The U.S. Air Force has been tasked with supporting air strikes in combat theaters around the world since the onset of the Global War on Terror 16 years ago, but a growing pilot shortage is placing the branch’s ability to maintain continued combat operations at the same tempo at risk.  In order to address this serious dilemma, the Air Force just announced new strategies intended to retain experienced pilots, and even draw qualified pilots back out of retirement to fill mission critical roles.  Although there are three different strategies about to be employed, the unifying factor between the three potential solutions to this problem are simple: throw more money at it.

At the end of fiscal year 2016, the U.S. Air Force was a whopping 1,555 pilots short of their required force total.  Of those gapped positions, 1,211 of them were for fighter pilots relied upon to provide close air support for troops on the ground, as well as a number of other airborne combat operations.  These numbers, frightening as they may appear already, are only expected to grow as fiscal year 2017 winds to a close, leaving America’s aerial warfighting branch scrambling to find a way to stop hemorrhaging skilled aviators.

According to a study conducted by the RAND corporation and provided to Air Force leadership, the pilot shortage can be attributed to the combination of incentive pay dropping after a pilot’s initial active service commitment, combined with excellent employment opportunities for combat pilots in the private sector, and perhaps most importantly, because the “continued high tempos for contingency support operations are raising quality of life issues for pilots and their families.”

To address the first of these issues, the Air Force now intends to provide higher levels of incentive and flight pay for pilots, as well as a reduction in the number of steps on the Air Force Aviation Incentive Pay table.  This will result in an increase of as much as $1,000 per month for some pilots, and increases across the rate tables for all pilots to begin on October 1st.  This is the first time these incentive pay tables have been increased for aviators with less than six years’ experience since 1980, and the first update for all pilots since 1999.

Simultaneously, enlisted aircrew members will also see their incentive pay increase. The Critical Skills Incentive Pay, previously referred to as Career Enlisted Flyer Incentive Pay, will increase to a maximum of $600 per month,” the Air Force stated in a recent press release.

In addition to increased levels of incentive pay, the Air Force is also going to expand its Aviation Bonus Program to include more pilots, and further pad the wallets of America’s best pilots.

The Air Force’s fiscal year 2017 Aviation Bonus take rates have been lower than what the Air Force needs,” explained Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services. “The bonus is now being offered to a larger pool of pilots that includes those beyond their initial service commitments who have previously declined to sign long-term bonus contracts and those whose contracts have expired.  This is one of many initiatives we are taking to retain experienced pilots.”

Finally, the third leg of the Air Force’s effort to fill gapped pilot seats is to bring experienced aviators back out of retirement.  Because of the immense cost associated with training new pilots to fill gapped positions, the Air Force hopes to lure as many as 25 retired Airmen back into uniform for 12-month active duty contracts to fill critical-rated staff positions, thereby allowing qualified pilots to remain in the cockpit, instead of moving on to conference tables.