Former F-16 pilot Nate “Buster” Jaros takes us through his thoughts on USAF pilot retention issues and where leadership has missed the mark.

A few years ago, my father (a Cold War F-106 Fighter Pilot of the 1970s) asked me how my F-16 career was going. “Getting about four sorties a week?” he asked. I almost choked on my coffee if I recall. “Dad, I’m lucky to get one or two a week.” I replied. His obvious next question was “Why?” and after that “How can you be ready to fight?”

During his era Cold War pilots flew, trained, and did it again the next day. That was it. Do your job and protect America. You might sit alert on some days, but generally you would go fly and train in the air or maybe the simulator. If you were a USAF pilot in the 60’s and 70’s, you flew.

We don’t do that anymore I told him. In the modern fighter squadron we have endless non-flying taskings. I explained to him how I was in charge of the squadron’s plan to move to a new building next month, attending daily meetings and hacking out emails to various technicians and involved parties. It was up to me to ensure everything from cabinets, to communications, to toilet paper was ordered and ready at the new building.

I was also working on a few EPRs and OPRs (Enlisted / Officer Performance Reports) which ate up tens of hours each week. I had to also pull Ops Sup duties at the front desk or sit SOF (Supervisor of Flying) once or twice a week, as well as do mandated computer training, aimed at the lowest IQ recruit on everything from cyber crime-awareness to anti-suicide and anti-sexual harassment training. I was also helping plan for the next squadron trip, and a deployment to the Mid-East was looming as well. If I was lucky, maybe I could get a workout in.

Nowadays, if you are a USAF pilot, you have endless responsibilities, none of which involve making you a better aviator. This appears to be systemic across all USAF flying squadrons as well. Fighters, Heavies, Tankers, and Remotely flying squadrons seem to all have succumbed to this paperwork and overtasking quagmire.

USAF pilots are leaving the ranks in droves. You may have heard of this phenomenon before, but today it’s bad and only getting worse. Just over a year ago Fightersweep’s own Scott Wolff  reported that the USAF acknowledged that it was 520 fighter pilots short, today that number has grown to 700.

Why are they leaving? USAF leadership and the Secretary of the Air Force think it’s because of the good economy, primarily the airline hiring boom. Sure, that helps contribute to the exodus, but it’s not the root cause. The root cause is queep…an old fighter pilot term for desk work. That term is now ubiquitous throughout the entire USAF, not just pilots.

SecAF and Congress are contemplating increasing the already somewhat abysmal “pilot bonus.” Throwing money at the leaking dike, as if it will help. Any takers get $25k a year (pre-tax) and sign on for five more years of duty. Just last year, 55% eligible USAF pilots took the bonus and signed on for more service. This year, as of 1 August, just 43% of eligible pilots took the bonus. And the take rate for fighter pilots is even less. Just 34% took the bonus for the 10 months in FY 2016.