Air Force Pilot Shortage

Fat retention bonuses have made little difference.

Air Force Pilot Shortage F 16
The Air Force says it's facing a shortage of fighter pilots due in part to the U.S. airline hiring boom.U.S. Air Force

No matter where you look inside the U.S. Air Force, the shortage of pilots is an issue. For years it looked as if the shortage only affected the fighter pilot ranks, but even the supply of aviators for the Air Force's transport arm, the Air Mobility Command, is running dry, according to the Air Force Times.

AMC commander Gen. Carlton Everhart said nearly 1,600 Air Force pilots would become eligible to leave the service in the next four years alone. Having flown some 33,000 sorties in 2016, the AMC said it typically likes to hang on to 60 percent of its pilots, but lately it can barely muster 50 percent willing to remain, even with the command’s $35,000 annual retention bonuses. Look at the Air Force Reserve and the shortage of pilots grows to 7 percent, and 13 percent for the Air National Guard.

Retention numbers are even worse for fighter pilots; the Air Force claims it's short 21 percent of the fighter pilots it currently needs. The Air Force is trying to increase fighter pilot retention bonuses to $48,000, although in August of last year, the service said less than 35 percent of active pilots agreed to stay on for the additional nine-year commitment.

The Air Force blames much of the exodus on the U.S. airline industry hiring boom that's just now getting started. The pilot application window for Southwest Airlines, where the carrier says it plans to look for more than 500 new pilots, for example, opens tomorrow and runs for just one week.

Air Force critics say pilots abandon the Air Force because their annual flying hours dwindle as they rise in rank. Air Force pilots also don’t enjoy being on call 24 hours a day or being away from their families for extended periods of time.

The Air Force says it's talking to the airlines to identify unique ways to allow airline pilots to moonlight and somehow keep their military flying options open. So far, there are no details on whether the Air Force might allow enlisted personnel to climb into the cockpit, although the service did recently begin training enlisted members to become drone pilots.