Military Leaders Testify On Pilot Shortage

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Testifying before the House and Senate Armed Services committees this week, leaders of the Air Force and Navy described the billion-dollar economic impact the national pilot shortage is having on their services. Gen. Steven Wilson, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, told congressional leaders, “We can recruit pilots without a problem. The problem is retaining them. For the last five years, retention of pilots has declined. We need to keep 65% of pilots past the 10-year point,” when pilots’ post-training contracts expire. Gen. Wilson continued, “Today, we’re doing less than half of that.” Wilson reports that the Air Force and Navy train a combined 2,000 new pilots per year at an ultimate cost of $10 million for a seasoned fighter pilot. Retaining 400 more fighter pilots for an additional five-year commitment, by Gen. Wilson’s estimates, would save the Air Force approximately $2 billion.

Service leaders described the push of too little flying, together with long deployments, and the pull of comparatively lucrative airline pay that is drawing pilots out of the armed forces. Gen. Wilson says flying is why people join the Air Force and “today’s fighter pilots are flying 140 to 150 hours a year—that’s significantly down from before.” Pilots averaged 260 days away from home per year during deployment and 110 days away from home on temporary duty when not deployed overseas. Wilson says that when pilots reach the 11-year mark, families ask whether it makes sense to “keep doing this when the airlines are hiring, paying a lot of money, and providing better stability.” Service leaders estimate the major airlines are hiring 4,000 pilots each year to meet the combined needs of industry growth and pilot retirements.

Comments (9)

Seems like you could just offer these pilots more money, keep them longer, and still save!

Posted by: Seth Hensel | February 9, 2017 2:06 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Rapoport is doing a disservice by referring this article a "pilot shortage". Even General Wilson admits not having problems recruiting pilot candidates, just keeping them after their contracted obligations are complete. That is not a pilot shortage. It is a money shortage, plain and simple. Pilot wages are just starting to increase enough to get pilots to stay or start into aviation. A lot of pilots are also finding out that all of the things involved that comes with the job is not always worth the headache and those pilots end up finding something else to do.

Posted by: matthew wagner | February 9, 2017 5:48 PM    Report this comment

Commercial flying is facing a lot of the same problems now. Pilots are streaming from the regional and budget airlines to the majors, hoping to get away from low pay and too much time away from home, but it is that way at the majors now too. The supply chain is not producing nearly enough pilots, kids don't want to do it. The shortage will result in finding ways to fly existing commercial pilots even more, and of course trying not to increase labor costs with higher pay. Not much we can do about it now, kids aren't going to suddenly want to do this job as it gets tougher every year.

There is no way we're going to switch to high-speed rail or build a lot more roads for more trucks, our economy is highly dependent on aviation, we will have to fly more volume with less pilots eventually. That reality is not lost on kids when they consider the career - they read breathless articles on the future with pilotless planes, and they believe.

Posted by: Sherman Kensinga | February 10, 2017 6:41 AM    Report this comment

When the puzzle palace figures out that pilots don't want to spend the final ten years of their career flying a mahogany desk, the retention rate may increase. I've had many crew members, while flying the aluminum tube, state they would have stayed in if they could have remained in the cockpit and not an office. With the exorbitant pay scales at the majors now can you blame them for bailing out?

Posted by: Hans M | February 10, 2017 10:07 AM    Report this comment

If they're directly losing $2 billion a year because pilots don't get enough flying time, etc., why not invest half of that in some more hours? A billion dollars would probably fund several hours in the air.

Another argument, not mentioned in the article (so it's probably a cut-and-paste from an Air Force press release) is that, for the most part, airline pilots don't routinely expect to have to dodge missiles.

Of course, as the USAF retires dozens of F-16s and F-15s for every one F-35 that comes on line (and hundreds for every F-22) the "pilot shortage" will soon become an "airplane shortage."

Posted by: Tim Kern | February 10, 2017 2:57 PM    Report this comment

I would guess within a few years most manned fighter aircraft will be replaced with drones. problem solved for the USAF/Navy. I have no sympathy for both the military and the airlines. The current cost for one year at Embry-Riddle is somewhat in excess of 42K. How does one expect to get a return on that investment when entry level jobs are paying around 28k? The career flyer is a tough road to follow, low pay and long hours, worries if health will last the career until making a good income. I have been down that road myself, had to do over again not sure I would!

Lt.Col USAFR (Ret.)
Embry-Riddle class of 1971

Posted by: Alan Greenhalgh | February 11, 2017 1:24 AM    Report this comment

Not a new problem, GAO reports go back well into the previous century. See search "Pilot Shortage". The root cause has not changed. Job satisfaction, (pay being a dominant though not exclusive element) does not meet the market demand.

Posted by: C. David Buchanan | February 11, 2017 10:50 AM    Report this comment

The point of this article is military pilot retention, not so much the attraction of civil aviation. Most military pilots I knew wanted to stay in uniform and fly- not get an airline job.

We faced this same issue in the '90s (and the 70s). As the military shrinks, deployment demands skyrocket and there is less money for flight hours (it is ALL money at some point). Our goal then was to get every pilot in a flying job 20 hours/month minimum.

I hear horror stories now about pilots getting 4 hours/month on fewer airframes that have been "used up" at three or four times their planned airframe "lifetime". Add to this the deployment cycles these folks are forced into AND the deployment locations (Okinawa and the Philippines sound like resorts compared to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan) and you have the perfect "bad career" storm.

No place for someone with a family life.

Also, more than half of the military pilots have backgrounds in helos and don't have the option of better paying civil flight jobs. By comparison to military and airline jobs, there are no good pay rates for civil helicopter pilots (except for a very few "niche" jobs).

And for those who think there will be "drone" passenger aircraft in their lifetime- dream on. That will happen when we all own flying cars.

J.D. Hildreth
Colonel USMC (Ret.)

Posted by: James Hildreth | February 11, 2017 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Train some of the mechanics to fly, they don't mind working

Posted by: charles lester | February 12, 2017 6:52 PM    Report this comment

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