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Air Force Recruits Retirees To Offset Pilot Shortage

Senior Master Sgt. John Rohrer
Defense Video Imagery Distribution System

The Air Force is facing a pilot shortage and it's looking to an unusual source to help fix the problem: retirees. A new program, known as Voluntary Retired Return to Service, will allow 25 former officers to return to service in an administrative capacity.

Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokesperson, explained that the selected former officers will perform non-flying jobs that demand a pilot's expertise.

"When we're able to fill those positions with non-current pilots, it frees up our current pilots to do the war-fighting," she said.

The Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty Program is one of many approaches to a bigger problem. The US military's service branches are all dealing with low pilot numbers. But the shortage is especially problematic for the Air Force, which was down around 1,500 pilots at the end of 2016. 

Part of the problem is competition. The Air Force is having trouble keeping up with commercial airlines that can pay pilots more. 

Several air bases in Texas, including Laughlin AFB, Shepherd AFB, and Joint Base San Antonio, train pilots and are trying to remedy the shortage from the front end. 

According to Capt. Beau Downey, who's based at JBSA-Randolph, the Air Force's Air Education and Training Command plans to increase the number of pilots it produces from 1,200 to 1,400 by fiscal year 2019.

"We're pretty much gonna be maxing out our resources, that's full throttle full after-burner, us putting as many pilots out as we can," he explained. 

Although the demand for pilots is difficult to match, there's no issue with recruitment, according to Downey.

"There's not a lack of interest in becoming a fighter pilot or even in becoming a pilot in general," he said. "People know that the best place to get that training is to come in through the Air Force."

Even though training efforts are ramping up, the Air Force still expects the pilot shortage to grow next year.   

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.