According to a report made to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the United States Air Force is 520 pilots short of its total manning requirement for active duty. To make a bad situation worse, the current projection is that number will climb as cuts continue to be made to the rapidly-aging fleet of fighter aircraft.

Not enough fighter pilots?! What?!

Yes, you read that correctly. The Air Force does not have enough fighter pilots in the cockpit of its active-duty force, thanks to “force reshaping,” as well as the siren song of the airline industry wafting its way through the airspace and ringing loudly in the ears of men and women who’ve grown sick of the current environment of death by queep: six to nine hours out of the day spent on IDE, mandatory master’s degrees that do little to ensure a pilot becomes a better warfighter, meetings, more meetings, and everything else under the sun keeping them out of the cockpit.

Think I’m kidding?

"Cheetah," "T-Bone," "Glover," and other pilots from the 64 AGRS get their step brief before walking out to their jets for a training mission at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
“Cheetah,” “T-Bone,” “Glover,” and other pilots from the 64 AGRS get their step brief before walking out to their jets for a training mission at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

Ask any number of guys and gals who have exploded out of active duty as though they were on fire. They’re palace-chasing any and all available Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units to stay in a fighter cockpit part time while finding other flying jobs where they’re not spending as much time away from home, aren’t putting warheads on foreheads, and are not spending fifty-five (Roll ’em!) hours every week at their awesome fighter pilot job NOT flying–and making more money to boot.

“Bro, it’s the queep,” said one friend of mine. “It’s killing us. I joined the air force to fly fast jets. I spend so much time at a computer that my skills as a tactical aviator are deteriorating. I’m an instructor pilot, for God’s sake. It’s awful.”

USAF Fighter Pilot Shortage: The Devil's Money

Read Next: USAF Fighter Pilot Shortage: The Devil's Money

For good measure, throw in some budget woes which have dramatically reduced flying hours while stateside, and then dangle the threat of sequestration returning 1 October. End result? Experienced instructor pilots in fighter airframes are leaving active duty in droves, dramatically reducing the number of experienced guys (and gals) available to train new pilots.

"Mac," a Boeing F-15C pilot with the Oregon Air National Guard's 123 FS, starts his jet in preparation for a training mission.
“Mac,” a Boeing F-15C pilot with the Oregon Air National Guard’s 123 FS, starts his jet in preparation for a training mission.

“The shortfall evolved from force structure reductions that cut active duty fighter squadrons and fighter training squadrons to a number that cannot sustain billet requirements,” the testimony from senior Air Force leadership states. “As a result, the Air Force is currently unable to produce and experience the required number of fighter pilots across the total force.”

The Air Force is attempting to keep its operational cockpits full, prioritizing its overall manpower allocation to that end.  There has been a steep decline in subject matter expertise for high-level contingency planning and a drop in overall fighter experience for billets as instructors and developmental/operational test programs.

“Without these fighter pilots, the Air Force will be very challenged to continue to provide the air supremacy upon which all our forces depend,” the testimony states.

The Air Force projects that the major air carriers will hire in the neighborhood of 20,000 pilots over the next decade, and with changing requirements within their own companies, the airlines will target military aviators, according to the Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh.

 

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In Part Two, we’ll take a look at the programs the Air Force is attempting to use as a hook to retain the men and women in the fighter community, as well as an insider’s view on those efforts. Stay tuned!