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Air Force faces fighter pilot shortage

F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons perform a fly-by during the AirPower over Hampton Roads Open House at Langley Air Force Base, Va., April 24, 2016. The Golden Knights parachute team presented the American flag during the fly-by. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kayla Newman)

F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons perform a fly over during the AirPower over Hampton Roads Open House at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., April 24, 2016. The Golden Knights parachute team presented the American flag during the fly over. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kayla Newman)

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- The Air Force is in the midst of a pilot shortage. While most platforms are affected by the shortage, the fighter pilot community has been hit the hardest.

In September 2015, the Air Force Chief of Staff directed a fighter enterprise redesign to focus on developing a strategy and implementation plan to ensure the Air Force has an enduring, proficient and sufficient fighter pilot force.

Senior Air Force leaders took time to discuss the topic during the annual Weapons and Tactics Conference at Nellis Air Force Base from Jan. 9-13.

“The health of the fighter pilot community is bad,” said Lt. Gen. Chris Nowland, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements (AF/A3). “We focus on fighter pilots, but it’s not just [them]. We have a national pilot crisis. Essentially the Air Force, when it comes to pilot production, is going to have to change.”

The past 25 years of continuous combat operations has taken a toll on the Air Force fighter community. Compounding the problem since fiscal 2014, losses of fighter pilots have exceeded the Air Force’s annual production capacity.

“Recruiting and getting people on to fly is not a problem,” Nowland said. “If you look across the Air Force, the quality of the individuals coming into the Air Force are some of the highest we ever had. That goes for the enlisted and officer force.

“Our problem is capacity. It’s how do we get the throughput up to produce the number of pilots we want. It’s a supply and demand problem,” Nowland continued. “Air Education and Training Command is working hard on this problem, but it’s not something that can change overnight. There is a lot of infrastructure associated with it and the problem becomes complicated as you consider how to man to the increased capacity that we want to build.”

While a complete fix of the shortage will be a long process, senior leadership have already begun aggressively attacking the problem and have several initiatives that will help fix some of the current issues as well as developing a long-term plan to rebuild the career field.

“Senior leadership is extremely engaged,” said Col. Jason Cockrum, the AF/A3 director of staff. “They care deeply and are taking this very seriously. They know and appreciate the high operations tempo that our fighter forces have been operating at for the past 25 years, and recognize the new and emerging threats in the Pacific, Europe and the ongoing operations in the Middle East. They understand those demands and the requirements for a strong sustainable fighter force in the future.”

According to Cockrum, the Air Force is taking a threefold approach to solving this problem by reducing the number of fighter pilot requirements, increasing retention of pilots currently serving and increasing the production of new fighter pilots.

Cockrum engaged in an open Q-and-A session with the pilot community that were in attendance at WEPTAC to get feedback on the issues causing the retention rate of pilots to decrease and how they can go about solving those issues.

“Every time we go out and meet with pilots we learn something new,” Cockrum said. “We lean on our Airmen to give us feedback and provide us with the changes they would recommend. For example, we had a really good idea from the group we met with (during WEPTAC) and within about three hours after the meeting we had information back to the senior leadership in the Pentagon. In less than 24 hours the idea was pitched to Congress to see if the suggestion could be implemented as part of a future solution.”

Much of the impact on the military flying community stems from the draw of commercial airlines, who have been hiring at an increased rate the past three years.

“There are three pillars that a lot of people focus on when considering staying in the military; quality of service, quality of life and monetary compensation,” Cockrum said. “Nobody in the civilian sector can compete with quality of service. What Airmen go out and do every day for our nation, you just can’t get that anywhere else. So we are focused on improvements related to quality of life and monetary compensation. We are not going to be able to compete directly with the airline industry on the monetary piece, but we are focusing on how we can ensure the other two pillars offset any differences offered by the civilian sector.”

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