More than 530 U.S. Air Force Academy cadets from the 2019 graduating class have been selected to attend pilot training, pending final qualifications and commissioning, the Colorado Springs-based academy said in a statement this week.
The number represents a 26 percent increase over last year's graduating class, academy officials said. In 2018, 417 graduates were scheduled to attend pilot training.
The academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, said in a statement that "we are proud as an institution to offer more flying opportunities to our cadets."
In looking to expand the pipeline to pilot training, the academy, officials said, is working with Air Education and Training Command to produce more candidates capable of bypassing initial flight training, a less-specialized form of pilot training that gauges aptitude for flight and introduces the rigors of military aviation and training.
Efforts are also being made to push candidates through a condensed undergraduate pilot training, or UPT, to further reduce the time needed for getting new pilots into specific air frames, the academy statement said.
The Air Force already has cut undergraduate pilot training by as much as five weeks to more quickly replace departing veteran pilots, the San Antonio Express-News reported in June.
The abbreviated syllabus trims UPT from 54.7 weeks to an average of 49.2 weeks, the newspaper reported, allowing the best students to finish the course faster.
For its part, the academy is planning to add flight-related courses to the sophomore and senior year to help advance pilot training candidates.
Cadets already can take a variety of aviation courses, such as piloting a sailplane and flying a propeller-driven aircraft.
"The academy made the case that we could play a role in starting to solve this critical Air Force issue," Silveria said of the pilot shortage. "We will continue to work with other major commands and Air Force leaders to do our part in solving this national defense challenge."
The Air Force at the end of last fiscal year had about 21,000 pilots. Even with an annual influx of newly trained pilots, the service still needs about 2,000 to replace those who are leaving, some for the more lucrative commercial airlines where there is also a pilot shortage.
The other services also face similar problems, with fighter pilots in particular need, according to a Government Accountability Office study released earlier this year.
To fill the gap, the Air Force has tried to entice more pilots to stay in the service by increasing retention bonuses, eliminating non-flying duties, and allowing select fighter pilots and air crew the chance to stay at some commands and bases longer to give them more stability.
The Air Force last year began expanding a voluntary recall program for retired pilots, from 25 to 1,000 slots.