PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Florida -- There may be darker days ahead for the Air Force's most active Reserve unit as a looming pilot shortage and shortfalls in related career fields create challenges throughout the force.
Reservists here who train for combat search and rescue missions anywhere in the world say they're preparing to feel the brunt of the shortfall, and have a message for the Air Force: don't forget about us.
"Especially in the rated career fields -- pilots, navigators, loadmasters, flight engineers -- we're starting to see the same challenges as the active-duty," Col. Mike LoForti, commander of the 920th Operations Group, said.
Military.com on Feb. 20 toured hangars and facilities used for the combat-search-and-rescue mission and spoke with officials here about the 920th's evolving operations.
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"You would never think you would have to worry about losing a navigator to the airlines," LoForti said, "but one of my navigators was just hired by an airline. And they're going to train him to be a pilot because of all his flight experience: 3,000 hours as a navigator."
LoForti said he's preparing for the competition to be fierce, not just throughout the Air Force, but with the civilian airlines as well.
"To be honest, I can't compete with the airlines, and I don't want to try to," LoForti said. "I'm just losing them where I'd never thought I'd lose them before."
That's happening as the Reserve tries to snap up active-duty members on the brink of leaving the service altogether, added Col. Kurt Matthews, commander of the 920th Rescue Wing.
The goal of the Reserve is to try and "catch at least 70 percent" of active-duty members who need a change of pace, Matthews said in a follow-up interview with Military.com. But there could be setbacks there, too.
"You hear Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller, chief of Air Force Reserve, testifying before Congress that a lot of these initiatives for active duty don't apply to the Reserves. And likewise the [director] of the Air National Guard is doing the same thing, saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. We have similar issues but we don't benefit from initiatives going on in active duty all the time,'" Matthews said.
"More often than not, the Reserve has to compete and work that itself, and try and get similar bonuses or whatever it happens to be," he added.
In an ironic twist, initiatives such as aviation bonus hikes or the ability to give pilots preferred rotation choices -- which the active-duty side hopes will create an incentive for retention -- may hurt the Reserve, Matthews said.
"It retains folks we try to capture," he said, "but we try to keep a balance."
When LoForti served as the chief of the Flight Standards Division/Personnel Recovery and Special Operations Division, at Air Force Reserve headquarters, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, two years ago, there were only 10 full-time pilot slots open throughout the entire Reserve Command. Now, there are about 300 full-time openings, he said.
But both commanders hope that dedicated service will not only be a reminder, but also a motive for citizen airmen to stay in the cockpits and on the flightlines.
Reminder of mission
Personnel recovery isn't always associated with the Air Force as much as the fighter jocks are. Even the drone or space career fields, where the service seems to be promoting its mission these days, get more attention.
But CSAR has a history, and will always have a stand-out place in the service's mission, LoForti said.
The 920th specifically is the most active Reserve unit, and the only Reserve rescue wing in the Air Force. Overall, it is is responsible for 18 percent of all Air Force rescue operations, and has made over 3,000 combat saves since 1956, according to officials here.
One of their best-known missions was the race to save Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL on the run from the Taliban, after he and his team were ambushed during Operation Red Wings in 2005.
LoForti played an audio recording from when then-Lt. Col. David Goldfein was shot down in his F-16CJ fighter jet over Serbia in 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. LoForti himself was in Hungary when Goldfein was shot down, and listened in on his distress calls, aware a mission to find him was about to spin up.
"I've taken a hit, and I'll be getting out of the airplane," Goldfein says over his communications system in the recording. "I'm gonna take to land for as long as I can. Start finding me, boys."
While the 920th was not involved in rescuing Goldfein, now a four-star general and Air Force chief of staff, the rescue was a testament to what CSAR ops mean to the Air Force, LoForti said.
Crews here recently got a taste of training with six A-10 Thunderbolt IIs in what LoForti said was training for a downed-aircraft scenario. Someday, that training may even include F-22 Raptors from Florida's Tyndall Air Force Base or Alaska's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
"This is our bread and butter; this is what we train to day-to day," LoForti said.
But with only a handful of CSAR wings left across the total force, the services of the 920th are needed more than ever, he said.
"So we get tasked more often. It increases our operations tempo, so we're pretty busy," LoForti said.
Regardless of challenges, he said, "we're making sure every person in their Air Force Specialty Code is training to that mission. That's the one. That's why we're here."
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.