Last year, the Air Force reported a shortage of approximately 2,000 pilots, including about 950 fighter pilots. Much of pilot training occurs in Texas at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and Sheppard Air Force Base.
At a hearing on Air Force modernization in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questioned Air Force leaders on their efforts to fix the problem.
Over the last four years, the Air Force hasn’t met its annual pilot retention goal, and pilot retention has plummeted since 2010, according to the U.S. Air Force Aircrew Crisis Task Force. It’s currently at about 35 percent.
Major General Brian Robinson, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations with the Air Force, said fluctuating pilot production goals helped create the shortage.
“We’ve got to set the production,” Robinson said. “Right now, our current target is 1,400 pilots per year. We’ve got to set it there and leave it there. That’s part of the problem… We’ve changed the production over the last 10 to 12 years, up and down, mostly trending downward.”
To address retention, Robinson said the Air Force has implemented a program that gives pilots more choice in their assignments. Changes have also been made to the length of overseas tours.
“We’ve cut over half our 365 day tours overseas down to six month tours, to again make that more enticing from them to want to stay and affect their quality of service, as well as quality of life for their families,” Robinson said.
The service also offers retention bonuses to pilots who choose to continue with their service. But the Air Force Times reports that fewer and fewer pilots are taking advantage of that program, known as the Aviation Bonus program.
The Air Force is hemorrhaging talent to the commercial airline industry, which plans to hire 5,000 pilots every year for the next two decades. The reasons for pilots’ departure are varied, to include pay, frustration with administrative requirements, fewer flight hours, unpredictable schedules, and continuous combat operations.
In 2015, Rand Corporation’s Project AIR FORCE released a report that targeted fighter pilot retention particularly:
The key elements that determine the size of the pilot inventory are the capacity to train new pilots (production), the capacity to introduce new pilots into operational units and give them enough flying time to turn them into experienced pilots (absorption), and the retention of experienced pilots that largely determines how many new pilots are required each year (sustainment).
When pilot production outpaces units’ capacity for absorption, the study found, training quality and flight hours decline.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that the Air Force's target number of pilots is 14,000. The actual target is 1,400.
Carson Frame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carson_frame