Beyond the “show up and go up” myth of military flying, the second biggest myth is that all pilots do is fly and go home to their hot supermodel wives (ok the second part is true…maybe). With ground jobs, additional duties, and endless amounts of general military training, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Non-flying jobs are the reason most military pilots work 50-65+ hour weeks, and a major reason for the problems the military faces with retaining aviators.

I’ll talk a little about the retention problems later, but first let’s talk about the non-flying jobs. Every pilot is an officer first, which carries with it responsibilities. I’ll stick to Air Force and Navy squadrons, since that’s what I know, but Army and Marine Corps flying units are not exempt.

Most students don’t realize it, but the training pipeline is perhaps the easiest and most distraction-free portion of a military aviator’s career. Their entire job is to learn their aircraft, learn the procedures, and fly. Ask any crusty O-4 (Major/LCDR) and they’ll tell you they long for the days when they could just fly.

As you reach your first squadron, you start to gain additional, non-flying duties. In the Air Force, most new wingmen are initially sent to the weapons and tactics shop to work for the squadron weapons officer. Here, they’ll be able to study tactics, help with special projects, and focus on flying and getting through their initial qualifications as a combat wingman.

The Non-Flying Side of being a Military Pilot
“Stitch,” an F-15C Eagle pilot with the 142nd Fighter Wing, Oregon Air National Guard, prepares for a night training mission. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

New lieutenants are also expected to act as squadron SnackO, helping to keep the morale of the squadron up by keeping the squadron bar stocked, keeping the jalapeno popcorn fresh and plentiful, and ensuring everyone is paying their dues.

Most new pilots in the Navy become the Coffee Mess Officer (SnackO equivalent) or Public Affairs Officer right off the bat, and are then given a division to run when they’ve earned their basic level two qualification (equivalent of AF Mission Qualification Training-MQT).

As a pilot moves up in rank, responsibility increases. It really depends on the squadron and airframe, but there are many jobs that keep the daily flight operations going. The major difference between the Air Force and Navy is that maintenance and some administrative functions are squadron duties in the Navy, whereas the Air Force delegates those jobs to non-flyers. Here’s a non-inclusive list of possible ground jobs in both the Air Force and Navy:

Fighter pilots do a whole lot more than just fly: Here's the non-flying side of being a military pilot

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Air Force

Weapons – this is the squadron’s tactics shop. It’s typically run by a graduate of the Air Force Weapons Instructor Course. The Weapons Officer, serving as the chief instructor pilot, is responsible for ensuring the squadron’s instructors are the best they can be,  overseeing qualification upgrades,  fixing world problems, and knowing all things tactical.  He reports to the Director of Operations. This is where all the exercise planning and general tactical work happens. As I mentioned above, it’s a perfect place for new lieutenants to become a sponge, and probably the best ground job in the Air Force.

Scheduling – a flight schedule has to be put out every day, and someone has to write it. There are long range and short range schedulers that fall under a Chief of Scheduling. Depending on the shop, this can be one of the most time-consuming jobs. Even if you’re flying all day, the schedule has to be put out for the next day, and things are constantly changing. You’re managing the personal programs of a squadron full of very busy pilots.

Training – the training department is responsible for tracking each pilot’s progression through the various upgrade syllabi. They’re also responsible for the non-flying training, like pre-deployment computer-based training and other general military training (more on that later).

Safety – this can be a wing-level position, but it breaks down into ground safety and flying safety. These folks are responsible for safety compliance within the unit, investigating mishaps (both aviation and ground mishaps like falls or on the job incidents), and other safety directives.

Standardization and Evaluation – StanEval is in charge of managing checkrides, check pilots, and the squadron’s testing and evaluations. These are the guys that ensure that all of the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, because they manage the paperwork that is inspected by higher headquarters to ensure that a unit is flying legally.

The Non-Flying Side of being a Military Pilot
U.S. Air Force First Lt. Kevin Elardo and Lt. Col. Jeff Richenberger, KC-135 Stratotanker pilots from the 336th Air Refueling Squadron, conduct a mission planning briefing May 15, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/Released)

Flight commanders – while not a department per se, each pilot is assigned to a flight which is run by a flight commander and an assistant. These flight commanders are responsible for writing the performance reports and managing the pilots assigned to them – approving leave, ensuring that they are not having any issues in the squadron, etc. These are the people managers.

Above that level, the squadron has a Director of Operations, who is responsible for the overall day to day operations of the squadron and managing the enlisted folks in ops, and Assistant Directors of Operations (number depends on the size of the squadron) that assist with various aspects of that task. The DO reports to the Squadron Commander, who runs the squadron.

Navy

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A Navy squadron breaks down into departments, run by Department Heads (O-4 types) that report to the Executive Officer (XO) and Commanding Officer (CO).

Safety – pretty much the same as the Air Force, except add in a boat that is exponentially more dangerous and you’ve got at least a dozen more programs to manage. The STAN EVAL equivalent known as Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS )also falls under Safety. The NATOPS officer is responsible for managing checkrides and ensuring pilots are qualified to continue flying the jet.

Training – A Navy squadron doesn’t have a Weapons shop per se, but training is where the Pilot Training Officer does most of the same things. This is typically a graduate of Top Gun and he’s responsible for managing the various SFWT upgrades of the pilots. The training officer also runs the ground training and GMT training programs.

Operations – A Navy squadron is very similar to the Air Force, but with a smaller footprint. The squadron operations department head is called the OPS O which is similar to the Director of Operations for an Air Force Squadron. A typical squadron has several junior officers that run the day-to-day and long range scheduling and report to the OPSO.

Maintenance – the perfect example of every pilot being an officer first. Pilots are sent to the maintenance department to lead and supervise the maintainers of the aircraft they fly. They may not know a thing about turning wrenches, but they are expected to learn the appropriate regulations and ensure that the people under their command are complying with policy and procedures. Most squadrons have division officers that report to the maintenance officers. These junior officers run the various shops within the maintenance department.

The Non-Flying Side of being a Military Pilot
148th Fighter Squadron commander, Arizona National Guard Lt. Col. Alex Wilson, and his Royal Netherlands Air Force, counterpart Lt. Col. Bart Bakker, work together to provide the best possible training to Dutch F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

In addition to non-flying jobs, the Department of Defense has decided that the best way to train people is through a constant barrage of computer-based and dvd-based training. I’ve referred to it as General Military Training (GMT) above, but it’s also known as CBTs or just queep. Here are some examples:

Information Assurance Training – every year, under threat of having your access to the network shut off, the DoD mandates that you must take Information Assurance (Cyber Awareness) Training. This is a 30-45 minute video game that teaches you not to give your password to strangers, not to store classified information on your private servers at home, and makes you practice creating passwords that are unhackable. You even get trophies for passing each section. It’s the same training every year, but the DoD often changes the version number (I think we’re on 13 or 14 now) and mandates you do it again just because. Or else.

Operations Security Training (OPSEC) – ever year, a caricature of Uncle Sam gives a 30-45 minute lesson on how not to use Social Media to tell ISIS where our troops are and how to go about counting them.  It’s another video game featuring classic games like whack-a-mole, you sunk my battleship, and deal or no deal. There’s no way to just mute it and walk away, and Uncle Sam gets supremely pissed when you sink your own carrier group.

Active Bystander Intervention Training – That’s right, two words that don’t go together (active and bystander) were combined to create a yearly training on how not to let your buddies get drunk and hook up. It’s a yearly requirement that we train (as a group) on how not to rape each other or sit back and watch other people get raped / make poor life choices, even if the new definition of rape just means someone was drunk.

Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Training – it sounds like the same thing as Active bystander, right? Nope. Two more hours of how not to rape people.

No, I’m not advocating rape, but the law is the law. How many other organizations waste millions of dollars to tell people that rape is bad over and over again? Can you really train people to not be sociopaths? It’s purely a CYA measure.

Active Shooter training – I’ll save you the hour. The military wants you to run, hide, or throw a stapler at the shooter. Guns are bad.

Chart the Course – Another name for bystander intervention training, but just as much of a requirement. Because if you didn’t know not to sit back and watch someone get raped the first time, this time they mean it.

Human Trafficking in persons- This is training that everyone must receive on how not to smuggle people into and out of the country to be used as sex slaves. Who knew?

Suicide Awareness and Prevention – I agree that mental health and suicides are a huge problem in the military in general, but the DoD has mandated painfully boring training to recognize the signs and symptoms and teach people how to get help. This used to just be called leadership. The underlying problem is the stigma of mental health and getting the word out that it’s ok to talk to someone. This doesn’t have to involve training that is so tedious that it actually makes people suicidal.

The Non-Flying Side of being a Military Pilot
1st Lt. Tirso Peña, a navigator assigned to the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s 156th Airlift Squadron, monitor a chat room at the Puerto Rico National Guard joint operations center in San Juan, P.R. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Paul Croxon)

Ok, that’s probably enough. I haven’t even scratched the surface though with things like Self-Aid Buddy Care (computer based), antiterrorism, CBRNE, et al. You can see that there’s a lot of ancillary training to be done beyond just flying. And that leads to the retention problem.

If it wasn’t clear already, this entire post is just my opinion and does not represent that of the US Navy or Air Force or Department of Defense. The following is still just my opinion.

The military is hemorrhaging pilots. Why?

In addition to the endless deployment cycles and burnout, it’s because the mission has become secondary to CYA.

Every military pilot knows that when they sign up to be a pilot, they’re officers first and as such will be expected to do officer stuff. No one disputes that. What people don’t like is the stuff that gets in the way of mission accomplishment.

Computer Based Training and General Military Training are, by and large, useless. It’s just one more thing people have to do before going home to their families. It’s leadership by e-mail – a band aid to fix problems that should be handled at the lowest level and on a case by case basis. People have done stupid things since the inception of the military. Tell people the standards and hold them to it. Don’t waste precious man hours regurgitating the same convoluted message.

But CBT’s are a symptom, not the problem. People are bolting for the airlines because it’s good money for a job that strictly involves flying. No FITREP/OPR 500 race against your buddy. No competing against other career fields “just to be fair.” I’m sorry, but a finance officer or a boat driver should not have his record compared against a pilot for promotion or command. The jobs are not even remotely comparable. It’s like judging a cop based on how good of a firefighter he would be or vice versa.

It doesn’t stop there though. Even something as simple as going Temporary Duty somewhere for a few weeks can be a nightmare. Just getting paid through the Defense Travel System (DTS, aka the direct spawn of Satan) that processes travel claims and ensures people get paid for being away from their families can be a hassle. And as you spend hours in the finance office (or you manage to get an hour free and find out they’re closed for training all day on Wednesdays) to get it fixed and get paid, your government credit card is threatening to negatively affect your credit because, oh yeah, the government gave you a credit card tied to your personal credit score that it sometimes refuses to pay off due to bureaucracy. Awesome.

And in addition to the ground jobs and CBTs and DTS queep above, pilots are expected to complete Joint Professional Military Education and get Masters Degrees in order to be promoted, further taking them away from the mission. Of course, in typical military fashion, it doesn’t matter what the degree is in, just as long as the person has one. It’s nothing more than a check in the box.

So a guy could spend eight hours planning, briefing, flying, and debriefing his flight, four hours trying to get what he can done with his ground job, and then another four hours at home that night trying to write a paper just so he doesn’t get passed over for O-5 and kicked out. He may be the most tactically proficient pilot in the Air Force/Navy, but there’s no metric to measure that. It’s all about checking the squares, and those are the people who end up in charge to create more nonsensical requirements. Self-licking ice cream cone.

It’s a problem that both the Air Force and Navy suffer. Good leaders that don’t care about the mountain of non-mission related nonsense are being pushed out in favor of those that put career first and waste time checking the squares. It has created a CYA mentality where promotion and not getting in trouble with the higher ups is a higher priority than hacking the mission. Everyone has a “good idea” that only adds more asspain because it’s their ticket to another OPR/FITREP (performance report) bullet. Common sense gets lost in favor of careerism.

And instead of attacking the real problems, the services go after non sequiturs like the PT test or getting rid of morale patches and Friday t-shirts so everyone feels equal. Yes, a fighter pilot can be trusted to drop thousands of pounds worth of hate and destruction in combat, but trust him to not cheat on a PT test? Ha! Let’s hire civilians to count every other push-up! Ad nauseam. Ad infinitum. Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

By the time a guy gets to the O-4/O-5 level in his career, flying becomes the additional duty, and a welcome escape from the mountain of queep on his desk. All the while the airlines are offering six figures to just show up and go up.

And the DoD wonders why no one sticks around anymore?

(Featured Photo by by Senior Master Sgt. Edward Snyder/SC ANG)