Air Force Allows Unvaccinated Instructor Pilots to Fly Again Amid Pending Lawsuits

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, 19th Air Force commander, deplanes a T-38C Talon on the flight line at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, 19th Air Force commander, deplanes a T-38C Talon on the flight line at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, Oct. 4, 2022. (Airman 1st Class Kailee Reynolds/U.S. Air Force photo)

The Air Force is allowing instructors who remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 to fly again, a change that comes as the result of a pending lawsuit that is stopping the service from punishing those who have refused to get inoculated. The pilots were grounded this summer.

An Oct. 25 memo shared with on Tuesday issued by Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, the commander of 19th Air Force, reverses an Aug. 19 decision that kept those unvaccinated teachers from flying.

"Instructor pilots, who received final denial of their religious or medical accommodation request for the COVID-19 vaccination and requested retirement or separation, will be permitted to fly again until litigation regarding the COVID-19 mandate is resolved by the U.S. Courts," Capt. Lauren Woods, a spokeswoman for Air Education and Training Command, told in an emailed statement.

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One of the reasons behind the change is a pending lawsuit filed by troops attached to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, that has led to temporary protections for the more than 9,000 active-duty, Active Reserve, Reserve and National Guard members of the Air Force and Space Force who asked for a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

While the Oct. 25 memo states that the pending court case "does not affect" the policy that the Air Force intends to ground unvaccinated flight instructors, but Stewart wrote he was reinstating their flying privileges, adding it was "in the best interest of the Air Force," meaning the policy could change again based on the outcome of the lawsuit.

"This guidance will be reassessed after the final determination of the court," Stewart wrote.

Nineteenth Air Force, which is under Air Education and Training Command out of Joint Base San Antonio, had grounded the instructor pilots for two months. The policy reversal only applies to instructor pilots, Woods said. Students who have refused the COVID-19 vaccine will still be grounded.

"Given the lengthy nature of the administrative exemption process and uncertain outcomes for each specific case, student pilots who have refused the vaccine will remain on administrative hold," Woods said in an email. "In order to maximize readiness, training will be prioritized for student pilots who have received the vaccine."

Since July 11, the day when the latest figures were released, the Department of the Air Force has administratively separated 834 service members, and nearly 140 airmen and Guardians have received religious exemptions.

As of the most recent vaccination data for the Department of the Air Force, 98% of the total force -- active-duty, Reserve and Air National Guard -- had been inoculated against COVID-19.

Around 12,000 of the 497,000 total personnel in the Air Force and Space Force have not been vaccinated.

As of Oct. 18, the service had approved more than 1,000 medical and administrative exemptions to the vaccine.

The service members out of Wright-Patterson who are part of the religious exemption lawsuit are represented by the New York-based Siri & Glimstad law firm. They were all "found by a Chaplain in the Air Force to hold sincere religious belief substantially burdened by the order to be vaccinated," according to a press release from the firm.

Refusers often state that the use of fetal cell lines in the creation of the vaccine prevents them from taking the vaccine because of their views on abortion.

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines do not need fetal cell lines for development or production but were tested on fetal cell lines replicated from an aborted fetus in the 1970s to ensure their efficacy. Only the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is made using fetal cell lines.

In an attempt to convince some with those religious objections, the Air Force announced in July that Novavax -- a COVID-19 vaccine developed without the use of human fetal-derived cell lines or tissue -- would be an option in the near future for airmen and Guardians.

"Novavax may accommodate those with sincerely held beliefs who felt limited in their options with the previous vaccine offering," Maj. Gen. Sharon Bannister, medical operations director, Air Force surgeon general, said in a statement in July.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been approximately 163,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in the Air Force, and 166 deaths, according to the latest data.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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