Air Force Fights to Retain Pilots

fighter pilot

By Debbie Gregory.

The Air Force is scrambling to head off what could be a major exodus of fighter pilots for the private sector. This would worsen an already-serious shortfall of fighter jocks. And if the Air Force can’t hold on to its front-line pilots, that could have dangerous repercussions for the United States’ ability to fight and win wars.

The acute shortage of fighter pilots could grow even worse, with nearly a third of all jobs becoming vacant in the coming years, senior service officials said.

Retention is also a major issue. The current goal is to try to retain as many pilots as possible in the short term, but there is a lot of completion from commercial airlines who are hiring thousands of fighter pilots.

According to Air Force Secretary Deborah James, the “quiet crisis” of the fighter pilot shortage is the most serious manning shortfall the Air Force is currently facing.

James is looking to Congress for the ability to boost financial incentives to recruit and keep pilots. She and Gen. David L. Goldfein, the service’s new top officer, attributed the shortfall to a wave of hiring in the commercial airline industry, high demand for air power keeping pilots deployed and away from their families, and a reduction in training while at home prompted by heavy usage and budget constraints. Civilian airlines are hiring about 3,000 to 3,500 pilots annually.

James and Goldfein said they want to improve pilots’ quality of life and their military service conditions, including training and housing.

The Air Force currently can pay pilots an extra $25,000 per year after they complete their initial service contract, which concludes 10 years from the completion of pilot training, a number that has not been changed in 17 years. The Air Force has proposed an increase to $48,000 per year, and a proposal in the House would boost the figure to $60,000.

Pilots at commercial airlines Delta, American and United can earn over $200,000 after just a few years on the job. In the Air Force, when flight pay and basic allowance for housing are factored in, captains and majors with a decade of flying under their belts, earn salaries of roughly $100,000 to $120,000. A $25,000 annual retention bonus makes up a little of that pay gap, but a $48,000 bonus would go a lot further.

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