The United States Air Force is currently in a disastrous tailspin, with pilots burning out at an alarming rate. The USAF has a deficit of 2,000 aviators, more than 1,300 of them fighter pilots. This shortage equates to one out of 10 of the 20,000 pilots serving in the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.
“We’re burning out our people,” says Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, “because we’re too small for all the missions we’re being asked to carry out.” Heightened operational demands can be shouldered in the short term, but inevitably exhaust the pilots affected by downsizing. This precariously leaves seats empty in the USAF’s 5,500 bombers, fighters, airlifters, cargo planes and rescue helicopters.
According to Wilson, sequestration, or defense spending cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011, has negatively affected retention of seasoned fliers. The core defense budget, which comprises only 15 percent of Federal spending, has also adversely impacted pilot retention. Wilson emphasized that a higher, more stable budget is a necessity.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) deemed the USAF pilot shortage, “a full-blown crisis that could eventually call into question the Air Force’s ability to accomplish its mission.” Further sequestration may alienate pilots and cause them to seek more lucrative jobs in commercial aviation. As a counter-measure, the Air Force has increased its monthly flight pay and offered retention bonuses from $225,000 in 2013 up to a staggering $455,000 last year to keep pilots in the cockpit. Few have taken the bait.
In 2017, President Donald Trump attempted to staunch the shortfall by signing an executive order permitting the Air Force to voluntarily call up retired pilots under the Voluntarily Retired Return to Active Duty Program. Despite this newly expanded program, the Air Force anticipates fewer than 200 retired pilots returning to active duty, serving as pilot instructors.
These woes are predicted to nag until at least the fiscal year 2023. The Air Force is exploring improving pilots’ quality of life, retention, training, and compensation. While these measures are being probed, the clock is ticking. “We are in crisis,” says Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. “If we don’t find a way to turn this around our ability to defend the nation is compromised.”