Officers Say Air Force Needs Outside Help To Keep Pilots


Two active duty U.S. Air Force officers have taken the unusual step of publicly scolding their superiors over pilot retention efforts and suggesting they hire outsiders to fix the problem. Brian Kruchkow and Tobias Switzer (ranks were not provided) wrote in Defense One that Air Force brass have botched the effort so badly it’s time for some fresh ideas. “Given the issue’s enduring nature, we suggest commissioning an outside panel of experts to take a hard look and make substantive recommendations to improve Air Force pilot retention,” the officers said. Defense One identified Kruchkow as an instructor pilot and Switzer as a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., where he recently published a report on Air Force pilot retention

The two officers say the brass bet against an early recovery by airlines from the pandemic and rolled back retention packages that have become increasingly lucrative and flexible as the Air Force pilot shortage has become more acute. The pandemic gave the military some breathing room but the airline business is bouncing back and the airlines are scrambling to fill their cockpits. The two officers say about half of Air Force pilots eligible to resign are ready to go. “The Air Force has erred in positioning itself opposite the improving economy, airline hiring, and the pandemic’s end,” the officers wrote. “When Air Force pilots start heading for the exits again soon, the Department of Defense will have problems meeting its commitments.”

The officers said the same old complaints are behind the pending exodus. Pilots are fed up with increasing administrative work and they’re dissatisfied with their families’ quality of life. “But instead of continuing to address its pilots’ concerns, the Air Force quietly abandoned retention in 2018 and shifted its focus to increasing pilot production,” the officers wrote.

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  1. Seems to me these guys have masterfully ID’ed the typical bureaucratic process of analysis. They state the case and hit all the causative nails on the head but powers-that-be are far more likely to accept the same conclusions from “an outside panel of experts” than from anyone living the problems real-time.

  2. The Air Force has always failed to understand that some folks just want to fly and not do admin BS or compete to be the Chief of Staff. I managed to fly most of my 20 year AF career but it wasn’t easy. They always wanted to broaden my career with some non flying job or throw me out because I wasn’t promotion material.( being the most skilled pilot in the wing doesn’t count at all for promotion and even crashing an airplane won’t keep you from being promoted if you have a “sponsor”.) The generals get to be generals by not flying so they just don’t understand where the problem is.

      • The Air Force has never looked kindly on that option, and I think the difference is that for the Army, flying is just one more specialized function like crewing a tank, a big gun, or various infantry components, all of which are individual key elements supporting their prime function.

        To the Air Force, the pilot function & related experience much more broadly encapsulates key elements of their prime function and therefore is viewed as an enriched command pathway in the same way the Army views officers with broad combat command experience. Perhaps everything will change as AI starts moving pilots out of a significant percentage of cockpits.

  3. The Air Force mindset will keep this problem from ever being solved. The focus was always on additional duties and not flying. Promotions only came from the additional duties and being a “Brown Noser”. In the airlines promotions come automatically with seniority. But more than that the pay will never offset the potential pay of a major airline captain. A year after I was hired by a major airline I went to a squadron picnic to see my old Air Force buddies and my old commander came up to me and asked “So what are your additional duties at the airline?” He was totally “brainwashed” and couldn’t understand that there was no such thing in the airlines. I was fortunate enough to continue flying in the Air Force Reserve, where your only job was to fly airplanes. One thing about the Air Force – they will NEVER learn from the past.

  4. It is somewhere between a 6 to 10 year cycle. Good officers leave, those who are left get promoted and can’t understand why pilots only want to fly for a career. Talk about a pyramid scheme, everyone cannot be AF Chief of Staff. Generals expect you to listen to them, rather than listening to the troops, after all they know more and understand the ‘needs’ of the AF better. If money is not the issue, then why not pay airline wages … problem solved, right? I left in 1980 after 6 years of active duty because I did not want to go remote, overseas, non-flying position. This is 41 years later, 4-6 cycles, same problem! If the generals are so bright then why is there still a pilot retention issue? Hmmm, keep doing the same thing for the next 41 years and expect a different outcome? Maybe the Generals should leave! I’d like to see them fly for a living with 2000 hours of experience.

  5. Sounds like someone wants to stay in, but now there is no more ‘bonus’ money. This happened to me when I was in. If they think it is needed it will return, but not until then.
    They know how many pilots are needed to fill the slots.

  6. When I graduated high school in 1965 I wanted to be a military pilot so badly. However I could not get anyone to help me and did not know how to proceed. So I enlisted and served in Vietnam as a grunt. My point is that I assume there are others like me in high school. Is there a mentoring program available for such young people? I earned my private while in early college and proceeded to commercial training. I may be out of touch but why do all military pilots have to be college graduates? Mentoring and an opportunity to train as a pilot in the military without college may be helpful?

    • BINGO! The answer is right under their noses, Dennis … the enlisted force. These people have proved they’ve adapted to military life, many have finished their USAF Community College AA degrees and have achieved at least private licenses or above — in MY day, through USAF Aero Clubs. They HAVE the fever; why not tap it? Recently, the USAF began training select NCO’s as drone pilots to allow release of rated officers filling those billets to return to the “real” cockpit. Wise move IMHO. Why not take it to the next level? Between requiring a college degree and then being required to fly desks to fill all the ‘squares’ — whether they want to, or not — is a limiting requirement as some have opined. Kudos to these two officers who went way out onto the gang plank to say what needs to be said.

      The USAF was way early to the game of establishing The Community College of the USAF. I see where the Navy now has a brand new similar program which includes the USMC and Coast Guard.
      The Army has something called an ECP — Early Commissioning Program — for people enrolled in four specific schools who have completed a AA equivalent AND certain Reserve field training. An enlisted person who has good performance reports, has played their game finishing the AA, has high technical scores and experience and civil flying ratings has no path to becoming a USAF pilot UNLESS they get that darned sheepskin. Often times, by the time they do that, now they’re too old. That’s the way it was for me.

      I’m your exact age. Without a mentor and growing up poor when Viet Nam was raging, I had all I could do to avoid conscription. Luck and high scores put me into the USAF where I spent 21 years … 15 1/2 of them involved with flight test at Edwards AFB. I’da promised my left arm if I could have flown. Alas, the planets didn’t align for me but I wish that they would for today’s USAF enlisted. The USAF doesn’t even have an easy way to ID people with civil pilot or mechanic certificates. They could levy a requirement to obtain the BS degree within “X” years once a person otherwise qualified to become a pilot. Heck, they could start with helicopters, like the Army Warrant Officer Program does.

      I was maybe 20′ from General Goldfein at Airventure a few years ago when he brought the F-22 and F-35, et al, to the party … looking for young kids to aspire to become pilots. I had all I could do to throttle myself from yelling out the answer. His big burly Sr. MasterSgt w/ an AR made me decide to be quiet. 🙂
      If I could somehow impact today’s USAF, it would be on THIS subject.

  7. Please help me understand this. These pilots have won the proverbial medical lottery, have received hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) of free training, have received job security and a post-military career path, and have a job that is objectively less hazardous than that of a civilian flight instructor.

    As one who was denied a seat due to “slightly less than 20/20 vision”, had to pay for all of his own training, has had to fight through the fickle industry to try to make a living, I propose the following: Require that the pilots we train spend a full career (20 years) in the military. Problem solved, money saved and the lottery winners still get to have a good job and an airline career after the fact.