Cuts to Flight Hours Necessary as Aircraft Sustainment Costs Surge, Air Force General Says

F-15C Eagle fighter jets at Tyndall Air Force Base
U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle fighter jets from the 194th Fighter Squadron, Fresno Air National Guard Base, California, sit on the runway during downtime for Checkered Flag at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Nov. 9, 2020. (Christian Jadot/U.S. Air National Guard)

The U.S. Air Force can't provide its pilots with additional flight hours in part because aircraft sustainment costs have surged to roughly $1 billion, top service leaders told lawmakers Tuesday.

While flying hours do not directly equate to how experienced or proficient a pilot is, there have been concerns about declining cockpit time for years, as this is crucial to maintaining aircraft skills.

According to its fiscal 2022 budget request, the service instead wants to slash flight time by roughly 87,500 hours. The planned reduction is due to the demands of weapon system sustainment, or WSS, which impacts aircraft availability, said Lt. Gen. David Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs.

The age of the aircraft also affects how often pilots can take to the air, he said during a Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee hearing.

"[WSS] is actually approaching $1 billion a year, just in increased costs. And this year, in [fiscal] '22, we were not able to fund that increase," Nahom told Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who inquired about the flight hours cutback.

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While the service has repeatedly stressed the need to boost readiness and mission capability, total pilot flight hours, including those supporting warfighting overseas, decreased from 1.33 million in 2020 to 1.24 million in 2021. The Air Force plans to reduce that even further, to 1.15 million in fiscal 2022, according to budget documents.

"What's driving that is the aging airplanes," Nahom said. The average age of Air Force aircraft is 28 years.

Another problem is that new aircraft coming online are under contractor logistics support, which means the contractor -- not the government -- oversees the integration of the logistics behind a program or a platform, he said.

"Many of these contracts are expensive, and it's driving increased costs," Nahom explained. "The one way we are getting after this in our budget, I believe, is this concentration on recapitalizing our fleets to more modern aircraft ... so that we can fly at a higher rate."

Sullivan called the service's budget request "unacceptable" and potentially risky due to flight hour cuts and plans to retire aircraft. He asked whether additional funding would help.

Funding for WSS and flight hours is "something the Air Force would value a great deal," replied Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, deputy chief of staff for operations.

"Aircrews right now today out there are flying the absolute minimum number of hours they need every month to stay ready."

Last year, then-Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said pilots were flying about 19 to 21 hours per month, an increase from years past where pilots averaged 17.8 hours a month.

"If we can fund weapon system sustainment that generates aircraft availability that we could turn around and lay in the flying hours for -- those are interconnected, and that would be greatly valued," he said.

In recent months, top service leaders have cited progress in keeping pilots in the service longer, mostly due to economic problems related to the pandemic. Still, they did not choose to increase cockpit hours moving forward.

A decreased military footprint overseas somewhat reduces the service's flight hour requirements, Maj. Gen. James Peccia, the Air Force deputy assistant secretary overseeing the budget, said May 28.

Last year, "we reduced the flying hours to actually execute more in line with what we can do in each given fiscal year," he told reporters during a briefing on the budget request. "In FY22, we've done the same thing, but we've taken just a little bit more risk in the flying hours ... for peacetime [flying]."

But retired Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, an F-15 Eagle pilot who led Air Combat Command between 2014 and 2017, said the service's flight hour reductions weren't really by choice.

"Shaving down flying hours, part of that isn't that they cut the flying hours because they want to, it's because it's unexecutable," he told in a recent interview, saying the Air Force must continuously fix older airplanes to keep them ready for flight.

It's part of the rationale for why pilots have been getting fewer flight hours for years now, Carlisle said.

"There are multiple components. One of them is time -- look at the deployment [tempo], certainly leading up to where we're at today," he said of a strained and overworked force.

During Tuesday's hearing, Guastella said the service must strike the right balance.

"While there's no substitute for flying -- it is the crown jewel of training -- there's also a balance in how much we do in a simulation environment because ... fifth-generation [aircraft are] very expensive [to fly]," he said.

For example, Lockheed Martin, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's manufacturer, puts the jet's cost per flight hour at $36,000, with a goal of reducing it to $25,000 by the end of 2025.

"And in simulation events, we can accomplish training at a much lower cost. That's very valuable, so that's a balance," Guastella said.

The service has been adopting virtual reality and simulators in undergraduate pilot training with hopes of eventually using such technology at the operational level, officials have said.

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

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