The ex-cadets and many ex-ROTC pilots saw their job as flying for fun/accomplishment in peacetime, fly/fight and win in wartime and success measured by flying skills.
    2. Academy graduates saw their success measured by staff work while put up with the flying requirements and occasionally enjoyed it.

    (On the distaff side, the wives of the first group seemed tougher and more happily oriented to military life.)

    Now, in my old age (85), I wonder if today’s USAF is all it could have been.

    • You bring up several other salient points, Jack.

      When I joined the USAF during Viet Nam, the Air National Guard and Reserves were not seamlessly integrated into the USAF as they are now; they were mostly totally separate entities. Their equipment was usually old castoffs, their training wasn’t always the same or current and they operated as a red headed stepchild totally separate part of the Service. If they were activated, they had to spend inordinate amounts of time getting up to speed.

      Once the war was over, drawdowns began with end strength numbers suffering and money becoming tight. Suddenly, the mission had to be shared with them because there wasn’t anyone else but THEN, the coin flipped. Instead of augmenting the active USAF, these people — who never intended to be activated for long periods of time away from home and be thrust directly into the line of fire as their primary occupation — were faced with a decision when their individual contracts ended … stay or go. Many went … especially during the protracted southwest Asian conflicts. These days and in some airframes, the Reserves and Guard units are the ONLY ones with the equipment and meeting mission needs these days. Lots of folks don’t realize this. At Airventure 2019, the (then) Chief of Staff introduced the female Commander of the Air Mobility Command … a reservist on Active duty. To read her dossier, it’s obvious she aspired to high rank … and succeeded. But without integrating all of the parts of the Service together, it wouldn’t have happened.

      Same thing with pilots who JUST want to be pilots. There should be a totally separate career path with limiting higher rank for those that only want that career path. Unfortunately, the people running the USAF think everyone ought to be in competition for Chief of Staff. That’s just plain wrong. And — as I’ve already opined on ad nauseum — they’re totally overlooking the lower end of the personnel food chain … well qualified enlisted folks.

      To answer your last question — IMHO — “… today’s USAF is NOT all that it could have been.”