U.S. Air Force suffers brain drain as Top Guns drop out to fly drones – leaving pilot numbers down by SEVEN HUNDRED
By JAMES NYE
PUBLISHED: 19:06 EST, 22 July 2013 | UPDATED: 19:58 EST, 22 July 2013
The U.S. Air Force is struggling to keep its top gun combat pilots as increasing numbers move to the safety of flying attack drones from military bases.
Indeed, despite their adrenaline fueled reputations, fighter pilots believe the stresses of actual combat compared to the financial incentives of flying passenger airlines or drones are too much too ignore.
Facing a shortfall of 700 pilots from a required pool of 3,000 by 2021, the Air Force is now actively offering a huge $225,000 signing on bonus for new pilots – provided you stay in the service for nine years.
This year alone, the Air Force has a shortfall of 200 pilots among its ranks, as the surge in demand for better paid commercial jobs and reassignments to fly combat drones impacts and reshapes modern warfare.
Officers in the Air Force are aware of this issue according to the LA Times and as a result are beefing up their Aviator Retention Program which will offer a $25,000 signing bonus per year over the course of nine years.
‘Were it not for the program, there would be a greater problem that the one we currently have,’ said Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke.
‘Senior leadership is aware of the problem and is very concerned.’
Just twenty years ago, 80 percent of Air Force pilots chose to remain in the service after their tenth year – that number has now failed to 65 percent.
With the $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter entering service over the next decade, pilots are desperately needed.
However, while most pilots working into the second decade at the Air Force earn around $90,000, pilots and even flight engineers at commercial airlines earn at least six-figures.
While the Air Force has faced this issue before, the worry for the top brass stems from a Boeing Co. report that said that globally, 460,000 pilots are needed in the commercial sectors.
Currently there are only 71,000 active airlines pilots in the United States.
US Airways and American are anticipating the retirement of more than 2,100 pilots within five years because of the mandatory retirement age of 65.
‘The airlines are going to have more money to pay for pilots than the government,’ said Rob Streble, 52, secretary and treasurer for the US Airline Pilots Assn., a labor union that represents US Airways pilots.
‘The military is difficult on the family with all the moving around,’ he said. ‘I added more stability by joining the airline.’
Of greater concern is the number of experienced pilots who can act as trainers for new ones.
With less veteran pilots, there are less trainers.
The growth in drone and drone pilots has led to large numbers of fighter pilots shifting jobs from a dangerous supersonic cockpit to the comfort and safety of a desk.
Drones went from being a handful of aircraft on Sept. 11 to the ‘fastest growing part of the force,’ said Peter W. Singer, author of ‘Wired for War,’ a book about robotic warfare.
In all since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq last decade, 153 experienced pilots have been reassigned.
Recognizing this, the Air Force has decided to stop offering this to established and trained pilots.
‘We have in the past used fighter pilots in RPA assignments but have largely shifted away from that process and are now training pilots specific to the RPA mission,’ said Konopatzke, the Air Force lieutenant colonel. ‘This goes back to the fact that we recognize the shortage in fighter pilots.’
However, at the end of the day, a choice between long and stressful hours or less and better pay is just too attractive.
‘People have no idea how hard it is when you have to move your family all the time,’ said former F-15 pilot, John Wigle. ‘Military life is not for everyone.’