USAF Short About 200 Maintainers, Pilot Training Continues: SecAF

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jacob Stiffler, 20th Component Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion journeyman, left, and Senior Airman Alexis Rognholt, 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron tactical aircraft maintainer, high-five after refueling an F-16CM Fighting Falcon during at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Jan. 3, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney)
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jacob Stiffler, 20th Component Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion journeyman, left, and Senior Airman Alexis Rognholt, 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron tactical aircraft maintainer, high-five after refueling an F-16CM Fighting Falcon during at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Jan. 3, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney)

After boosting its maintainer ranks significantly in recent months, the Air Force says it's now only 200 airmen short in the field.

In 21-months time, the service says it's doing "much better" on recruiting and retaining new maintenance airmen, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters during a briefing Tuesday.

"We've now got enough people, [now it's about] getting them experience," Wilson said at the Pentagon.

Wilson said the Air Force plans to get more experience for its higher-ranking "craftsman who are supervising the apprentices."

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In 2016, the service said was roughly 4,000 maintainers short. It quickly began to prioritize staffing for air combat units with higher operations tempo as a result, reshuffling more experienced maintainers throughout the force, with an emphasis on combat-coded units.

Meanwhile, pilot training will continue its steady course.

The FY 2019 Air Force budget supports production of 989 new active-duty "pilots and funds 883,748 flying hours while sustaining a fleet of 4,051 aircraft," according to the budget request.

"This budget anticipates an increase of students going through pilot training from 1,200 to 1,400, but it's not just at the front end -- we're still about 2,000 pilots short," across the total force, Wilson said.

The service in November announced its pilot shortage had climbed to about 2,000 airmen even as officials have been working to keep them in cockpits.

That shortfall includes remotely piloted aircraft pilots, according to the service. The Air Force lacks 1,300 fighter pilots, and the remaining is a composition of bomber, drone, special ops, rescue and mobility pilots.

The ongoing buildup of students does not include the RPA community, since it has developed its own pipelines.

The incremental boost in the training pipeline for pilots was already underway when the service sounded the alarm of its growing shortage.

Wilson said the latest fiscal request would continue the bonus incentives the Air Force set up last year in an effort to retain pilots.

The Air Force last summer announced an increase to flight incentive pay and aviation bonus programs -- with bonuses of up to $455,000 over 13 years for some fighter pilots.

No new bonus hikes are anticipated in the latest budget request.

As officials have expressed in the past, recruiting new airmen to fly hasn't been the main issue.

"Our big challenge is retention because there's a national pilot shortage particularly of pilots who have over 1,500 hours of flying time," Wilson said.

The civilian airlines tends to scoop up military pilots with that experience, she said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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