USAF Needs to Improve Retention to Address Pilot Shortage

Air Combat Command chief Gen. James "Mike" Holmes blamed the USAF pilot shortage on retention, rather than recruitment, during a Sept. 18 panel at AFA's 2018 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

The Air Force’s pilot shortage isn’t for want of new recruits, but a failure of the service to retain pilots after their service commitment is up, top USAF leaders said Tuesday.

“Right now we don’t have a shortage of people who want to start pilot training,” Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, said at the Air Force Association’s 2018 Air, Space & Cyber conference. There is a “problem retaining people after their commitment” is completed.

The Air Force’s pilot shortage is has become a crisis, with a shortfall of about 2,000 pilots. In ACC, that is a “shortage of experienced 11F” fighter pilots, Holmes said. At Air Mobility Command, there is a declining number of pilots who are taking retention bonuses, and are instead deciding to move on to airlines, AMC boss Gen. Maryanne Miller said. Every year, AMC loses an average of 416 pilots, she said.

The largest factor, historically, impacting Air Force retainment of pilots is if airlines are hiring, and right now, they are. The Air Force simply cannot compete with the salaries offered. For example, Holmes said a captain in the Air Force can become an airline pilot, and in two years exceed the pay rate Holmes has as a four-star commander.

What the service can do is try to improve the quality of life for pilots, and make changes to keep them flying. This includes ongoing efforts to reduce additional duties. Because “if I’m going to reduce additional duties, my preferred technique is to keep you flying,” Holmes said.

AMC has recently implemented a flying-only career track, wherein pilots can remove themselves from a command track and instead only fly for the rest of their career in the Air Force. This effort is in the “nascent stage,” and is relying on volunteers to get started, Miller said.

In addition to adding more pilots, and keeping them longer, the Air Force needs to increase the diversity of its pilot ranks. “We want to look out and encourage people all over America to pursue a career as aviators in the Air Force,” Holmes said. Fighter pilots are overwhelmingly white and male, so the Air Force needs to do better in drawing on populations of Americans who are underrepresented in squadrons, he said.