The Real Reason the Air Force Has a Pilot Shortage

It’s all over the news, and it’s the water cooler talk in every flying squadron: the Air Force is short 2,000 pilots, or about 10% of its pilot manning currently unfilled. And the number keeps going up and up: not long ago it was 1,555 pilots short. Three- and four-star generals sit before Congress and admit, embarrassed and ashamed, that they can’t keep folks doing the one friggin’ job that every American kid has dreamt of doing at least once in his or her life: flying fighter jets (note: for us heavy pilots, we like to think kids dream of flying a handsome C-130, too).

Various commentators have opined as to why Air Force pilots are bailing in droves from service, with a particularly acute shortage among fighter pilots. Top of the list are usually airline hiring and salaries, caustic leaders, a nanny and/or gotcha culture, loss of squadron vitality, ground jobs, and an decade and a half-long ultra high ops tempo overlaid on top of career progression demands that are almost always mutually exclusive. One would hope that list had stopped at about halfway, but I know I haven't actually gotten close to everyone's gripes.

Let it first be said that the Air Force doesn’t actually have a shortage of people to fly its airplanes. It’s not like those 2,000 missing pilots are causing jets to go unflown on ramps across the world. No, the vast majority of those missing pilots are in non-flying staff jobs that just happen to “require” a pilot to fill them due to some requirement for a pilot’s expertise, if only barely. One such example is the pilot I know who has to leave his active flying position for a year to explain to the Qataris why there are drones flying over their houses at 0200, among other “community relations” tasks that that position may require. Another is the Inspector General at his deployed location. His assistant is a dental hygenist.

No, it's more like the Air Force has a shortage of majors and lieutenant colonels who happen to be pilots. This is a key distinction, for it is a major player in the real reason there is a shortage of pilots to do desk jobs. What's more, they are desk jobs in deployed locations that may once have had some application to the war--however vague--but no longer seem to have the strong support-the-warfighter connection to the job. In 2007 when the war had motion to it and our goal rather less nebulous, the aforementioned jobs may have had purpose and meaning to them; today, not so much.

Years ago I sold a car to an old warrant officer who told me that you know it’s time to move on from service when you don’t think you’re contributing any more. I propose to add one additional perspective to this.

The real reason for the pilot shortage is not that pilots have better, more lucrative career alternatives elsewhere. It’s also not just pilots; a wonderful man and peer of mine, on the fast track for command, a colonelcy, and perhaps even a generalship, left the Air Force for less lucrative career options. It’s not money, and it’s not not money that is driving mid-career people out of the Air Force.

The real reason the Air Force has a pilot shortage is this: we don’t believe in it anymore.

"It" is not the day-to-day work in the squadron. Most of us would probably say we rather love the people we work with, and even the work that keeps a flying wing churning out missions, whether directly or indirectly related to flying, keeps us going in relative happiness. We have a job to do, and 99% of us go to work. give it our 100% best effort, and are proud of the work we get done, truly proud to serve in this respect.

No, "it" is the larger strategic goals that we are all supporting in one way or another. We have spent our entire adult lives fighting a war that we have come to realize, along with the rest of the country, will never be won but we will keep fighting no matter what. Perpetual, unwinnable war. Whatever our individual motives for joining the service, after a decade of feeding on a steady diet of “service before self,” we have started to realize that our service has been for a cause that anymore feels as hopeless as Vietnam. We run to the reserves or to AETC (training command) to avoid deploying, if only for three precious years. Is this service before self? Absolutely not, but service, it would seem, is irrelevant to many, and self needs to be shored up a bit lest the service monopolize our existence, for a cause that many deem no longer worthy of such a sacrifice.

This isn’t just an Air Force problem, either. At the Army’s Command and General Staff College--it’s military school for majors, a program with courses in strategy, history, and leadership--over 60% of respondents polled said we had lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is staggering considering they were the ones to have fought those wars. Here is a generation of soldiers willing to concede that their generation’s war (and how terrible it is that each generation must have “their” war) had been lost, a significant departure from the average Vietnam vet who may concede defeat but not by their hands--it was the damn politicians. That may be true, but it misses the point--the war and the politics are inextricable. We forget our Clausewitz to our peril.

It’s just a particularly acute problem when it's situated as the root cause with all the other aforementioned gripes growing above. Every graduate student learns that correlation doesn’t equal causation. True enough, only here the airline hiring and caustic leadership are only correlated. The cause is that we are a generation of pilots (and officer) who know when to fold a shitty hand.

Old warrant may be proud, if the results weren’t so indemnifying...and terrifying.


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