USAF Authorized to Recall 1000 Retired Pilots

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[Editor’s note: In the 3 or 4 days since the story that the USAF needed more pilots and was going to try to recall retirees to fill the shortfall, there has been a lot of media coverage, most of it sensational in nature. Some outlets have spoken of ‘crisis’ and inferred from this pilot issue that the USAF is in deep trouble; others have been even more conspiratorial and speculated that this need for pilots infers that there is going to be a need for lots of active pilots shortly – i.e. the US is going to be bombing and airstriking a lot, such as in a war with Iran.

After reading a lot of media reporting on this subject, I came to the conclusion that all we are seeing is another symptom of the gradual decline of the US military due to bad management and bad US foreign policy in the post Cold War world. This decline is nothing new, it has been going on for 30 years or more, neither is a shortage of pilots anything new either.

I found a sober blog post on the subject by an experienced pilot who writes without any of the sensationalism or speculation of the mass and alternative media coverage of this issue; I feel that the driving forces he lays out – the commercial airline industry, failures of management, too much desk work and not enough flying time etc. are really what is behind the issue with military pilot retention and overall numbers 

Furthermore, I think that Graves is correct in saying that this is not a new problem and won’t be solved overnight by a sticking plaster solution such as an executive order to recall pilots. The issues run deep in both the US military and governmental spheres and as Graves points out, few see the point in flying an F-35 to bomb goat herders, an understandable attitude among men who would give their lives to defend their country but see little reason to continue to pursue military means  to support failed foreign policies. Ian]

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USAF Authorized to Recall 1000 Retired Pilots

by Rob Graves

The Air Force has a pilot problem. It doesn’t have enough. The service says that the problem is reaching “crisis” levels with a current shortage of 1500 pilots. Having exhausted all means to convince their current pilot force to remain in the service, and unable to increase the number of new pilots produced, the Air Force appealed to the President to revise an executive order allowing for the recall of up to 1000 retired pilots to active duty. President Trump signed this order last Friday touching off a firestorm of social media commentary. While the Air Force has said that they don’t currently plan to recall pilots, they avoided definitively stating that they won’t recall retired pilots.

In many ways, this problem has existed for decades, even stretching back to the 1980s when I first wore the green bag (flight suit). The issues are the same and the same arguments get made over and over. What has changed is simply the intensity of each issue affecting pilot retention. As the saying goes, you can’t tell who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out. And the tide has indeed gone out.

Airline pilot Ryan Scofield, pictured here in his cockpit, has flown for a commercial airline carrier for 12 years. When he’s not in an Airbus A320, he’s piloting a C-130H Hercules aircraft for the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 187th Airlift Squadron based in Cheyenne. Air Force Lt. Col. Scofield is also a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System instructor pilot for the unit. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Daniel Butterfield

Inflow Minus Outflow

Air Force personnel managers are charged with managing the pilot force to maintain appropriate force levels. They not only manage the total number of pilots, but also the personnel levels existing at various career stages. They attempt to keep a surplus or deficit from existing anywhere along the career “pipeline”. Tools at their disposal are the management of training rates, promotion rates, and incentive programs used to either retain pilots or to encourage them to separate.


Looking at the inflows, the number of pilots that the Air Force can train in a given year, there was a huge reduction in initial pilot training capacity dating from the end of the cold war. Training bases were closed and resources were reassigned. Total pilot production was reduced from about 1500 to 500 pilots annually in the early 1990s. That number has recovered somewhat; about 1100 pilots were produced in 2016. The Air Force is attempting to ramp this production back up, but planners estimate that a maximum of 1400 pilots per year is the ceiling given current numbers of training aircraft and other resources.

It is on the outflow side, however, that the problem becomes clear. In short, pilots are bailing out of the military to take airline jobs—just as they always have when the airlines come a calling. It is here where the pilot retention problem really looks like a rewind of the 1980s. Back in the late eighties, the airlines were on a hiring tear, scooping up as many ex-military pilots as they could get their hands on.

I specifically recall being asked to participate in a round table discussion with the wing commander to address the issues of why pilots were leaving the service. The complaints I heard back then are eerily similar to the ones being voiced today. Pilots chafed at too many non-flying additional duties (affectionately known as “queep”), not enough flying time, and a lack of leadership. Here is an example of the unrest from the comments of my blog (in the original):

…additional duties that have nothing to do with flying, PME (professional military education-ed) requirements to get promoted that have to be accomplished in off duty spare time, 24/7 on call status, exercises that have little to do with flying, PT (physical training-ed) requirements that have to be prepared for in spare time, mountains of regulations based on a single act of buffoonery with the goal of preventing bad judgement from ever happening again, i.e. The Shotgun Approach to problem solving, time off is time off. Not everyone wants to be a four star general/politician/professional staff officer but, the senior AF brass expect everyone to jump through time wasting hoops to be prepared for that minute possibility.

One factor which currently helps to push pilots out of the service which largely did not exist back in the 1980s is the deployment rate. Deployments, or long term tours away from home lasting weeks or months, are now the rule rather than the exception. Air Force pilots flying tactical or theater based aircraft can expect multiple, lengthy, deployments during their career. No amount of incentive money will likely dissuade these pilots from exiting the service once their service commitment is over.

KC-135 pilots prepare for a training mission. U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman Daniel Garcia

When the Airlines Hire, Pilots Leave

So are pilots actually leaving the service in numbers greater than they have in past airline hiring surges? A 2015 Rand study which examined the issue of fighter pilot retention, defined a measure of total active rated service (TARS) to measure the retention of pilots. Denoted in years, it measures the average length of time a pilot remains on active duty.

As you can see, the rate at which pilots leave the service (thereby shortening their active duty years) roughly corresponds with airline hiring, verifying that in spite of conditions in the military, when the airlines are hiring, pilots will leave.

This makes sense for many reasons. At the 10 year point of a military pilot’s career, there are often many lifestyle changes including marriage and children. The excitement and travel which provide much of the allure of being a military pilot may have lost their lustre. The early part of a military pilot’s career involves becoming an expert in the operation of their weapons system, but as time progresses, the focus will switch to grooming for leadership positions and away from flying.

At work here also is the psychology of the airline seniority system. Nearly every measure of quality of life in the airlines is determined by one’s seniority, or hire date. Logic dictates that if a pilot has decided to eventually go the airline route, an earlier rather than later departure from the military will be better. This “fear of missing out” no doubt drives many pilots off the fence onto the side of the airlines, but it also presents an opportunity to help solve the problem.

Can it be Fixed?

Nothing can’t be fixed given enough money and imagination, which unfortunately, seem to be in short supply these days. From a merely economic point of view, matching airline pay rates dollar for dollar might help, but the calculus would then be why work harder for the same money? To beat this problem with money will require quite a bit more than the military is willing (or able) to pay.

To their credit, Air Force leadership has recognized the toll that nonstop deployments have taken on the force and are moving to reduce them. Other initiatives include keeping pilots in the cockpit and out of staff positions by utilizing non-pilots for those staff positions.

One possible solution to the airline seniority problem might be for the airlines to interview, provisionally hire, and guarantee military pilots a seniority position based on that interview date. This type of program would mirror the “flow-through” programs which some regional airlines have with their mainline counterparts.

Requiring a longer service commitment seems to be a well that has run dry. Currently at 10 years from completion of training (up from six when I joined in 1982), the length of that commitment will eventually dissuade the best and brightest who have other options.

Then, of course, there is the brute force method, of which an involuntary recall of retired pilots would be a showpiece. Other levers include the use of a “stop-loss” program which simply closes the door to pilots leaving the service prior to retirement. Invocation of a stop-loss seems the more likely course in lieu of a retirement recall. I have personal experience with that, being prevented from retiring for awhile back in 2003.

The last policy prescription I’ll offer is to simply define the problem away. It still escapes me as to why we’re deploying state of the art F-35 fighters against Pashtun goat herders in the Hindu Kush, especially when the place will look like we were never there a year after we leave.

In Conclusion

The Air Force’s pilot retention problem is the same as it ever was. When the airlines hire, pilots leave. The complaints about the service being made today echo not only those I heard back in the 1980s, but also those of Joseph Heller’s Yossarian voiced in Catch 22. Creative management and incentives will help stop the bleeding, but the tide of a world wide pilot shortage is a powerful force.


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12 COMMENTS

  1. It’s not just the USAF. I remember trying out for WOC to go incountry in Vietnam. I couldn’t get in because of my eyes (despite the fact I knew they had eyeglass wearing pilots and the ramp to body-bag average time was about 6 weeks). The oil service companies in the gulf were (and still are) offering six figures for a swing wing pilot. Back then nam vets were in like flynn unless they were found out to be hot dogs. Who want’s to put up with the incompetence and BS when you can paid that kind of bread and be home at night?

  2. There are certain trade-offs that need to be made for an opportunity to fly the latest hi-tech aircraft: 24/7/365-6 availability, I would suggest, is one of them. Everyone in the military is on 24/7 call-up, from cooks (assuming that hasn’t been contracted out) to colonels, and everything above, below and in-between. That said, it is obvious that current pilots have many of the same complaints of pilots from 30 and 60 years ago. The same is true for air traffic controllers, and for much the same reason. The FAA and military have long had a “vision” of pilot free, ATC free systems. This would, supposedly, provide a human error free environment where everything would work in perfect harmony, yah de blah…. Ain’t gonna happen. There are always bugs in software, failures in hardware, and unforeseen circumstances that humans are far better equipped than machines to deal with. I’d say more, but the “read more” cut-off is about to engage, and I have things to do.

    • bugs in software, failures in hardware, and unforeseen circumstances that humans are far better equipped than machines to deal with.

      Damn that “read more” cut-off. When fixed, this comment will be in the one above.

    • F-35 / 22 may be excluded from the trade-offs. Pilots should probably get hazardous duty pay for getting into the cockpit of one of those lemons!

  3. “Top gun” movie times in the US has passed. In my country we have problems with civil plane pilots – they prefer to be hired by foreign airway companies. As for the military pilots – the situation becomes better. All pilots academies are restored, new jets come into Army, new training Yak-130 jet replaced old Czech L-39. The profession of military pilot became prestigious again (differ from 1990s, when there was no fuel and pilots swept the lanes in airdromes). In my city Armavir there is an old military airbase and the flights are 24/7. Constant drills and practice. Of course, Ian, the fighting pilot is one of the most expensive warrior to teach. 100 people and many devices are to serve and provide 1 pilot’s job.

    • Last month we have hot discussions about Krasnodar air academy. Shoigu (Chief Minister of Defense) suggested to make a group for young ladies (if i’m not mistaken ~ 20persons) to become military pilots. We consider it a silly experiment, ’cause woman has another psychics, a little different physiology and she has to be a Mother and Wife some day. And around 20 young men will have to stay on the land ’cause of lack of vacancies. It was maybe demanded during the war, on the wooden planes and low speed and altitudes, but not now when the g-force is much stronger. Civil pilots, aviasport – yes. But i’d prefer to see Russian beauties in the Mercedes or Bentley than SU- or MIG- .

  4. What is all this we read about most planes flown on auto pilot computer controlled today? Isn’t the pilot irrelevant? Even with a dupe pilot blindly following his orders to kill innocent children and civilians does he ever seek to avoid killing any of them if a pilot is indeed on board? But even if there is a shortage of pilots there is no shortage of the endless supply of money for the corrupt military to kill innocent children and civilians and illegally invade countries like Syria every day. Our government is nothing but a totally corrupt outlaw lying cesspool lying to every citizen every day of the year. Americans love to be lied to and had by their own reprehensible government.

    • By the way how did the four star generals do on 9/11/01 in their “most basic responsibility” of “defending” the country? Why they didn’t lift a finger to defend it from attack despite the virtual unlimited resources provided to them for this purpose. Instead of being placed behind bars for the remainders of their lying lives they were permitted to retire on lavish pensions of fake borrowed and printed dollars. Isn’t our military a shameful disgrace today? Evidently a general with four starts on his lapel and fruit salad on his chest has no problem looking a citizen and taxpayer in the eye while telling him or her a direct blatant lie do they? Our country is gone folks. It is only a matter of time now. The inmates have taken over the asylum in America today as in the former film “One Flew Over the Ku Ku’s Nest” with Jack Nicholson. Blind lying duped idiots are running America today. Trump worships these dupes who didn’t lift a finger to defend America on 9/11/01 while criminals in Israel gang raped America that day.

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