The Air Force's Pilot Shortage Got Worse in 2019

F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons perform a fly over
F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons perform a fly over during the AirPower over Hampton Roads Open House at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., April 24, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kayla Newman)

The U.S. Air Force's pilot shortage continues to worsen, even after years of multi-pronged efforts to fix the problem.

In separate congressional hearings this week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson told lawmakers that, while there has been steady progress, the service ended last fiscal year 2,100 pilots short of the 21,000 needed "to execute the National Defense Strategy."

To date, the service has not provided a breakdown of which pilot communities -- such as mobility or fighter -- are experiencing manning gaps.

The service ended fiscal 2018 with a total force pilot shortage of 1,937, a slight improvement over the 2,000 it was short in 2017. In fiscal 2016, when officials first sounded the alarm, the Air Force had a 1,555 pilot gap, the service said at the time.

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Wilson said the Air Force has seen a 30% increase in its pilot production over the last three years and has worked to address retention issues.

But competition with the commercial airline industry is a persistent issue.

"This is a national problem, though, between all the services. We're going to produce, [say] 2,200 pilots [but] the airlines are going to hire 5,000, right? So that's the challenge we face," Wilson said during a House Armed Services readiness subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

"The nation is not producing enough pilots," Goldfein said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday. "This is a national-level issue."

In February, the Air Force said it will fall short in its goal of producing 1,480 new pilots across the force by the end of fiscal 2020.

Officials anticipate the service will produce roughly 1,300 pilots across all communities by year's end, which shows steady improvement, they said. The service previously cited ambitious goals to ramp up pilot training in order to produce 1,500 pilots a year by fiscal 2022.

Then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee on readiness and management support in October 2018 that the service would increase its 1,160 pilot training slots to 1,311 in fiscal 2019. The Air Force ended up producing 1,279 pilots that year, roughly 30 pilots short of its increased goal, according to recent statistics provided to

Gen. Stephen Wilson said the goal remains to "get to almost 1,500."

Some experts, however, have said the 1,500-pilot goal may be out of reach, especially in the near term.

"We have a drastically different environment now where the body pool doesn't exist," said Gene Colabatistto, formerly the group president for defense and security at CAE, a company that provides worldwide training and integration for civilian and military aviation. Colabatistto spoke to last year on pilot incentives.

"It's a system issue," he said. "You have to attract people, and they want to become pilots in general. Otherwise ... you'll never succeed."

Some lawmakers said that the service must attract more diverse candidates, instead of propagating the "fighter jock" stereotype.

During the House Armed Services Committee hearing, Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democrat from Maryland, called the number of minorities and women flying aircraft today "disturbingly low," adding that the Air Force must address its pilot culture, which he said is often too stereotypical and exclusive.

"We cannot be afraid of this. We have to take it head-on," Brown said. "I implore you to take this on, and to ask Congress for help."

Rep. Trent Kelly, a Republican from Mississippi, said the service can appeal to younger, more diverse generations with pinpointed advertising.

"We need to make it where those young ladies and minorities see that TV commercial, and they want to go fly fighters for the United States Air Force," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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