Air Force Welcoming Too-Short, Too-Tall Pilot Candidates


The Air Force is encouraging prospective pilots who don’t meet its height requirements to apply anyway because they might just qualify. It’s also considering broadening those requirements to capture more of the population beyond the 13-inch range (five-foot-four to six-foot-five) it now lists as its essential height range. It turns out it’s more complicated that the altitude of the top of one’s head. “Nobody is turned away because they’re below five-foot-four,” Maj. Gen Craig Wills, commander of the 19th Air Force, told the Air Force Times. “The message now is, if you want to fly, no matter how tall you are, apply. You may or may not fit, but let us make that decision. Don’t self-eliminate because you’re worried that you may not make it into the right window.”

The most rigid measurement and weight requirements apply to pilots of aircraft with ejection seats but Wills said there is considerable leeway on other platforms. “There’s an expression in the military—there’s a waiver for just about everything,” Wills said. “If our standard is five-foot-four, we’re excluding almost half of a possible recruiting pool (of female pilots) to come do this thing that we love.” The Air Force is now short about 2,000 pilots and is looking at any and all ways to fill those cockpit seats. 

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. It just frosts my cookie that the USAF has what they need right in their midst but can’t see the forest for the trees. Right now, they’re training enlisted pilots to fly drones. With just a bit of leeway — the same leeway they’re talking about here — they could find enlisted folks with pilot credentials and more to fill the cockpits. Standards could be set, requirements could be levied and there’s no doubt in my ex-USAF mind that the problem could be solved almost overnight. Further, the enlisted folks so chosen would have a standing military record vs someone off the street.

    Beyond that, there’s no reason that the USAF can’t reinstitute the Warrant Officer ranks in small numbers for pilot candidates … just like the Army. They could levy a requirement to have an Associates Degree to become a Warrant Officer.

    Sometimes … I wonder just who the heck is running MY Air Force. OH … now I remember … a guy who rode around the Country with his dog Spot and wanted to be a musician. Swell.

    • Hey Larry,

      Not really on the topic of the article, but adding WO and Enlisted flyers would exacerbate the problem, as opposed to providing relief, for the simple reason that they’d be paying a lesser salary for the same work (read: even higher incentive to separate to the airlines).

      The AF has the solution to get prior Es into cockpits – it’s called OTS.

  2. Without any sassy remarks, how about the pool of us retired folks already wearing wings? I am too old for 121 ops but I can still fly transports. One would think that my 20K hours of wide-body heavy jet overwater time (C-141 / B-747F) might possibly be useful in something like the C-5, KC-135, KC-10 or the upcoming KC-46. Nope, never flew and would be useless in the fighter community and have no interest in drones but would leap at the chance to fly again. Sure, I wouldn’t be in the seat forever but two months in C-5 class and i would be ready for line ops, maybe not special ops if the C-5 still does some of the stuff it used to, but certainly long haul airlift to include AR. In addition to rapidly filling the seat gap we also add a lot of experience to mix that can be passed along to the younger crowd. Sure, today they have gee-whiz magic electronics for getting places accurately, but those of us that have found the ground on a stormy night via a shaky ADF / NDB approach might have some advice to offer.

    • That, too, David. Another pool of potential stick actuators passed by because of age … if they’re wavering … how’s about that? If you’re in good health and can pass the physical and have the desire and flight experience … what’s the issue? That’s commonly done in the medical corps. A while back, the USAF was offering retired USAF pilots a path to return to duty and flight … obviously that idea didn’t work for them.

      Another problem not mentioned is that the USAF expects their flight officers to do too many administrative duties in addition to flying duties. And, to do ground assignments in places like DC as if every pilot wants to be prepped to become a commander or general. For years, there has been grumblings that SOME pilots don’t want to make senior rank … they just want to fly. So why not make two paths for officers … one for pilots and the other for those with aspirations of high rank. The zoomies (Academy grads) can become Generals; the others can keep flying.

      Just a few weeks ago at a small airfield in WI famous for their Friday fly in lunch, I met a former F-16 pilot who saw my USAF hat and wound up having lunch with me. We traded stories; his was that he had been sent to “the desert” five times flying F-16’s and had enough of that. He opted out after 12 years and became an airline pilot. Joining the reserves wouldn’t work because he’d likely be activated and sent back anyhow. So those pilots who might stay are being worn out, as well. EVERYONE serving is being worn out.

      IMHO, the pilot shortage is a lot worse than most people realize or the USAF will freely admit. The USAF is using the Reserve and National Guard forces as if they’re permanently on active duty. Take that source away and you have a far worse problem. At Airventure 2019, Gen Goldfein trotted out the female Commander of Air Mobility Command who was a Reservist on active duty, as an example. He came to the show and brought F-22 and F-35 and A-10 airplanes flying numerous sensationalism sorties daily on a recruiting mission. It was perfectly obvious to me what he was up to.

      Finally, the methodology in managing the pilot cadre is all wrong, too. During the period between Viet Nam and the first Gulf war and after that war, for example, pilots were being shown the door in droves. There ought to be a minimum number of billets always filled regardless of need. Pilots don’t grow on trees — as this blog shows — and it takes time to both train them and get them the requisite experience. WWII showed us that. The people who manage this subset of forces needs to get their act together, as well. They’re part of the problem.

  3. There must be thousands of us out there, retired from whatever, flew transport aircraft in the USAF, would love one more chance and would not expect any retirement, incentives or training other than specific aircraft.
    Little investment for a few years of low cost pilots. Im looking forward to being a captain again.

  4. As a former Army Officer, the recent conversation I had with a former airman made me sick. He described to me a bureaucracy like the worst parts of the Army I knew but on steroids. I’m afraid a serious house cleaning is necessary, and I am going to simply blame every President and Congressman and Flag Officer since 1991.
    The problems spelled out in Gabriel’s book “Military Incompetence“ have mostly gotten worse since the eighties. I think we now have two military Officer types. There’s political guys and procurement guys. The actual fighters are such a small percentage they don’t count anymore.
    The only suggestion I have would be to send in some folks to interview every officer past their first 3 years in service. Get them to say the word “program”. If they ain’t talking about software, and there is no hint of a sneer, derision, or disgust, then transfer them to Education or Energy.
    Then, eliminate those departments form the government.

  5. The USAF, Army, Marines, Coast Guard, and Navy are simply wearing themselves out. In reality/functionality, there is no distinction between the reserves, active reserves, and regular duty military. Entire state’s reserve units are deployed right along side the regular military. Many states, should they have a local threat develop, would not have any reserves units available or within rapid recall since they are being used in lieu of the regular military. This includes enlisted support as well as all the hardware. We now have a very, very tired military with equally tired aircraft and all related ground support. So, even if you had any where near minimally, adequate staffing, the manpower and aircraft requirements (among all other ground based military) would still be maxed out. The idea we have any “reserve” units is laughable.

    These global “conflicts” are being waged by personnel ranging in age from early twenties to early fifties with a huge amount of vets in that 30-45 year old range due to the reserve deployments. Any former active duty vets that decides to re-up as a reservist ends up virtually active duty almost overnight. I am amazed at the number of vets I have contact with that have been participants in 6 or more deployments lasting a year or more. That is a huge amount of combat time.

    Allowing former military and civilian pilots into the ranks with out a reserve commitment with all its present global deployment, enlisted opportunities for flight training, instructing positions, etc would be a start. But the US is in serious trouble with a worn out war machine being staffed by equally worn out personnel. And it will decades to get it back on track if it can be accomplished at all with all the present global unrest.

    There is no easy answers to this very present dilemma. We tend to think that there is a magic “silver bullet”, that once used will stabilize the course and make everything better. Pilots are one problem, worn out hardware another, mechanical support yet another. Money to finance any of these much needed improvements really does not exist. Nor do we have unified leadership, politically or militarily. And a national citizenship, largely disinterested in any of all these realities.

    Prior to WWII, we had a lethargic economy, with the average citizen wanting to stay out of any world war. But when attacked, we did not have a worn out war machine staffed with equally worn out personnel. We simply did not have one. Therefore, as Yamamoto noted, Japan has woken a sleeping giant.

    Today, we don’t have the reserve, unused capability of resources including design and manufacturing that we did at the outbreak of WWII. Nor do we have a workforce that can rise to those challenges today for a lot of reasons we cannot discuss here. We are a military giant, albeit a tired Goliath…that can be brought down very easily for any number of reasons. And we are not alone. Our enemies are in similar circumstances.

    Airshows today are not just a place for showcasing aerobatic, vintage, warbird, GA, and Experimental aviation. AirVenture is now the prime aviation recruitment center for our youth. So are all the AOPA regional fly-ins as well. Most fly-ins have a significant military presence. Next to every Embry-Riddle booth is the US military, with eager flight suit clad personnel willing to hoist any person into the cockpit of accompanying warplanes promising a surgically clean, Star Wars type of remote engagement, backed by every computer enhanced, night vision, virtual reality, goggle allowing us to kill by remote, with a push of the proverbial button. Fly a continuous, after burner glowing, low level routine to complete the recruitment process before the airshow, during the airshow, and the grand finale of the airshow. Pretty soon Rob Holland and his MX will be an afterthought, Patty Wagstaff who?, and Sean Tucker will be someone you see on You Tube while A-10’s and F-35’s claw the skies to keep the testosterone levels at an all time high. And if you complain about all of the military hardware and flight routines, you will be considered unpatriotic.

    • As usual, an insightful and well written retort, Jim. And, Eric W … you are right on point. The USAF officer corps is SO afraid of its own shadow that they wet their pants if you try to corner ’em. As a SR NCO, I used to play games trying … it was funny yet sad to see. I’m HOT over this issue so I’ll comment some more…

      As a USAF retiree intimately plugged into USAF flight R&D at Edwards AFB for most of my career, I can tell you that it takes years and years to bring a new weapon system online fully functional and ready to fight. And, often times, the military nincompoops with lightning on their hats along with their Congressional brethren screw up the procurement / renewal of equipment process despite the best efforts of those working their butts off to make new weapons right.

      Good example, after retirement, I worked on a BIG black airplane program which was supposed to be 132 airplanes. Suddenly, the cold war ended, the Berlin wall fell and the order went down to 100, then 50 then were ordered one at a time. In the factory, they used to come on the PA announcing that another ONE had been ordered (sic). In the end, 20 plus the “bone” Pres Clinton threw the Company to turn the test airplane into a real one = 21. One crashed so there are only 20 remaining and we’re flying them to death. I worked IN the production facility when the Company later offered the airplanes to the USAF AT COST … and it was rejected. I then watched the tooling being taken outside into a field and destroyed in plain view of satellites. It was heartbreaking! Today, they tout the massive cost of the program yet no one takes into account that it would have been amortized over many more airplanes bringing unit costs down substantially. AND … the bean counters rolled the cost of building facilities into the unit cost of the airplanes. What ridiculous poo poo! I’m predicting the new replacement will follow the same procurement folly.

      Today’s PC military is another issue. Just recently, I saw where the USAF authorized a SPECIAL uniform for a SIKH member so he could wear his head gear. WHAT !! Did no one figure out they use the word uniform for a reason? I could recite a litany of ridiculous things ALL branches of our military are doing these days to assuage people. It’s all a sure sign that we’re hurting so we’re now bending over backwards to make everyone happy and stick around.

      Moving back to the recruitment of pilots, at age 24, I had commercial single & multi instrument ratings and a few years later added an A&P all on my off-duty time at military aero clubs. Lacking a bachelors degree in basket weaving, I had no way to become a pilot even though I would have agreed to cut off my left arm after retirement had they let me do it. At that time, the military was flush with Viet Nam pilots so I was just another number. That’s why I made my first comment above. The military — and even the airlines — don’t have a 5, 10 or 20 year plan. They just react. I guess they didn’t get the memo that pilots don’t grow on trees?

      In 1979, I was on the F-16 European Test & Evaluation team which took four prototype airplanes to the European co-producing Countries starting with Norway (VERY tough duty!). In the Norwegian AF, almost everyone save for a small number of conscripts were officers. Their theory was that if you maintained an F-104 (what they were then flying), you were just as important as a pilot. I’m here to tell ya’ll that the idea worked for them.

      I would love to sit down mano i mano and tell him what I think. Instead of letting junior officers wag their bobble heads at him, he needs to hear the REAL story. He doesn’t have a recruitment problem … he has a SYSTEM problem.

      “Military Incometance.” You bet. And it AIN’T an oxymoron !!

  6. Correction: “Him in the second to last paragraph is the USAF Chief of Staff. Also, in the Norwegian AF at Bodo AS, Norway, I saw 19 year old pilots landing F-104’s in weather I had a hard time driving a car in.

    • You have the answer right in your midst with the CVAEP, RAF. Unfortunately, they don’t have degrees in basket weaving, gender studies, home economics or political science so … sorry … they’re not “qualified” and there’s no path for them to become commissioned and USAF pilots until they do. I’d bet you have some “hot shots” in your midst that’d be excellent candidates save for that ridiculous ‘early’ requirement. In WWII, your program would have been called CPTP.

      I actually know a very accomplished pilot who was in the first cadre’s to fly first the U-2 then SR-71. He entered the USAF Reserves as an enlisted man in 1948 and received his commission and wings two years later via the USAF Aviation Cadet program (which ended in the 60’s) when Korea broke out. He flew 100 missions there in the F-84 then six years later became a U-2 pilot amassing 1,600 hours in that airplane. In 1965, he was selected in the first cadre to fly the SR-71 for six years and 600 hours. He didn’t complete a BS in social studies until 23 years after joining the USAF and amassing 8,000 flying hours. The only thing the degree did was punch his ticket to allow him to keep rising in rank and position albeit in non flying jobs. He retired a Major General with two thirds of his 35 year career without a degree. Our paths crossed at Beale AFB when he was flying SR-71’s and I was earning all of my certificates at the base aero club on the VA’s nickel and of my own volition. We flew off the same runway in two different ways.

      These days, hand selected USAF enlisted people are being trained to fly (using the very same ab initio program commissioned officers go through – even if they’re already pilots) and receiving their wings to fly drones … thereby relieving officers of that mundane duty to fly “real” airplanes again. Aside from the possession of a sheepskin, there’s no difference. There’s no reason those people couldn’t be commissioned using either my idea of a Warrant Officer program or a reserve officer cadet commissioning program and then given a defined period of time to finish their degrees or … move on. The above example proves that it’s possible. SOME people are late bloomers yet are no less motivated, sometimes well qualified and capable. In my case, I had amassed over 1,000 hours plus an A&P before I started my degree work at age 30. When finished, I was too old yet no less qualified to fly their airplanes. Instead, I chased electrons for a career. They wasted my talents.

      Bottom line … there’s your answer … right under the nose of the Chief of Staff and already wearing the uniform. Reinstitute the Aviation Cadet program, CPTP, Warrant Officers or any other path for those otherwise qualified and motivated and the problem is solved overnight. The USAF is right proud of saying that people are their most important resource yet don’t thereafter often follow through. Such a program would serve a secondary benefit. I’d bet big $$ that enlistment rates and reenlistment rates would climb if those so motivated thought they could potentially be later chosen to become “line” pilots AFTER they join up. Two problems solved with one stone.

      • Agree.

        “ The Flying / Aviation Cadet Pilot Training Program was originally created by the U.S. Army to train its pilots. Originally created in 1907 by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, it expanded as the Army’s air assets increased. Candidates originally had to be between the ages of 19 and 25, athletic, and honest. Two years of college or three years of a scientific or technical education were required. Cadets were supposed to be unmarried and pledged not to marry during training. From 1907 to 1920, pilot officers were considered part of the Signal Corps or the Signal Officer Reserve Corps. After 1920, they were considered part of their own separate organization, the U.S. Army Air Service (1918–1926).

        The U.S. Army Air Corps Training Center (USAACTC) was at Duncan Field, San Antonio, Texas from 1926 to 1931 and Randolph Field from 1931 to 1939. Two more centers were activated on 8 July 1940: the West Coast Army Air Corps Training Center (WCAACTC) in Sunnyvale, California and the Southeast Army Air Corps Training Center (SAACTC) in Montgomery, Alabama. The SAACTC was later renamed the Gulf Coast Army Air Corps Center (GCAACTC). In 1942, the Army moved the WCAACTC from Moffett Field to Santa Ana Army Air Base (SAAAB),[1]:466 located on West 8th Street in Santa Ana, California.

        On January 23, 1942 the USAAF created the separate Air Corps Flying Training Command and the Air Corps Technical Training Command to control all aspects of technical and aviation training. Originally formed in Washington, D.C., they moved to facilities at Fort Worth, Texas in July. They were renamed the Army Air Forces Flight Training Command and Army Air Forces Technical Training Command respectively in March, 1942. They were later unified as the Army Air Forces Training Command (July, 1943 – June, 1946).” Wiki

  7. There’s an even better example that EVERYONE here knows about, Raf … Brig Gen Chuck Yeager.

    He was an enlisted private / mechanic serving at George AFB in Victorville, CA when an officer recognized his skills and put him in enlisted pilot training. From Wiki: “in September 1942 he entered enlisted pilot training and upon graduation was promoted to the rank of flight officer (the World War II USAAF equivalent to warrant officer) and became a P-51 fighter pilot.” “… his test pilot career followed naturally from his having been a decorated combat pilot, along with having been an aircraft mechanic before attending pilot school.”

    I can’t seem to find the date of a more or less acquisition of an honorary bachelor’s degree he obtained but I am aware that it was many years later. It’s just like the above pilot I talked about. Chuck Yeager’s Son, Mike, worked for me at Edwards AFB … I wish I could tell some of the stories HE relayed to me about his Father.

    During my 21 year USAF career, there wasn’t even a way that my personnel records could be easily flagged to indicate possession of advanced civilian flight certificates or mechanic certificates or other special accomplishments I’d done. There’s another problem that the USAF has that could be fixed almost overnight.

  8. The 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, acceded to his current office on Sept 30, 2019. He succeeded USMC Gen. Joe Dunford. (The job rotates between Services). His job is to provide, “military advice … to the president, vice president, defense secretary and secretary of state.”

    On Dec. 3 in a story reprinted from, he made the following comment:

    “The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is in a unique position to view the whole world. Combatant commanders look at their specific areas. Service chiefs look at the “man, train and equip” aspects of the military.”

    THIS is why I hold the USAF Chief of Staff responsible for the shortage of pilots within the USAF. His job IS to “man, train and equip” and it appears he ain’t doing it without bending over backwards yet it STILL isn’t working or this blog wouldn’t exist. His job is to look forward and anticipate needs and train for them. His job is to have “reserve forces” in — um — reserve and not to plug holes with those forces. He HAS the bodies within the bounds of USAF authorized end strength yet he’s short of pilots. Sumpting wong here … I’ll be glad to help him solve it. Call me, Sir.

  9. Twenty five years from now, we’ll be blogging about how Gen. Tom Thumb, legendary small person pilot, became an ace in the next war. His shtick … he did it by sitting on telephone books piled up on his ejection seat. Maybe those phone books will be on display with his uniform at the National Museum of the USAF. If it wasn’t so sad … it’d be a rousingly funny tongue in cheek comment.