Difficult Decisions: Practical Policy for the Air Force’s Pilot Retention Crisis


The popular blog John Q. Public caricatures every development in the Air Force as causing impending doom for the service’s pilot retention crisis: One article describes “the worst decision in [the Air Force’s] institutional history,” while another narrates “the exact day the tailspin started”, leaving readers unsure whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or histrionic.

The pilot retention crisis has also been the subject of insightful commentary and in-depth studies, citing root causes ranging from competition with civilian airlines to cultural shifts. While all of these explanations are valid, some are probably more pertinent than others. If everything is a huge problem, it’s hard to triage — to separate what’s merely annoying from what’s truly defeating the morale of the aircrew. Now the Air Force needs to determine where to operate to save the patient.

To understand how to solve this problem, we conducted a survey of Air Force aircrew. More than 10 percent of the active duty aircrew provided responses to our proposals as well as raw input on what would keep them in the Air Force longer.

The results show that the pilots’ largest concerns are ones that Air Force leaders generally already know about: Aircrew flagged the duty station assignment process, deployment length, and financial incentives as areas where reform would incentivize them to stay in the force. Indeed, several policy changes made in recent years are intended to address these problems and will likely have good effects.

The deepest problems, however, are less conducive to short-term reforms and instead require more fundamental changes. Specifically, airmen cited as problematic the additional duties they believe leadership prioritizes above flying. The Air Force should strongly consider establishing a technical fly-only track in the long term, while in the short-term increasing Airman and contractor support for administrative functions. While the problem has deep roots and will take a long time to address, there are tangible programs that can be expected to help the Air Force accomplish its growing mission set.

What’s the Problem, Exactly?

Retention troubles are leading to a shortfall of roughly 2,000 pilots in the Air Force. One statistic that helps explain this problem is the “take rate” at which pilots accept the retention bonus (an increasingly flexible and lucrative set of bonuses aimed to incentive pilots to stay). While the Air Force hopes to achieve a 65 percent take rate, it was just 48 percent in fiscal year 2016 and only 44 percent in fiscal year 2017, despite the bonus increasing significantly for the 2017 fiscal year. What does it mean that the take rate dropped despite the bonus increasing by 40 percent? While it is possible that a larger financial incentive would better incentivize pilots, we focus on a second possibility: that pilot retention is less elastic to financial incentives than traditional models would imply.

Indeed, the discussion about why pilots are leaving the Air Force has not neglected the importance of non-financial factors: Pilots must perform administrative duties above their primary mission focus, spouses and families have difficulties coping with constant moves, and duty stations are often in remote locations.

Some writers have homed in on problems of  “culture” or “leadership.” These characterizations might be accurate, and the discussion is a step in the right direction. But culture and leadership are notoriously hard to define and don’t lend themselves to specific policy changes. Mike Benitez’ article about fixing the Air Force’s culture is the most productive example of this discussion that we’ve seen. He writes:

A previously command-driven military organization started to act like a corporation, with management replacing leadership and the culture losing sight of the service’s true raison d’être: its warfighting forces.

Culture has to be changed through policy, however, and at the end of the day we need to know what policy will get the best response from pilots.

What the Aircrews Say

To narrow in on specific policy actions the Air Force can take, one of us (Jesse Friedel) designed and fielded a survey with 2,620 aircrew participating. The survey was administered by Waggl, a survey firm that specializes in getting employee feedback to improve organizational engagement and agility. A random sample of active duty pilots and aircrew (around 40 percent of the active duty population) received emails, and about 10 percent responded. While respondents self-selected, the large sample was representative: For example, 13.2 percent of our sample had the 11F (fighter pilot) specialty code, compared to 15 percent of the overall eligible population, and 38 percent of respondents had a rank of O-3, compared to 42 percent of the eligible population. Respondents first answered five “closed” questions, in which they were asked to evaluate whether they would stay in the Air Force longer if the following changes were made:

  1. Decreasing individual deployments from 365 days to 180 days or fewer
  2. Opportunity to choose or adjust Vulnerable to Move List timing with commander (that is, they can change the timing of their next assignment)
  3. Improved school opportunities around military facilities for their children
  4. Assignment preference or deferment based on spouse’s or romantic partner’s career
  5. Opportunity for a technical fly-only track.

For each question respondents chose Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree.

Below, we depict the response frequencies to the closed questions.

While the greatest number of people “Strongly Agree” with the option to create a fly-only track, more people “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” with the idea of adjusting when they are vulnerable to receive a new assignment. Improving the quality of schools seems to be the least favored option, yet still enjoys a 62 percent positive response. It seems at first glance that respondents simply reached for any and all suggested improvements.

Some clarity, however, can be found by looking at the respondents who only chose “Strongly Agree” for one proposed change (which 773 respondents, or nearly a third of the total, did). These service members had one suggestion that stood out above the rest, and the results are revealing. Of these respondents with a clear priority, 50.4 percent strongly agree that the creation of a fly-only track would influence them to stay in the Air Force longer.

Other question prompts similarly reflect the burden of additional duties beyond flying. Respondents were invited to write an open-ended response to the prompt, “What is one thing the AF could change that would influence aircrew to stay in longer?” We classified the responses into seven different topics using Latent Dirichlet Allocation, a machine learning algorithm for text processing. The interactive graphic depicts the seven topics, their relative appearance, and the words that define each topic on the right.

(Click for full interactive)

For example, 17.2 percent of responses were classified as topic #1, whose key words describe additional duties (“additional,” “duty,” “administrative,” “office,” “flying,” “time,” etc). That is, without human input, the machine learning algorithm detected that these words often appeared together and constituted a discrete topic of discussion by respondents: the fact that “additional duties” should appear alongside discussions of administrative and office tasks supports the validity of the algorithm’s conclusions. Twelve percent of responses were categorized as topic #5, discussing a fly-only track (key words include “fly-only,” “promotion,” “primary,” “duties,” etc). Other topics created by the algorithm make intuitive sense given what we know about the problem (while topic #2 seems to be miscellaneous complaints, topic #3 seems to be about assignment stations, #4 deployments, #6 leadership, #7 pay) and are also frequently discussed.  Our conclusion is that additional duties and the fly-only track together constitute the most common topics that pilots discuss when asked about possible reforms. Therefore, we recommend this be the first area policymakers focus their attention.

The final component of the survey was that participants rated other open-ended responses against each other two at a time. That is, respondents were shown two paragraphs written by other participants and asked to judge one as better than the other; they had the option to repeat this process several times.  On average, each participant repeated the process 17 times. By aggregating rankings and examining the top responses, we found further support for our hypothesis that pilots’ primary grievances relate to workload imbalance. For example, the number one response begins: “I work at least 45 hours a week at my desk job on top of needing to fly twice a week. I start my flying days as early as I’m allowed because I have office tasks to complete before the sortie.”

The second-highest response stated, “The Air Force expects me to work two full time jobs. I have a full-time office job, and I have a full time job as a pilot. The Air Force will never be able to retain pilots if it continues down this road.”

The feedback is clear: Nineteen of the top 25 open-ended responses focused on the theme of additional duties. Finally, aircrew members were also asked if they had a desire to be a commander at the Group level (O-6 rank) during their Air Force career. Only 38 percent either strongly agreed or agreed. Many aircrew just want to concentrate on being good at their primary job, a point previously made by Benitez and other observers. Now, we offer the data to back these contentions up. The burden that these other duties place on pilots is a constant refrain, regardless of the research method. The million-dollar question is how to translate these observations into useful policy.

So What Do We Do Now?

The Air Force has already taken several steps that our research indicates will be helpful in ameliorating the pilot retention problem. The establishment of the Aircrew Crisis Task Force, from which this survey came, is also a testament to the seriousness with which the service is taking the crisis. Our research suggests their primary focus should be on reducing additional duties. The secretary and the chief of staff of the Air Force have already taken steps to relieve the aircrew of some additional duties. After an aggressive review, the Air Force’s leadership cut, consolidated, or reassigned 29 additional administrative duties, and eliminated or reduced 31 ancillary training courses.

The most decisive step that has been discussed, and that was most favorably received in the survey, is the creation of a fly-only track. Our results strengthen the argument that the adoption of a fly-only track would significantly improve pilot retention.

The gains in retention, however, might be offset by several potential drawbacks. First, too many officers might opt for that path, or only the best officers might do so. The first problem is easily managed with a cap, but the second would be more difficult. It is possible that a brilliant lieutenant colonel who would have made a great chief of staff of the Air Force would instead opt for the fly-only track, depriving the future service of his or her leadership. Still, only a relatively small proportion of officers become generals, so the pool can afford to be shrunk somewhat. The challenge would be to ensure that the quality of general officers remains the same. Simply forbidding the best officers from taking the fly-only option would have the perverse incentive of punishing excellence.

Second, the enthusiasm for a fly-only track might diminish when the actual option is presented to aircrews. Since a fly-only track is not completely defined yet, many aircrew (including those who took our survey) have different interpretations on what responsibilities such a track would entail. Opting into the fly-only track would result in slower promotions and therefore lower pay; when actually presented with the option, the positive support shown in our survey could prove to have been “cheap talk,” or answers given when no consequences were on the line that differ from what the respondent might choose in real life. While we acknowledge this might be the case, our survey offers the best information that can be gained without actually implementing the policy.

Additionally, a fly-only track may not work within all Major Commands. Air Mobility Command, Air Force Special Operations Command, and Air Education and Training Command are probably best positioned for some level of fly-only track due to their mission sets.

Finally, even pilots in a hypothetical fly-only track might still have to take on additional duties such as scheduling officer, training officer, evaluation officer, and so forth. According to data in the Air Force Total Ownership Cost system in 2017, approximately 9,000 fewer personnel were working in administration than in 2008.  Aircrew who feel overburdened by administrative duties might want Air Force resources to be divided between a monetary bonus and increased administrative support rather than solely increasing the pilot bonus. The Air Force needs to review the manpower solution to squadron and wing administration to make sure it is not overly reliant on operators. Some of the Major Commands in the Air Force have taken steps to get contractors into the operational and training flying squadrons to do just that. While the administrative personnel are getting established, the Air Force should continue to assess whether more administrative personnel need to be placed in the mission support groups within the wings. The service should also expand its program to train interested spouses in the Air Force administrative system, simultaneously alleviating additional duty concerns while helping spouses enjoy employment.

While this is not a comprehensive outline of the policy options available to the Air Force, the data analysis provided here is a useful starting point for thinking through the pilot retention crisis and possible remedies. The Air Force has demonstrated its seriousness in addressing the issue both through words and actions. The easy decisions have been made — only tougher ones remain. Our results show that adopting a fly-only track is the tough decision that is most likely to improve retention. While there are important drawbacks to this option, if retention continues to be as large of an issue as it has been, the benefits of the fly-only track should outweigh the costs. The secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force have been aggressively working through tasking assignments and instructions and taking away unnecessary additional requirements. The next steps may be the most difficult to take. Whether the service adopts a fly-only track or increases the number of administrative personnel, our research suggests that focusing on reducing additional duties is the way to best retain the warriors who will fly, fight, and win in potential future conflicts.


Col Jesse Friedel is a prior U.S. Air Force Squadron Commander, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and F-16 Pilot with over 2,500 flight hours, and a former National Defense Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington D.C.  Matthew Cancian served as a Captain in the Marine Corps from 2009-2013. He currently is a PhD student in Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and  a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

Image: USAF/Dennis Hoffman