Still Flying and Serving, Just Not Active Duty
I grew up in a military family. My father, uncle and brother all served as pilots in the Air Force and — with the exception of my uncle, whose life and career were cut short by a plane crash —all have made active-duty military service their life’s work. As of August of 2020, this was the path I envisioned myself taking, but things change. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife began a successful business out of our home sparking a passion for entrepreneurship that has led to her opening another business. Simultaneously, we watched our children thrive when they went to the same school for two years in a row, showcasing what stability could mean to their future. This led me to evaluate how we could best pursue the goals and passions of the entire family and whether active-duty military life contributed to this pursuit. We determined it did not.
But man, I love what I do.
I have been privileged to fly three of the most amazing aircraft ever built and, more importantly, been allowed to exercise my passion for instructing and developing young fighter pilots and I don’t want to give that up. So I won’t. I am separating from the active-duty Air Force to become a reservist and could not be more excited to continue my service while doing what I can to allow my wife and children to reach their potential. I view myself as an incredibly average individual in the statistical sense, and continuously explore why I and my fellow servicemembers elect to leave active duty in record numbers. The answer can be found not in Air Force-centric variables that have been endlessly debated and discussed since I was commissioned, but in the demographic data of American society writ large. The first step for change is acceptance: Air Force leaders need to accept that very few pilots will remain in the active-duty force past their initial pilot training commitment. Only policy changes that have this understanding baked in will be successful.
The “Average Pilot” Is Not “Historically Average” Anymore
It is no secret that the vast majority of Air Force pilots, especially fighter pilots, are males. While the Air Force is belatedly working to change this, it will remain a fact for the foreseeable future. With this in mind, we can draw conclusions about the decisions facing the “average” fighter pilot. Let’s talk data for a second to frame the environment. A Pew Research study in October of 2021 shows 53 percent of Americans aged 25 to 54 are married. Air Force officers come in well above the national average, marrying at a rate of 68 percent. According to a Stanford University report from the National Vital Statistics System, when my father commissioned into the Air Force in 1977, the average-age male in the United States had his first child at the age of 27.9 years old. In 2015, six years into my Air Force career, that age had risen to 31.1. For women, this figure has also increased. Additionally, educational attainment by women has increased dramatically over the same time period, leading to more women in the labor force. From 1977 to 2015, the percentage of women possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher has risen from 11 percent to 42 percent. And amongst military wives this number is an astounding 84 percent! My wife is more educated than I; however, her earning potential went down by marrying me as immediately my career took us to South Korea. We moved five more times over seven years, making it impossible for her to continue or start a career. Moving is the most stress-inducing constant of military life. And the burden is disproportionately borne by the military spouse at home. Cancelling and restarting utilities, finding new schools and activities for the kids as well as searching for the perfect temporary home within a budget gets old quickly. Constantly starting over is emotionally taxing.
So, there is some data, and some feelings, so what?
Overlay this data with the average career timeline of an Air Force pilot, and at “decision-making time” — as it relates to whether to stay on active duty past their initial commitment or explore other options — a typical pilot finds himself 33 to 35 years old with one to two children aged two to four years old. Additionally, the pilot’s spouse is entering her (and it is usually her) 30s looking to capitalize on the prime years of her own career development.
It is easy to conclude why many opt to keep options open by not signing an aviation bonus. The current structure of managing personnel in the Air Force requires adherence to a linear career from tactical operator to executive command. Life is not linear, situations change, and shit happens. The service is asking someone to make a commitment that will greatly impact his children until they are of high school age, while simultaneously asking his spouse to be routinely uprooted during this critical time. To many, there is almost no amount of bonus money that could be offered that outweighs the allure of stability, personal autonomy, or providing an environment to maximize fulfillment and realization of potential for their family, and signing on for continued active-duty service does not work for them. The emotional arguments equating “Service Before Self” with “service before family” fall on deaf ears and servicemembers are opting out in droves.
Yet, we still serve. Why? Because we love what we do, and have options.
Working with a Purpose
Of my 20 colleagues from the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, the service’s premier tactical leadership institution, all had the choice to remain on active duty or separate. The majority, 16, elected to not continue in the active-duty force. However, all 16 accepted a position in some capacity with the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve. Did the service retain 20 percent of these individuals or 100 percent? It depends on how the Air Force chooses to view the challenge and opportunity.
The million-dollar question, or $100,000 according to the RAND Corporation, is: What is driving pilots to transition to the Guard and Reserve or pursue other options? The answer is these components have allowed for higher autonomy and stability while continuing to serve. Individuals are allowed to transition from full- to part-time status with relative ease. They are allotted stability by remaining in one location for nearly as long as they desire and move only to accomplish goals personally and professionally important to them. In most cases, the pay is relatively the same and in some cases higher.
Other reasons are less positive. Many servicemembers have lost trust in the organization and become bitter based on the perceived poor strategic, operational, and tactical decisions in the conflicts that have dominated their careers. Right now, the tactical-level ranks of the force from lieutenant to major view the current personnel structure poorly, describing it as more a jobs program aimed to keep individuals “on progression” versus maximizing leadership and combat capability of the force. That has to change, quickly, but while servicemembers might not agree with the direction of the organization, they have not given up the purpose and cause.
Options exist outside of the military for people separating to pursue. While I currently have no desire or passion to pursue the airlines, I know many of my colleagues elect to go this route while remaining on some status within the Air Force. Some do it purely for the money, some for the schedule, but whatever reason they do it, whether they hang up the flight suit permanently, they usually remain closely tied to the military pilot community. Why?
Nowhere else will you find the satisfaction of a young pilot finding the turn sphere based on a technique you taught, or watching a new Suppression of Enemy Air Defense team lead surgically dissect a simulated Integrated Enemy Air Defense System and winning a fight for the home team in an exercise. Nowhere else will you debate the most complex military tactic or operation over a cocktail with the best friends you could ever make, and then prove those people wrong (in my experience) the next day in the air and laugh it out. And nowhere else will you be able to be called upon when this or some other nation needs you, and to show up, every time.
This is not an indictment of those who elect to remain on active duty. It should just be understood that those who do are not average anymore — they aren’t necessarily better, certainly not worse, they just have different circumstances or belief systems allowing them to continue on their path.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As true as there is no such thing as a perfect sortie, it is laughable to believe we can make the Air Force perfect for everyone. We can start by operating off the same set of assumptions. Many will say they are, but the actions and lack of change in managing personnel show assumptions don’t matter without the appropriate response or game plan. Military pilots want to serve. This is evidenced through analyzing any data one can generate on what pilots do even after they leave active duty. There is more to come on recommended solutions to this issue but these challenges cannot be met with the all-too-easy response of, “We can’t do that.” Instead we should be aggressively pursuing solutions with a “How do we get this done?” mentality. We have been screaming about a pilot shortage and retention problem for years — literally since before I commissioned into the Air Force — what if I told you the shortage was a Fugazi and was more the result of an organizational structure problem?
I might be wrong, but even after I separate, I’ll be in the bar (sorry, heritage room) eager to discuss it with you, after I go fly.
Maj. Michael “FLASH” McVay is a F-35A Weapons Officer. He is currently an Instructor in the 6th Weapons Squadron, the F-35A division of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School. The views here are those of the author alone and do not represent the positions of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.