The head of Air Mobility Command says he keeps asking himself what he got the U.S. Air Force into after working with the service to launch the Aviator Technical Track program.
But Gen. Carlton Everhart is betting that the experimental program will have more benefits than costs at a time when the service is dealing with a troubling pilot shortage.
The Aviator Technical Track is seeking active-duty mobility pilots in hopes of keeping airmen in cockpits longer without assigning them additional, non-flight-related duties. Airmen will be able to stay in one job for five years in an effort to provide a better work-life balance.
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The command is currently looking for majors and majors-select for the program. It will eventually add lower ranks after it sets a foundation for future airmen, Everhart said Aug. 2 during a defense writers' group breakfast in Washington, D.C.
"I need these people with the right talents that [are] going to seed into the squadrons to be able to do mentorship, and be able to explain" proper techniques, procedures and the building blocks of what makes great pilots, he said.
He told Military.com last year that the Air Force potentially stands to lose 1,600 pilots who are eligible to separate in the next four years. The service overall is roughly 2,000 pilots short.
After fine-tuning the idea for nearly a year, the Air Force last month announced the "fly-only" track. Applications will be accepted through Aug. 17. A board should convene by the end of the month, Everhart said.
"Selectees are required to maintain all Air Force standards, including health and fitness, and readiness requirements," the service said in a release. "Participants will also compete for promotion while participating in the program."
Airmen selected for the program will be notified in September.
Everhart, who will retire soon, sifted through more than 800 requests in recent months from airmen asking for a "technical-only track."
"I think we've set it up for success," he said. "And the other [major commands] can use the same program, whether it's [Air Forces Special Operations Command] or [Air Combat Command], they can tailor it to their needs."
Retired Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, who led Air Combat Command between 2014 and 2017, is hoping AMC's plan creates opportunities and benefits for the Air Force. But he said he has had conversations with allies who've tried similar programs with disappointing results.
"The British did it for a while. And they find it that it really isn't that successful," he said in a recent interview with Military.com, referring to the 1970s-era Royal Air Force Specialist Aircrew program. While Carlisle didn't specify the original program's setbacks, the Royal Air Force currently maintains a new technical track, dubbed the Professional Aviator Spine.
Both Everhart and Carlisle, now the president and chief executive officer of the National Defense Industrial Association, said the Air Force has discussed the idea before.
"As for the [Air Force], we have talked about a fly-only track several times when I was in leadership positions, usually at the four-star aircrew summits that happen every September," Carlisle said. "In the past, we never went beyond talking about it."
As careers progress, the motivation behind a fly-only track for individual airmen may change, he added.
Everhart agreed, saying that, as a young captain, all he wanted to do was fly, but that can change over time.
Sometimes, "flying is a young person's game," he said.
If the Air Force is looking for flexibility, similar benefits already exist in the Guard and Reserve, Carlisle said. In the active-duty force, "sometimes the motivation ... it doesn't end up panning out the way they want."
Not Enough Cockpits
Carlisle said it's also a numbers game.
"In the Air Force, one of the problems is we don't have enough cockpits to experience people and grow them for the next positions, for leadership and Joint Staff and strategic planners and all those things you need to do," he said.
The service often reaches maximum capacity in the various pilot production stages because it lacks enough cockpits to effectively generate sorties and train airmen, Carlisle explained. "If you put people that stayed in the cockpit in the active duty, now you have even fewer cockpits to experience [more] people," he said of an aviation-only career track.
The system then bottlenecks, he said, because the experienced people stay where they are, but new pilots can't come in if fewer cockpits are available. "Those people stay there, so you can't always bring the new guys in," he said.
"We first need more cockpits. .... But I just don't see it right now," Carlisle said.
Everhart said the strategy could shift because it's not limited in its design. Pilots could even move into another major command as the Air Force sees fit. For example, a pilot might go to Air Education and Training Command to help train new pilots, he said.
"If I had to guess, if you look at our tanker forces, I don't think many people will sign up from the tanker forces. I may be wrong on that, and the reason why is because they are coming and going. They are just working hard," Everhart said.
The current 1:1 deploy-to-dwell ratio for tanker airmen means they spend six months deployed and six months at home.
"I think our [air]lift force will have more people who sign up," he said.
Everhart said the program isn't intended to backlog the current promotion system or limit careers, adding that the promotion system -- largely mandated by laws such as the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA -- is another piece of the puzzle that needs adjustment.
"Do we have to have the DOPMA language changed because [airmen] will cap out at so many field-grade officers? Probably," he said, explaining that includes rules set by the Air Force's personnel center.
AMC is working with Headquarters Air Force and the A1 Office for Manpower, Personnel and Services to "get at more flexibility" for the program, Everhart said. "I am OK to refine this as we go along."
He said to "check back in" around February to see how the program is shaping up. But "the good thing is it has on-ramps and off-ramps. If you want to stay in it, stay in it. Or you want to go back into the traditional track of officership, you can. It's their options," Everhart said.
Everhart said he was wide open to suggestions.
"And I don't take it personally. I take it professionally because I want the program to work, and I want the program to get better."
-- Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Royal Air Force currently maintains a technical career track.