The Air Force says it’s making progress on fixing its pilots shortage, but some units are still taking ‘a leap into the unknown’

Capt. Michael Slotten climbs into an F-35 Lighting II at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, July 7, 2017.

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Capt. Michael Slotten climbs into an F-35 Lighting II at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, July 7, 2017.
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(US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham)

  • The Air Force has been grappling with a “quiet crisis” of manpower for several years.
  • The service has taken numerous steps to address the shortfall by training more pilots and keeping more of them in uniform.
  • Resolving the shortage will take years, but Air Force leaders say they’re making progress.

The Air Force is grappling with a protracted pilot shortage, with the total force lacking about 2,000 fliers, the majority of them fighter pilots.

Air Force officials say they’re rolling out a number of initiatives to address the problem, but the training squadrons in charge of preparing pilots are still using some stop-gap measures to train the pilots they have.

Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski, outgoing head of the Air Force’s Air Crew Crisis Task Force, told Air Force Magazine this month that his team, set up in 2017, now has a five-year plan and has made progress in revamping the pilot-training process.

The plan provides structure for implementation of the 69 initiatives proposed to address the shortage. The plan also intends to grow manning levels to 95% by fiscal year 2023.

“When I first started​​ there was no timeline, just initiatives,” Koscheski said.

Capts. Wes Sloat, left, and Jared Barkemeger, 7th Airlift Squadron pilots, take off in a C-17 Globemaster III at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, July 27, 2017.

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Capts. Wes Sloat, left, and Jared Barkemeger, 7th Airlift Squadron pilots, take off in a C-17 Globemaster III at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, July 27, 2017.
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US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Keith James

Koscheski, who is leaving his position to be director of plans, programs, and analysis for US Air Forces Europe and Africa, said the plan focuses on pilot retention, production, and requirements.

The retention element was “critically important” and the one in which the service has seen the most advancement, he said. It includes increased pay and bonuses, more flexibility in assignments, and the reduction of the administrative duties that many find onerous or distracting.

“Sometimes instead of trying to create more aircrew, if we create more support personnel or keep the aircrew we have healthy, we can get more production out of” fewer people, Koscheski told Air Force Magazine.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Air Force Times in June that the service was getting ready to announce a plan to reinvigorate squadrons, ensuring they have strong leaders and high morale.

“That, to me, is the secret sauce. That’s what’s going to keep people in. It’s what’s kept me in,” Goldfein said, without describing the plan.

Goldfein has also said he wants to push production to 1,400 to 1,500 pilots a year. (Others say 1,600 a year are needed to fix the shortfall.) But the force already faces challenges growing production from 1,200 pilots a year to 1,400.

President Donald Trump and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, second right, with two US Air Force pilots at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, September 15, 2017.

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President Donald Trump and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, second right, with two US Air Force pilots at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, September 15, 2017.
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(US Air Force photo by Scott M. Ash)

Finding airmen who want to be pilots generally hasn’t been the issue, however. What the Air Force has struggled with is getting student pilots through the training pipeline – a process complicated by a bottleneck created by a lack of pilots available to serve as instructors.

This year, the training process was further delayed by a month-long safety stand down for the Air Force’s T-6 Texan training aircraft, due to unexplained physiological events that endangered pilots.

Koscheski said the stand down led the force to train about 200 fewer pilots than expected, though he and other Air Force officers have said that pause gave the service time to reevaluate the training.

A syllabus redesign was done “first and foremost … to create better pilots,” Koscheski said. “The side benefit is it now takes five to nine weeks less to get pilots through pilot training, so … we’re able to get more [students] through [the pipeline], but now it just increases production.”

A 64th Aggressor pilot on the flight line after a Red Flag 17-4 exercise sortie on Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, August 25, 2017.

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A 64th Aggressor pilot on the flight line after a Red Flag 17-4 exercise sortie on Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, August 25, 2017.
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US Air Force/Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum

Researchers from the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies have also called on the Air Force to increase its use of contractors, arguing in a report earlier this year that “innovative uses of contractors in the training pipeline” were needed to ramp up pilot production without depriving front-line squadrons of fliers.

The Air Force has already brought in contractors to fill the role of “red air,” in which US pilots pose as rival aircraft.

Koscheski told Air Force Magazine that the service was considering bringing in contractors to be instructors.

‘A leap into the unknown’

The lack of instructors has led some training squadrons to implement stop-gap measures and compensate in other ways in order to use their limited resources in the most efficient way.

The 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona found out last summer it would only get 13 of the 26 F-16 instructor pilots it requested. Rather than spread the pain, the wing commander sent 12 of the new instructors to the 54th Fighter Group at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, which will take over F-16 training as the 56th shifts to F-35 training operations.

Back at Luke, Air Force officers decided to shift their remaining resources to the squadron training on newer-model F-16s. That shift was a better use of resources and better for pilots, they told Aviation Week earlier this year, but it still was “a leap into the unknown.”

Other bases are making changes to the training itself to handle more pilots with the same number of instructors.

Pilots prepare a T-6 Texan II for a training flight at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, June 13, 2018. The T-6 Texan II is the first aircraft Air Force Pilots learn to fly before moving on to more advanced aircraft.

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Pilots prepare a T-6 Texan II for a training flight at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, June 13, 2018. The T-6 Texan II is the first aircraft Air Force Pilots learn to fly before moving on to more advanced aircraft.
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US Air Force/Senior Airman Corey Pettis

At Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Air Force officials are preparing for an increase of more than 100 student pilots in the next few years. By 2021, the base expects to have about 450 student pilots.

“We have an increased student load coming, and from 2017 to 2021 the forecast is a 34 percent increase in students,” Col. Darrell Judy, commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing, told The Oklahoman earlier this month.

But officials at Vance don’t expect to get more instructors for several years. Judy said the base would instead increase its use of simulators and change other parts of training in order to adjust to the increase.

“We believe we have found a way to trim off about six weeks from the current 54 weeks of training that students go through,” Judy said. “That will allow us a greater throughput [of students] with the amount of instructors we currently have now.”