GULFPORT, Miss. -- Everybody needs practice -- even four-star Air Force generals.
Gen. Carlton Everhart II, commander of Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, practiced his flying skills Wednesday when he flew a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane to the Combat Readiness Training Center near Biloxi, Miss. He went to observe a 10-day training exercise that simulated a combat situation and involved four Wings from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
Crews in this particular exercise were tasked with establishing and operating a makeshift air base from the ground up. They also practiced scenarios they might encounter in combat -- like solving maintenance problems or decontamination after an attack.
"It's everything from soup to nuts," said Everhart, an easy-going North Carolina native whose hometown, Mount Airy, was the setting for the Andy Griffith Show. Carlton assumed command of Air Mobility Command in August 2015 and his flight headset bears his nickname, "Dewey."
Everhart says he wants to see more of this kind of exercise organized in Gulfport. It gives crews the opportunity to practice real-world scenarios away from home.
It's this kind of high-intensity training that prepares airmen who have never been deployed for the unexpected. The exercise also gives rookies a chance to learn from their more experienced peers. Roughly 66 percent of the crews who participated in the Gulfport exercise have not yet been deployed, according to Col. Darren Cole, of the New Jersey air base.
But the same training that rigorously prepares airmen also makes them a prime target for recruitment by commercial airlines, who pay more than Uncle Sam. As of early March, the pilot shortage for Air Mobility Command stood at 315, according to Everhart. In the next four years, upward of 1,600 people will be eligible to separate from air mobility alone, the general says. In a recent blog post, Everhart called the shortage a "developing national crisis."
"We just cannot outspend the airlines," Everhart said. "But our airmen do this because of what's in their hearts for service."
A relatively strong economy contributes to the airlines' need for more pilots, a blessing and a curse for the Air Force, Everhart says. An Air Mobility Command aircraft takes off or lands somewhere in the world -- from perhaps a research station in Antarctica or an air base in Mosul -- every 2.8 minutes. At the call of the Commander in Chief, Air Mobility Command has to be ready to mobilize. The command's airmen are often the first to arrive and the last to leave.
"Is that good or bad? No. Are we busy? Yeah," Everhart said.
Joe Benscoter, a pilot based at the New Jersey air base, said the decision to move from the Air Force to working for commercial airlines is personal.
"There are a lot of factors, sometimes personal reasons," like pay or family priorities, Benscoter said.
In his recent blog post, Everhart said he is sensitive to those issues.
"I'm painfully aware our airmen have been subject to high operations demand for quite some time. Most are tired, as are their families. They do what we ask them to do, and they are always there, conducting the mission professionally, selflessly and with great effect," Everhart wrote.
It's no easy task to replace pilots, either. "It takes a very long time to train pilots," says Benscoter, the pilot, and squadrons always have to have pilots ready to replace those who leave.
A fully mission-ready co-pilot of a C-17 cargo plane has to undergo 250 flight hours, spend four years at a university or academy and more than two years of commissioned officer training -- just to be a co-pilot, according to pilot Spencer Reese. In addition to years of education, pilots participate in ongoing training, like the exercise in Gulfport.
The general says he is working to develop partnerships with airlines to come up with solutions that benefit both the Air Force and the airlines. That might include a debt-forgiveness program or a bump in pilot bonuses -- a possibility that will perhaps be made easier by President Donald Trump's proposed 10 percent hike in defense spending. The Air Force also encourages pilots to stay in the National Reserves and Guard after they complete their requisite service.
"There are a lot of things unexplored," Everhart said. "But we have to walk this line together."
Everhart plans to meet with airline officials in May, he said, to hone in on solutions to the pilot shortage.
In the meantime, Air Mobility Command continues to provide rapid air mobility anytime, anywhere, as the motto goes. Its capability goes beyond mobility, however. The general says Air Mobility Command has the ability to spread "gray tail diplomacy," referring to the gray tails of the command's aircraft.
"Any time an Air Mobility Command aircraft arrives somewhere around the globe, it signals U.S. values and resolve," Everhart said. "Gray tail diplomacy achieves powerful effects. Whether it's our C-17s delivering hope or relief via supplies or equipment or ensuring the president is able to get to any place on the globe, we'll get them there."
When Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti last year, Air Mobility Command and Air Forces Transportation responded in support of disaster relief operations. This is an example of where the command provided hope and, in turn, diplomacy, Everhart said.
Meanwhile, Everhart isn't shy about saying his airmen are the best of the best, in part because of intense training like the exercises in Gulfport. And he hopes they will get better. They have another, "grander" exercise scheduled for August.