Air Force short on fighter pilots; what can Luke do?

An F-35 arrives at Luke Air Force Base on March 14, 2013. (File photo)

By Mark Carlisle
Independent Newsmedia

Due to unanticipated high demand for fighter pilots and increased hiring competition from commercial airlines, the Air Force is 1,211 fighter pilots short of its target. As the base that trains more than half of the Air Force’s fighter pilots, Luke Air Force Base, 14185 Falcon Street, will play a big role in finding a solution.

The Air Force announced one step to that solution Aug. 25, when it introduced new pay initiatives for pilots.

“If you can keep the folks that you’ve spent millions of dollars training, that’s obviously the most economical and most efficient way to (address the lack of pilots),” said Brig. Gen. Brook J. Leonard of Luke AFB.

Air Force pilots will see an increase in aviation incentive pay, or flight pay, beginning Oct. 1. It is the first time the Air Force has increased flight pay since 1999. The Air Force is also extending its Aviation Bonus Program to non-contracted and contract-expired pilots, which began Aug. 4. Lastly, the Air Force announced an effort to bring retired pilots back into the service to fill critical-rated staff positions. That effort began Aug. 11.

“We can’t afford not to compensate our talented aviators at a time when airlines are hiring unprecedented numbers,” stated Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, in an Air Force press release.

Commercial airlines hiring away pilots is not the only reason the Air Force finds itself with a lack of fighter pilots.

“(Around 2014,) there was a more peaceful world that we kind of anticipated, if you will, and less demand for pilots,” Mr. Leonard said. “And we actually shrunk to where we were the smallest air force we had ever been since when we were first created.”

Luke AFB and the Air Force at large now must play catchup to meet the high demand after initially scaling back. In addition to retaining current pilots, which Mr. Leonard pointed out is the most economical means of dealing with the shortage, Luke AFB also needs to ramp up its production of new fighter pilots.

“The big challenge for us is not only do we have to produce the same amount that we’ve always had to produce or that we need just to fill the cockpits that we have, but we also need to fill the gap that we created when we pulled back on production,” Mr. Leonard said. “And we’re doing that at the same time when a lot of airlines are hiring.”

Boeing Co., the largest aerospace company in the U.S., told CNN it predicts North American airline companies will hire 117,000 new pilots over the next 20 years. Military.com reported that the Air Force met with private airlines last May to explore mutually beneficially ways to address the need of pilots, such as making a career in aviation more desirable and exploring the possibility of debt relief programs for civilian aviation certifications.

Another source of competition pulling fighter pilots away is the Air Force’s increased need for pilots of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones.

Brig. Gen. Brock Leonard

“There’s really an insatiable demand for what that platform brings in terms of battlefield intelligence,” Mr. Leonard said. Much of that demand has been filled by former fighter pilots, contributing to the shortage in that field.

Luke AFB is striving to find new ways to make its production of fighter pilots as efficient as possible, and has increased its efficiency by about 20 percent over the last 12-18 months, Mr. Leonard said.

Retention, on the other hand, comes down to more than just pay. Mr. Leonard says the Air Force is reaching out to pilots to see what matters to them, and that it often comes down to what he calls quality of life issues – having a say over where their family is and how many times they move.

Because of that, the Air Force is trying to increase its normal rotation rate from about two and half years to three or three and a half years, so that pilots and their families can have more stability.

Another desire of pilots was a chance to be skilled at what they do, so Luke AFB is trying to allow pilots to focus on specialized training and mastery of specific skills, while cutting back on more administrative, ancillary duties that pilots were required to do when the Air Force was more leanly staffed.

The Air Force’s flight pay increase will give pilots a monthly bonus that increases as their tenure with the Air Force increases. Officers with two or less years of service will receive a flight pay of $150 per month. After two years of service, it will increase to $250 per month, then to $700 per month after six years and $1,000 per month after 12 years. Once an officer reaches 22 years, his or her flight pay decreases to $750 per month and then decreases again to $450 per month after 24 years. The decrease in pay is because officers are more likely to be in a staff position than a flying position at that point, said Maj. Rebecca L. Heyse, spokeswoman for Luke AFB.

Non-officer enlisted pilots with less than four years of service will receive a flight pay of $225 per month. That number will increase to $350 per month after four years, $500 per month after eight years and $600 per month after 14 years.

The extension of the Aviation Bonus Program beyond fiscal year 2017 will provide an incentive to stay to a wider range of pilots.

“The bonus is now being offered to a larger pool of pilots that includes those beyond their initial service commitments who have previously declined to sign longterm bonus contracts and those whose contracts have expired,” said Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, in the Air Force’s Aug. 25 press release.

Mr. Leonard said that one of the three new initiatives, the Air Force’s campaign to have retired pilots volunteer for critically-rated staff positions, does not apply to Luke AFB, because Luke does not have rated staff positions.

However, Luke AFB is doing something similar, because many Luke pilots who retire from active duty sign up for the reserves.

“The reserve wing out here at Luke Air Force Base is a big part of what we do,” Mr. Leonard said.

Because of the lack of fighter pilots, Mr. Leonard said Luke AFB is reaching out to those pilots in the reserves, many of whom are also flying for commercial airlines, and offering them the option to return to fulltime active duty.

Mr. Leonard explained why the Air Force was not prepared for the high demand its seeing today.

“So you have this kind of anticipation of a smaller demand where we pulled back on our production,” he said. “And then that was combined with a huge need where all of a sudden we’re engaged fighting ISIS, we’re worried about North Korea and China and Russia, so we’re trying to deploy squadrons to deter those kind of actions around the world… You know, who had heard about ISIS back in 2014?”

Mark Carlise can be reached at 623-876-2518 or mcarlisle@newszap.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mwcarlisle

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