Air Force Faces Pilot Shortage
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The Air Force has a multibillion-dollar problem with one of its most expensive assets - pilots. The American military overall is facing serious problems filling its ranks. For some branches, that means shortages of new recruits. But in the Air Force, the issue is retaining pilots after years of costly training, even as the military spends hundreds of billions of dollars on new hardware. Joining us now is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And Tom, all the services are facing a recruiting challenge, right?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Right. Linda, there are two problems here. First of all, the economy is doing really well, so unemployment levels are way down. So that makes it hard for recruiters. And also, the recruiting pool is small because so many teens have either criminal histories, lack the necessary high school degree or have physical problems that would bar enlistment. So get this - 70 percent of young people don't meet the qualification standards to go into the military. And the Air Force is short on pilots. And it's likely to get worse.
WERTHEIMER: Now we have more on this story from Zachariah Hughes of Alaska Public Media.
(SOUNDBITE OF POPCORN POPPING)
ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: Wherever there are fighter pilots, there's popcorn. At Air Force bases around the world, elite flyers have a ritualistic affinity for, very specifically, spicy jalapeno popcorn.
DAVE SKALICKY: Every single fighter squadron across the Air Force you will find a popular machine that produces jalapeno popcorn and one of the finest lieutenants to run the machine to make sure that it is going.
HUGHES: Lieutenant Colonel Dave Skalicky commands a squadron of fighter pilots at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and is himself a pilot. He flies F-22 Raptors. And he says, to the best of his knowledge, popcorn started a long time ago as a snack during informal de-briefs that fliers would have over drinks. But at some point the snack migrated, and now they eat it all the time. Junior officers are tasked with popping duties at 6 a.m. ahead of morning missions.
SKALICKY: Popcorn and coffee are two things you'll find in every heritage room.
HUGHES: The heritage room is basically a pilot clubhouse. There's a bar, foosball, a photograph of the squadron's mascot, a bulldog, even a wall of beer steins emblazoned with each pilot's nickname.
SKALICKY: My call sign is Zeke - Z-E-K-E.
HUGHES: If this seems like a cross between a military secret order and a sporty frat house, it's because it kind of is. The F-22 Skalicky and his crew fly - it's one of the most agile powerful jet fighters in the world. And they get to fly them in Alaska, legendary among all kinds of pilots because of the wide, open training ranges where flyers have free rein to push cutting-edge machines to their limits.
SKALICKY: You know, it's like getting tossed the keys to an Indy car and going, all right. Take her out. Go do it.
HUGHES: Becoming an Air Force pilot of any sort is competitive, requiring years of officer training and academic study. Flying jet fighters is a whole other echelon, which is why, given the dedication required, it's so surprising that the Air Force is dealing with a pilot shortage so severe that one general labeled it the national air crew crisis.
GINA GROSSO: Of this amount, the total force was short 1,211 fighter pilots.
HUGHES: Last year, Lieutenant General Gina Grosso told a House Armed Services subcommittee the problem is most acute with fighter pilots. According to a report in April from the Government Accountability Office, more than a quarter of the positions are unfilled. And it's mid-career pilots who are leaving the greatest number. Grosso says this isn't just a liability for military readiness and national security. It's also really expensive. The amount to train just one new pilot in a plane like the F-22 Raptor is $11 million.
GROSSO: A 1,200 fighter pilot shortage amounts to a $12 billion capital loss for the United States Air Force.
HUGHES: That estimate is on the high end, but it's still billions of tax dollars invested in human capital that then walks out the door. So why are all these young, highly trained, elite pilots leaving? One of the main reasons is that commercial airlines are hiring them away. Globally, more planes are in the air, and the money is way better.
DAVID GOULD: I just finished year two. And year two was more than I was making at year 20 in the Air Force.
HUGHES: David Gould retired from the air Force as a colonel after 26 years, much of it spent flying C-130 cargo planes. Now he works for United Airlines. The pay bump is nice, but he says the main reason that pilots leave is tied to the same reason they join in the first place. They just want to fly as much as they can.
GOULD: That's just so much fun. And if they - I would guarantee it on my life. If you just had them do it enough, nobody would get out.
HUGHES: The problem, according to Gould, is pilots are in the cockpit less and less. Instead, they're spending more time devoted to administration.
GOULD: And after a while you kind of look back and go, I'm a pilot. And I'm flying, if I'm lucky, once a week. What am I doing the other 80 percent of my time - stupid paperwork that doesn't have to be done.
HUGHES: This isn't just one retiree's griping. The GAO report from April said the same thing. Another big reason for leaving is the Air Force lifestyle - prolonged deployments, long workdays, frequent moves, a battery of sacrifices that strain family life. Gould says many younger pilots, after they'd met their service requirements, look around and decide the chance to keep flying cool planes isn't worth the headache, which leads squadron commanders like Dave Skalicky appealing to pilots' enthusiasm for the work itself.
SKALICKY: What I'll tell you is that there's so much energy and so much drive in these people in this professional corps of airmen that we have that harnessing that energy, focusing it to get this mission done is more of a privilege than a challenge.
HUGHES: Air Force leadership is keenly aware of the pilot problem. They've increased the bonus pay given to pilots who re-enlist midway through their careers. They're also shortening some deployments, are experimenting with letting pilots stay at bases - an extra hitch to spare the moves - and have hired contractors to take on some of the administrative work. For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes in Anchorage.
WERTHEIMER: And Zachariah Hughes joins us now. Are any of these fixes working?
HUGHES: Well, Linda, it's hard to say. This is a problem that's been on the Air Force's radar for a long time. And in the past, they've tried to, as one member of leadership put it, buy their way out. They've increased their retention bonuses higher than any of the other branches in the military. But, really, they're trying to pursue a lot of different strategies to keep pilots in. And there's a lot of little things. And it's too early to say whether or not they're cumulatively adding up to keep more pilots in the force.
WERTHEIMER: And, Tom Bowman, what else does the Air Force have up its sleeve?
BOWMAN: Well, Linda, the Air Force is also looking at voluntarily bringing back pilots who have retired in the past five years. Now, they see a lot of them would handle that administrative work. But some could return to the cockpit. But we don't have a sense right yet if they will be doing it. And then if they do head down this road, how many of these pilots will want to come back?
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Tom Bowman and also Zachariah Hughes from Alaska Public Media, thank you both for joining us.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
HUGHES: Thank you.
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