Here’s where the Air Force’s pilot shortfall is the worst

Despite the Air Force’s full-court press in recent years to close its persistent and troubling pilot shortfall, the gaps in crucial categories remain — and in some cases, have worsened.

The Air Force closed out 2019 with roughly 1 in 10 bomber, fighter and special operations pilot billets vacant, according to statistics the service provided at Air Force Times’ request.

And in two cases, the manning situation is consistently heading in the wrong direction. Among 11B bomber pilots, for example, the Air Force was more than fully manned from 2015 to 2017. But manning fell 17 percentage points in recent years, from a high of 108 percent in fiscal 2016 to 91 percent in 2019.


Air Force Stemmed Its Pilot Crisis, Chief Says

The Air Force believes it has contained an emergency threatening its core mission, despite persistent estimates it doesn’t have enough pilots at a time it’s facing off against new threats from China and Russia.

By the end of 2018, the Air Force had a shortage of roughly 800 active duty pilots spurred by an inability to retain airmen and train new ones quickly enough. Shortages among Reserve units account for another 1,200-pilot shortfall. The service counts roughly 12,500 active duty pilots among its ranks. Outside assessments predicted the problem would only worsen within the next five years.

The pilot shortage is part of a wider international problem as militaries and commercial airlines scramble to fill empty cockpits. And it has wrought widespread concern, including from some in Congress who consider the shortage “a serious crisis.”


Brett Vance, Host of TV?s Jet Jockeys, Discusses the Devastating Impact of Military Pilot Shortages

It?s no secret that the Air Force is short on pilots. In fact, at the end of 2018, the service was in need of roughly 2,000 pilots. However, a new study the Defense Department delivered to Congress sheds more light on the makeup of the shortage and the exact challenges the Air Force and DoD have in digging out of the hole.

?Pilot shortages in the military are a recurring problem,? explains Brett Vance, host of TV?s Jet Jockeys, ?As a career fighter pilot and test pilot in the Air Force, I have personally seen these pilot manning numbers swing to both sides of the pendulum several times. With booming economies, pilots are attracted to the generally higher-paying civilian jobs, such as the major airlines or large aircraft manufacturers. In contracting economies, pilots gravitate toward the security of a military career, despite the seemingly constant deployments.?


Tackling the Pilot Shortage is a Team Effort

The Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration will work together to address the national pilot shortage, with a specific focus on cross-agency collaboration, officials announced.

?This collaborative effort will enable the Air Force and the FAA to work with industry partners to share practices and find ways to get more people to fly,? Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a press release issued on May 31, her final day as the service?s top leader.



The Air Force is faced with a long-standing conundrum ? not enough pilots, particularly fighter pilots. The causes of the shortage are longstanding, and have defied easy or quick solutions. The introduction of light attack aircraft (if that ever happens), offers potential to solve part of the problem by increasing the number of available cockpits. Oddly enough, the pilot shortage is exacerbated by too few so-called ?absorbable cockpits? because they can absorb new students and turn them into experienced aviators. But even increasing the supply of aircraft is not enough. The Air Force also needs a wider training pipeline to provide students in the first place, and an accessions policy that ensures it can get people who will become aviators into the service in the first place. That is proving particularly challenging using traditional methods.



According to the Air Force, the military organization has a few job openings ? over 2,000 ? in the pilot department, especially if you have experience. In his three-part series, Mike Benitez does a wonderful job illustrating how the service got to this position and how the lack of experienced pilots degrades its lethality and disrupts its ability to replenish the force through basic pipeline training. A year after War on the Rocks published Benitez?s articles, I hope to offer a ?front line? perspective as one of the pilots the Air Force is attempting to retain.