Here We Go Again

“Hold the flashlight while I shoot myself in the other foot, Nellie.”    “You know, Clem, I was thinking … this didn’t turn out so well last time; maybe there’s a better way.  At least wait till the sun comes up.”

“Just shut-up and watch.  I’ve got a lot of experience doing this.”

“Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The Air Force has a history of feast and famine when it comes to maintaining enough pilots to do its job.  The solution to feast and famine problems can be gleaned from Genesis 41:33-36; it’s basically to save some of the surplus during the feast to get you through the famine.  Why is it so difficult for the Air Force to put that principle into practice?

In 1975, the Air Force took drastic action to clear out its post-Vietnam feast of pilots.  During that reduction in force, officers with more than 10 years in service were offered the opportunity to complete their retirement requirements as an enlisted person or to leave the service.  Captains could start at the rank of sergeant (E-4) and majors were offered staff sergeant.  The specialty knowledge tests were waived for the first year, enabling most of them to advance to another grade within the first cycle.  Many pilots just left the service to do other things.  During that same time, military pay raises lagged woefully behind inflation rates.  Then the airlines deregulated in 1979, and something completely unplanned for happened–people got out, lots of them, and many of them were pilots.  Feast turned to famine in four short years, and the Air Force was 2300 pilots short of operational requirements.

The solution chosen was to surge the number of officers attending undergraduate pilot training (UPT).  The pool of eligible candidates was increased by relaxing stringent educational requirements.  The five UPT bases pumped double-shift classes for a couple of years with great success even though attrition was a bit higher than normal, probably because graduation standards remained constant.  The process proved that pilots don’t need an engineering degree to be good at the stick and rudder; of course earlier practice had already proven that.  And it worked for me, as I was career-NCO with a BS in Occupational Education about to leave the service in search of a vocation that didn’t require supplemental food-stamps to feed my family.

The surge created what was later called a bubble when personnel charts were viewed; it showed up as a huge anomaly for the 1980-82 year groups.  Slightly resembling a baby elephant being swallowed by a python, the bubble eventually slowed and then denied promotions to many pilots due to excessive numbers of people reaching their critical career points at the same time.  Officer promotions come at a certain time, and you either make it or you don’t.  With only rare exceptions, regardless of potential or ability, an officer twice passed over is done with promotions.

Another famine presented itself in 1988-89.  This coincided with the age-directed retirement of many commercial airline pilots and with many officers completing their initial UPT commitments.  The solution this time was to offer unprecedented bonuses of $12,000 per year to pilots with less than 13 years total service if they would commit to seven more years, and yes, prior-enlisted time like mine counted against that total.  Ironically, some of the pilots who took the bonuses they were offered to stay were later forced to separate for failing to advance to major, and then given severance pay as they headed to the pilot-hungry airlines.  It was a blend of personnel voodoo that still defies my logic matrix.

Then in the late 1990’s another famine cycle appeared on the horizon.  The base realignment and closure process and force down-sizing, accented with eight years of deliberately reducing the military pay by 0.5% annually, while the surviving three UPT bases operated at only 55% capacity, resulted in another pilot famine that was predicted to be deeper and longer than the one in 1979.  The solution chosen was to offer $25,000 a year to pilots for extending their service commitments, to increase UPT production, and to fill only 28% of non-flying pilot positions at staff jobs.  As an unplanned consequence, this solution denied pilots many temporary jobs that historically kept them competitive for promotions.  Still enough pilots took the bonus to keep the Air Force viable as UPT surged to 100% production hoping to meet future requirements.  But now, in 2007, we are at it again.

As the Air Force looks five years into the future and suspects that it will be over-manned with pilots without a one-to-one replacement of the F-15 and F-16 with the new generation of aircraft, it seeks to prevent the forecasted feast in the future by reducing pilot training numbers now.  Are you starting to see a pattern?

The requirements for college graduates to be accepted into pilot training are quite substantial.  Common logic dictates that after pilot training, those same officers would remain qualified to be employed doing things with less stringent requirements.  Instead of having less than 19% of Air Force officers wearing pilot wings, as they do today, why not fill another 2% or more of other line officer positions with pilots on career broadening tours of duty?  If another famine suddenly arose, those pilots could be requalified in short-order.

The Rand Corp’s Project Air Force offered three options to the Air Force, let me offer two more:

1. Use the surplus initial flight training gradates in scheduling, IT, or maintenance positions in flying units across the Air Force.  While they won’t be flying, they will be exposed to the flying culture during their first assignment.  This one would work, but it is not my favorite option.

2. Cycle pilots at specific gate intervals into flying support officer positions.  If the tour was limited to two or three years, the pilots would return to their weapon system with easily renewable skills, and they will be more knowledgeable of the oft-touted big picture.  Another benefit is that flying operations would be supported by officers with a superior understanding of flight requirements.

To make option 2 work its best, the pilots who volunteer for leadership positions in support should be rewarded for it in their career.  Make it competitive, and then use their performance in those positions to help determine their leadership potential to the Air Force.  But remember to bring them back to the cockpit and get them flying again.

One last thing must be done for this to succeed–a silent prejudice must be removed from the flying community.  A pilot returning to the cockpit should not be considered to be starting over.  Pilots who serve in staff/non-flying positions should be viewed as being at least equal to pilots who serve in similar ranked flying jobs.  Thus, the Air Force needs to ensure operational squadron- and group-level commanders consider the career broadening experience as a plus to the pilot’s record and not a stain.

The Air Force can’t fly, fight, and win if it runs out of pilots, and it needs leaders who will never forget that.  It just makes sense.

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