USAF Limiting Deployments and Exercises, Increasing Physical Care to Keep Pilots

USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein speaks Thursday at a Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill. Screenshot photo.

The Air Force is moving forward with almost 70 initiatives aimed at addressing its pilot shortage, and urging Congress to support its Fiscal 2019 budget that would spend more money on keeping pilots in the air longer.

The service is short about 2,000 pilots, with the majority of them in the Active Duty. USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, testifying Thursday at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on Air Force posture, said the service will increase pilot training to 21 hours per month in Fiscal 2019, up from 17 in 2016.

“Pilots join to fly, and this budget gets them back into the air,” Goldfein said.

Additionally, the Air Force wants continue the $35,000 bonus Congress authorized for pilots. However, there is continuing analysis to determine if that will be enough. There will not be a change for Fiscal 2018, but the Air Force may come back later to ask for a change, Goldfein said.

The Air Force has 69 initiatives it is either reviewing, implementing, or continuing, all of which are aimed at improving the quality of life for pilots to keep them in uniform. For example, the service has reduced downrange deployments to try to increase the amount of time a pilot can spend at home with family. At Al Udeid AB, Qatar, this has translated to 140 fewer positions at its headquarters. Additionally, the Air Force is reviewing pilot participation in exercises. The service wants to ensure that, if a pilot needs to be away from home for an exercise, there is enough of a reason for them to be there and “the return on investment is worth it,” Goldfein said.

The FY19 budget request includes $13 million in a line item called, “optimizing the human weapons system,” which includes a contracted physical trainer or therapist for every 30 aircrew, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) highlighted in the hearing. The goal with this money is help aircrew deal with the pains of flying—the continued human toll it takes, for example, for an F-16 pilot to pull 9Gs, Goldfein said.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson during the same hearing said the idea for this stemmed from the service’s special operations community, which also includes jobs that take a heavy physical toll. There had been a tradition to “grin and bear it” to avoid being taken off a special operations team. However, the service wants to proactively help airmen stay healthy if they face particularly grueling jobs, she said.

For more on USAF’s pilot shortage, see The Pilot Shortage Quandry from the June issue of Air Force Magazine.