Help Wanted: Experienced Fighter Pilots Apply Here
According to the Air Force, the military organization has a few job openings — over 2,000 — in the pilot department, especially if you have experience. In his three-part series, Mike Benitez does a wonderful job illustrating how the service got to this position and how the lack of experienced pilots degrades its lethality and disrupts its ability to replenish the force through basic pipeline training. A year after War on the Rocks published Benitez’s articles, I hope to offer a “front line” perspective as one of the pilots the Air Force is attempting to retain.
I am one year from being promoted to major. Eighteen months after that, I’ll be at the end of my service commitment. I have over 1500 hours flying, 300 of which are combat. I have been an instructor pilot for over two years, and I love my job. I am exactly the person the Air Force is attempting to retain, and they’re offering a $35,000 annual bonus for a three to 12 year commitment. Shouldn’t this be an easy decision? To continue the vocation I love with an employer that values my skills and is willing to pay me for them? Unfortunately, this is not the case because the active-duty Air Force has a messaging problem and an identity crisis.
We Want You (to Have No Control)
The Air Force is in desperate need of experienced pilots, especially fighter pilots. The RAND corporation has mathematically proven that the only way to ease the Air Force’s pilot shortage crisis is through the retention of experienced pilots. The failure of the Air Force to meet retention goals despite generous bonuses is well-documented in recent years. From my perspective, one of the main reasons pilots hesitate to sign these bonuses is the associated uncertainty. Once the commitment has been signed by the pilot, no guarantees are made by the Air Force regarding the member’s ability to remain in flying assignments or how long they and their family will live in a given location. Around the water cooler in the squadrons, the bonus is treated and talked about as a trap. The Air Force says that the organization needs experienced pilots, however the solution is not to bribe the pilots but rather to implement an appropriate policy. No one likes ambiguity, and the solution is making guarantees. For a large percentage of fighter pilots, guaranteeing the ability to stay in flying assignments communicates that their skills are valued and would go a long way in convincing them to continue serving. Show you care and value them, their skills, and their families, and they will stay. As Capt. Danny Dees said, “in order to halt the present retention trend, we need to develop a sense of commitment . . . our rated force toward the service and conversely, the service toward our rated force.” This especially will be crucial if the force follows through with multiplying from 312 squadrons to 386, with seven additional fighter squadrons.
Who Am I?
Maj. Roger Garrett explains that the problem pilots face is that the “biggest measure of success in today’s Air Force is promotion.” As a fighter pilot, my biggest measure of long-term success is time in the jet. I don’t look at the chief of staff of the Air Force and wonder in awe how he did it or what his keys to career success were. I walk into the bar and find the oldest and meanest looking fighter pilot and ask him “how in the hell did you get so lucky? Tell me how I can fly for as long as you did!” The epitome of this ideal is Lt. Col. Rob “Sweetness” Sweet, a Desert Storm veteran and former prisoner of war who still flies A-10s in the 476th Fighter Group.
The dilemma perceived by pilots…is one of being forced to choose between two unacceptable alternatives: they can enhance promotability and job security by giving up what they enjoy and getting a staff or rated supplement job, or they can continue in rated duties and unnecessarily jeopardize their promotion opportunities.
The report continues:
[M]any of the airline pilots, as well as Air Force pilots who plan to . . . [separate], indicated they would have remained in the Air Force if they were given an opportunity to spend a career performing flying duties and be equitably recognized for doing so.
These statements are not from 2019, but from a survey in 1979 during another pilot retention crisis. The time was different, but the problem is the same. The majority of men and women currently in cockpits joined the Air Force to do one thing — fly — and that should be ok. The time and dedication it takes to learn the job and continue to adapt to new tactics and threats is endless, challenging, and rewarding.
However, when I tell people that I only want to fly, the common response is that “you’re an officer first and you should want to lead.” What they perhaps don’t realize is that fighter pilots lead through execution. A mission commander executing a strike through multiple surface-to-air missile engagement zones in a contested air environment is leading. A flight lead doing target correlation to enemy insurgents, pinning down a friendly special forces unit to prosecute a close proximity weapons delivery in a time-sensitive manner to save American lives, is leading. There is a need for tactical leadership and expertise, and the Air Force should not want to push this out of its combat air forces. If an experienced fighter pilot wants to stay in the jet, and the Air Force needs the expertise, the service as an organization should figure out how to make that happen.
Col. Jesse Friedel and Matt Cancian recently published an article on outlining their findings in a survey the Aircrew Crisis Task Force conducted. Like in the 1979 survey, their findings concluded that the fly-only track was the most popular course of action to increase retention. I agree, and it seems like Capt. David L. Goldfein would have too. The fly-only track is not a new concept. The Army employs warrant officers, and multiple militaries around the world execute under some type of fly-only specialist organization. In fact, what I am recommending is not my idea but rather a concept created by Maj. Stephan Hansen in 1987. He labeled his idea the “Dual Track” program because it allows the Air Force and its pilots to have an option to continue along the normal path of career progression and rank or, if selected, choose the technical track and serve as a lifetime aviator.
The majority of his 12-bullet dual-track program is applicable to today’s organizational needs. The salient points are as follows: The dual track will only be offered to those pilots possessing outstanding flying records who have the ability and qualifications to become long-tenured operational aviators and instructors. The highest rank that can be achieved by a specialist will be O-4, but the pilot’s salary will increase with current time in grade charts. No more than 30 percent of an airframe’s community of aviators can be selected to the dual track. Additionally, the current officer performance report system will not apply to specialist pilots. The specialist will have a yearly performance report that provides feedback on their strengths and weakness as an aviator. There will be no need to perform additional duties outside the squadron to compete with the career track. Furthermore, pilots selected for the specialist program will normally remain operating the same aircraft for the entirety of their career. Finally, permanent change of station moves will be minimal to maintain continuity in the work environment and enhance stability for the pilot.
This dual track would give the Air Force the ability to align its message by stating, “We need pilots and here is a process to guarantee you continue to fly.” It would also allow the fighter pilot to maintain an identity as an aviator and not as an officer subjected to a broken promotion system and additional duties in an attempt to climb the rank ladder. Finally, the system will allow a fighter pilot to remain at one location for a longer period of time to allow a better quality of life for the pilot and their family.
Friedel’s article does admit that “the gains in retention… might be offset by several potential drawbacks” if the Air Force establishes a fly-only track. The first is that far too many pilots would select the fly-only track. He acknowledges that the service can put a cap on the number of dual-track selectees, which Hansen recommends, but the shared concern by most high-level leadership is what is most peculiar to me. Friedel is concerned that by making the fly-only track available, “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.” This concern contradicts the current crisis that calls for a need of experienced fighter pilots. Wouldn’t you rather have a system that provides the necessary tactical flyers and leaders instead of leaving you with a deficit and thinking you got the right chief of staff of the Air Force? If you have no tactical aviators, there will be no operations to strategize about. Additionally, the article admits the survey revealed that only 38 percent aspired to be a group commander (O-6). The survey clearly demonstrates that the majority of pilots do not want to pursue rank or high-level leadership positions, but are happier to fly and maintain a lower rank.
Friedel’s second concern is that optimism may fade once the fly-only track is a tangible option. I would argue that fighter pilots don’t know what to think about the option because the Air Force hasn’t defined it, and I think the service should. If the officers of the Air Force have been asking for and suggesting a fly-only track for the past 40 years, perhaps it’s time to give the concept a shot. Let me state that I don’t think this is all on our leadership. I don’t believe the onus is totally on Friedel or Gen. Goldfein to create the perfect fly-only track. In the combat search-and-rescue community, there is a saying that goes, “affect your own rescue.” The meaning being, if you’re shot down behind enemy lines, you better know how to operate your survival equipment, the necessary radio calls, and your evasion plan of action, because the combat search-and-rescue task force isn’t going to magically pick you up. Social media has offered us a wonderful medium to communicate across the Air Force, and the fighter pilots the Air Force is attempting to retain need to improve their ability to clearly communicate to Air Force leadership what they value and what motivates them.
Lastly, the article states that fly-only track pilots will be expected to have a job in the squadron, such as training, scheduling, standards and evaluations, etc. This to me is a given. The squadron has to run, and with the influx of contractors, the shop chiefs, which would be the pilots’ positions, have become quality control and oversight who can execute their desk job while spending the necessary time to plan, brief, execute, and debrief the real job: fly, fight, WIN. If the jobs assigned were those directly related to the day-to-day operations of the squadron, I don’t perceive this being a deterrent to the fly-only track. It certainly is preferable to the following situation, which happens all too often: A young, experienced instructor pilot moves to a new base and is told by his incoming squadron commander that he will have to take an administrative job outside the squadron (at the group or wing level) in order to illustrate on his officer performance report that he is progressing in his career. This situation is frustrating because, as aviators, pilots value what they contribute to the squadron in a flying or instructing capacity. Another potential role of the fly-only track would be to supplement weapons officers at the squadron, group, and wing level. Weapons officers are the lead instructors of the squadron and are in charge of training the pilots in the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures to get the team combat mission ready to take the fight to the enemy. Historically, weapons officers have been the most worked positioned in the organization. Fly-only pilots have the experience and tactical expertise to help where needed.
As of August 2018, the Air Mobility Command is accepting applicants to a fly-only track. Gen. Everett is listening and has mentioned in interviews that this is a direct result of pilot feedback on retention surveys. He mentions pilots can stay at one location for four years, duties will be limited to squadron and group level only, the ability to move bases if desired and the ability to switch back to command track if preferred and nominated.
One factor that is often excluded from the calculus of those attempting to measure, quantify, and solve the pilot retention crisis is the social value of an experienced pilot. Because of the nature of America’s expeditionary fighting force, these individuals have most likely been to combat and have served in several fighter squadrons. This means they have a reputation, know how to be a fighter pilot, can deliver and be trusted in tough situations, and know what to prioritize and what to chaff off to affect the fight. The experienced fighter pilot hopefully becomes a role model to the younger wingman just joining the squadron and sets the example of how to be a professional in aerial warfare. In an air force stripped of its experience in the operational squadron, young wingman are robbed not only of proper training but venerable personalities to know, remember, and mold around and challenge themselves to become better aviators. The Air Force must find an alternative to the failed attempts to retain the experienced pilots and keep them in the squadron. This alternative is the fly-only track.
Let us not forget the ugly truth of our profession. The fighter pilot is a mechanism of war. As the gap in military and economic capabilities of America’s near-peer adversaries decreases, their potential boldness predictably rises. The world has already witnessed brazen acts of world order defiance by Russia and China. America’s grip on the title of world super power is weakening, and the world is getting more ominous. We would be naïve to think otherwise. The experienced airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines will have the responsibility to execute the nation’s orders and lead men and women into combat, mitigating friendly loss and securing victory. The fighter pilot is highlighted because of the current crisis, but it would be prudent of all services to have the same mentality regarding the retention of tactical experience. The nation is more secure when its armed forces are filled with experienced war fighters, and that is why the American public should care.
While the fly-only track addresses the preponderance of those fighter pilots on the fence regarding their decision to continue their career, it is not a cure all to the retention crisis. In Friedel’s report, the other options in the survey were to decrease length of deployments, increase how long a fighter pilot is able to stay in a given location, improve schools for kids, and provide increased assignment flexibility for partners. The fly-only track and deployment options pertain to all fighter pilots, while the remainder of the issues are personal and are quality-of-life variables. It is not a single policy change that will enable retention regarding quality-of-life variables; it requires an organizational mentality shift. If the Air Force wants to retain its experienced fighter pilots, it needs to figure out how to say “yes” to personal requests that will enable a better quality of life for the fighter pilots and their families. I have two examples of how the Air Force said “no” to requests that will directly lead to experienced combat fighter pilots leaving the force. These examples both involve spouses/partners. The term dependent is antiquated. Most spouses have their own profession and make a comparable salary to fighter pilots — and in some cases more. In the first example, a fighter pilot’s spouse is a doctor at an overseas duty location. She applied for a job on several American military bases and was denied. She asked to volunteer, and was also denied. Not only is this pilot’s family taking a $200,000 pay cut when forced on an overseas tour, the spouse is unable to practice her technical skills to remain current in her profession. The second example involves a military joint spouse stationed at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. Soon after arriving in Korea for a two-year assignment, the couple inquired about the possibility to extend for a third year if the spouse could keep her job on Osan AB. The spouse was told she was unable to keep her job for a third year due to career progression and timing. Both pilots are now approaching their active duty service commitments, and because of the Air Force’s inability to effectively tackle problems that enable a better quality of life, the service is not only losing two combat veterans — to include a distinguished flying cross recipient — but its also losing a doctor and highly capable support officer.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Since the Air Force began to acknowledge the fact that pilot retention is actually an institutional crisis back in 2016, squadron life has become noticeably better due to a reduction in additional (non-mission essential) duties and the hiring of contractors to ease the workload on pilots. This has allowed pilots to improve their work-life balance and spend more of their work time honing their craft. But if the Air Force truly wants to curb the flow of pilots leaving the organization, it needs to listen to its fighting force. Pilots identify as patriotic warriors who want to fight for their country while providing the best possible life for their families. If you allow them to do this, I guarantee they will stay.
Capt. William “Basher” Piepenbring is an A-10C instructor pilot. He currently serves as a line IP in the 25th fighter squadron Osan Air Base, Korea. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dustin King