Despite Shortage, Air Force Likely Won't Boost Enlisted Pilot Ranks

Two U.S. Air Force pilots prepare to land a C-130J Super Hercules Sept. 9, 2015, at Diyarbakir Air Base, Turkey. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Cory W. Bush)
Two U.S. Air Force pilots prepare to land a C-130J Super Hercules Sept. 9, 2015, at Diyarbakir Air Base, Turkey. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Cory W. Bush)

Even as the U.S. Air Force faces a long-term pilot shortage, there are no plans to grow the ranks of enlisted pilots, a top official said recently.

"We'll certainly see what the study says, but at this point, we have no intention to expand enlisted pilot positions beyond the Global Hawk" community, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told Military.com on May 4.

Wilson was referring to a Rand Corp. study exploring the feasibility of bringing back a warrant officer corps as the service faces shortfalls in its pilot billets.

"The Rand study is complete, and we are now reviewing, analyzing and consolidating the information," Capt. Kathleen Atanasoff told Military.com on Wednesday.

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"The intent behind any new personnel system would be to increase retention in critical specialties, and to enhance the readiness and lethality of the Air Force," she said in an email.

The latest news comes after many former enlisted airmen expressed excitement that the Air Force might offer opportunities beyond drones. Enlisted airmen currently are authorized only to be remote pilots on the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, a surveillance-only platform.

But the need must be there, Wilson said.

She said some people see expanding the ranks of enlisted pilots or bringing back the warrant officer program as a fix for the pilot shortage. But she disagrees.

"We don't have a shortage of people who want to become pilots, so there's no shortage of recruits. The issue is retention at the 10- to 12-year point and the capacity of squadrons to absorb new pilots," she said in an interview.

Retention continues to be affected by big commercial airline companies, which recruit from the military branches to create their own cadre of experienced fliers.

Wilson said the commercial airline industry takes in 4,500 new pilots a year on average. Airlines often seek aviators from the services because military pilots already offer the skills and required flight hours -- 750 hours under FAA rules for ex-military, 1,500 for everyone else -- needed to fly commercially.

Airmen are often tempted because airlines offer better bonuses as well as stability, she said.

"We know historically that, when the airlines are hiring, our retention rates are lower. We have to expect that that's going to continue," she said.

However, bonuses are not the single "magic wand" that will fix retention problems, Wilson said. The service has about 69 "recruit, train and absorb" initiatives, covering pilots and aircrew members such as loadmasters and navigators.

"It's about ticking up the [retention rate] a little bit," she said.

The service is looking at deployment requirements to see where it can improve conditions and, potentially, retention.

In late 2017, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein directed Air Forces Central Command to review deployment requirements at the Combined Air Operations Center, including AFCENT staff positions, and determine if any jobs could be moved to Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, or curtailed in length.

While the review mainly pertained to mobility, logistics and communications airmen, it "revealed that 125 deployed positions at the CAOC and AFCENT at Al Udeid Air Base, [Qatar], can be eliminated or moved stateside due to greater efficiencies in mission planning and execution processes," AFCENT spokeswoman Capt. Helen Annicelli recently told Military.com.

A similar review is underway for pilots who've been deployed for a staff position.

"Do we really need only a pilot for that particular place?" Wilson questioned. "Can we break them into 180-day tours? Can we negotiate with that airman and say, 'Here are these positions. If you want to volunteer for these, the personnel center has the authority to negotiate with you what you want next?' "

In an effort to keep airmen in in-demand career fields, top leaders are reducing or eliminating miscellaneous requirements that add no substantial value.

In August, the service began removing miscellaneous responsibilities known as "additional duties" typically assigned to airmen at the unit level. Leaders cut 29 of 61 additional duties identified under Air Force Instruction 38-206, "Additional Duty Management" at the time, and various commands continue scaling back other training they see as onerous or a distraction.

In line with Goldfein's revitalizing the squadrons initiative, the Air Force this month cut mandatory computer-based training and left those requirements up to commanders "as they see fit," according to a service memo.

Commenting on those recent moves, Wilson said, "There are a lot of efforts on a lot of fronts" to keep airmen motivated.

"This gives us more flexibility," she said, adding, "the priority for pilots is in the cockpit."

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

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