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.
Brandon, a friend of mine, echoes these sentiments. He was a C-17 pilot who recently left Active Duty for a career with a major airline. He states “The downfall of the USAF operations squadron is that every pilot has more additional duties that detract (grossly) from his ability to prep, train, and most importantly mentor young up-and-comers. Additionally, no Squadron Commander has the ability to enact real change. Everyone spends all their time making the broken, limping squadron look good for leadership.”
He continues “The over-focus is on imagery, not results. How things look are way more important than the best result. Why aren’t the high time combat flyers the #1 recommendation for promotion when they’re obviously doing the operational work? Why isn’t the high time IP (Instructor Pilot) the IP of the year award winner, or at least a contender?”
He’s right. It happens all the time in the fighter community too. Those that look good on paper, get the promotions and awards, not those necessarily doing the work. And everyone is overtasked with additional duties.
Lastly, as one key factor for the problem at hand, Brandon stated to me “High operational tempo. We’re gone too long, too frequently, without enough dwell time. The USAF wants me to go to all these upgrade schools, do PME (Professional Military Education), and still do volunteer work downtown…all during the 80 days per year I’m home. Money doesn’t buy quality of life.”
Bingo Brandon, bingo!
Leadership is Out of Touch
Well the SecAF has released her plan. She still thinks that the airlines are the problem, and the financial bonus will be the cure. She briefly acknowledges “We are working to get help for fighter squadrons burdened with time-consuming administrative duties” but continues with more comments on this retention ploy and how it might help. Sadly, her comments also hint of a guilt-trip tactic. “It is our job to remind them why their service matters and give them compelling reasons to stay.”
That’s just what the tired, broken, and overworked squadrons don’t want to hear. Most already feel as if they’ve given their all, and then some. Too many people are sacrificing time with family and NOT doing what they signed up to do originally (i.e. fly airplanes to protect this great country).
Additionally, I’ll say this. A 700 person shortage doesn’t happen overnight, it takes tim1e. We saw what that shortage was last year, and now it’s worse. Whatever the SecAF and Chief of Staff General Welsh were doing, wasn’t working. Wouldn’t you put the blame squarely in their corner, and not that of corporate America and the airlines? For them to even suggest that outside hiring is the cause, shows a gross misunderstanding… negligence actually… of manning, leadership, and Air Force guidelines.
It’s actually being called a crisis in some circles. How do you get to a crisis-level of a problem, going on two years and point fingers to outside sources?
Here’s what internet blogger John Q. Public has to say about the cause for all of this. “Hiring is a contributing factor. Self-support, red tape, queep, slighted training, do-nothing deployments, chiefings, the unexplained firing of good leaders coupled with the inexcusable promotion of bad ones, and obligatory social science education masquerading as “ancillary training” … these are the causal factors. Together they are killing squadron life. When you kill squadron life, you kill the United States Air Force.”
On 19 Aug 2016 the new Air Force Chief of Staff, General David “Fingers” Goldfein (1) and the SecAF did in-fact announce a new sweeping policy, to reduce additional duties. They reduced 29 additional duties to be exact!
But before you get all excited, realize that few of these duties were eliminated altogether, and most were given to the Commander’s support staff personnel. Unfortunately it’s a drop in the bucket and honestly, as far as pilots are concerned, most of the ‘reduced’ duties were not duties that many pilots carried anyway. The problem was reshuffled in another shell game. But again, it’s a start.
Sorry folks, the new pilot bonuses are not going to help, or the so-called reduction in additional duties ploy.
Only exceptional leadership, lessening of at-home responsibilities and squadron whitewashing, a fair and unveiled promotion system, and getting pilots back to what pilots are being paid to do will solve this problem.
Top Image Credit: A Block 40 F-16CM, flagship of the 31st Operations Group and a triple MiG-killer, takes to the sky with an inert LGB during Red Flag 15-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, NV. (Scott Wolff)
1. General Goldfein is an F-16 pilot and Weapons Officer. I served with him directly, while overseas in 2011-2012 in Qatar where he was the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) and Commander of US Forces, Central Command, Southwest Asia. He was a Lieutenant General at the time. I often provided him biweekly briefings on a program I was with. He was a smart and skilled leader and pilot, and a pleasure to work for in every sense. I have high hopes for him as the new AF Chief of Staff.