AF Readiness - Plummeting Pilot Retention Sets
September 27, 1998
 Email from AF pilot, "OFF WE GO INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER, CRASH," 26 September 1998. Attached.
Reference 1 to this message is an email which is reverberating around the Air Force. Its sender, an active duty field grade officer and senior pilot, prefaced it with the following words, which speak for themselves … "Here's an inside view of how sick our AIR FORCE really is. Please pass to anyone concerned, i.e. newspapers, congresspersons, etc. It's scary. No wonder Air Force Chief Fogleman cut and ran last year."
[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]
Email from AF pilot
Here's an inside view of how sick our AIR FORCE really is. Please pass to anyone concerned, i.e. newspapers, congresspersons, etc. It's scary. No wonder Air Force Chief Fogleman cut and ran last year.
26 August 1998
I was asked by at least a couple of you to provide feedback from the Rated Officer Assignments briefing. I am forwarding this summary to all the dept. heads on the off-chance that you did not get to attend the brief yet are still interested in knowing what went on. Please recognize that the comments you are about to read have been filtered through my view of the rated world and may reflect my own biases (despite my attempt to report faithfully). I will try to note when I am editorializing so that you can separate official comments from my own. I apologize if the text doesn't flow as nicely as Col. XXXX's briefing.
The briefing was given by Colonel XXX XXXX, a career fighter pilot who in his own words "is in the twilight of a mediocre career." In reality, Colonel XXXX has held a diversity of prestigious assignments and is well-qualified for the position he holds. It was news to me that there is no longer an organization called Rated Officer Assignments. It is now referred to as Operational Assignments (and includes missile officers and intel officers as well as rated officers—and may also include enlisted members eventually). Col. XXXX has served nearly 24 years in the AF and has held his current position for the past 18 months.
Col. XXXX began his briefing with what he termed the slippery slope. It seems that when Gen. McPeak eliminated UFT bases during the early post-Cold War downsizing, he set the stage for our current problems. In a nutshell, maintaining our projected cockpit needs with pilots remaining in the AF an average of about 12 years—requires an annual production of 1200 new pilots. Our current production—even at full capacity—is 1100 pilots. Hence, we would be experiencing a pilot shortage of significant magnitude (700 by FY02) if production were the only variable in the equation. This projected shortfall was pointed out to Gen. Fogleman in Jul 96, and he began to take action to address the problem as early as Sep 96.
However, we all know that pilot production isn't the only problem. Retention is also a factor, and adding the retention variable to the production chart was devastating. Adding in retention numbers, FY99 projections are a shortfall of 1300 pilots, and FY02 projections forecast 2341 too few pilots (which equates to about 20 percent of the pilot force). To emphasize the magnitude of the problem, Col. XXXX stated that at the beginning of this FY, the AF was 45 pilots short—by the end of this FY, the AF will be 800 pilots short.
In response to the projected shortfalls, the AF instituted a Prioritization Plan (PP) for FY99 and plans to submit Prioritization Plans for the outyears as well. The FY99 PP calls for filling all cockpits and then prioritizing everything else. The result for the Academy, as we all know, has been a reduction in pilot billets for the faculty and counting pilots in school billets against our Academy total. The result of the PP is that only 50 percent of AF pilot staff positions are to be filled in FY99 and are projected to drop to a 23 percent fill rate by FY02 when the pilot shortage is expected to hit bottom. AF Senior Leaders say that the 23 percent number is untenable for effective management of the force.
The following table summarizes the bonus take rate among the various pilot groups for FY98. The Strat Air grapevine says the rate may fall to single digits in FY99.
The bonus take rate has declined 4 straight years from a high of 81 percent in FY94 to 34 percent in FY97 and to a new low this year as noted in the chart. 1069 pilots were eligible for the bonus in FY98, and 1136 are eligible for the bonus in FY99. These large year groups are exacerbating the situation. Col. XXXX stated that an average bonus take rate of 55 percent is required for retention to not be a factor in the pilot population equation. The following table outlines projected shortfalls in real numbers in FY02 by category:
The most serious outcome of these numbers is that the C-17 conversion and build-up is placed at risk with the huge losses in Strat Air. It was believed that C-141 pilots would go over to the C-17 as the C-141 retired, but C-141 pilots are separating instead.
Col. XXXX said that the AF went "one base too far" in reducing its UFT training bases and that production is limited to 1100 annually—a number already noted earlier as being 100 short of projected needs. Further muddying the waters is that even if the AF were able to train additional pilots, the rest of the AF can't absorb them fast enough to handle the load—a true dilemma: we need more pilots, but if we get them we can't give them advanced training (and subsequently use them).
So why does retention figure so heavily in the numbers equation? Remember that the average AF pilot staying for a career of 12 years requires an annual pilot production of 1200 new pilots (which is 100 more than the AF can muster). Well, today the average AF pilot is staying in the AF for only 10.5 years. This significant drop motivated the longer UFT commitment required for attending pilot training. Unfortunately, the new commitment (effective in FY00 I believe my editorial comment now) will only make a difference 10 years down the road, as those pilots who reach 8 years after graduation from pilot training find themselves still owing 2 more years before they can separate. Although it is unlikely to be a problem, it is also unknown whether the longer commitment will affect the AF's ability to recruit enough pilot candidates—or maintain the high standards it currently demands of them.
Col. XXXX then gave us a quick overview of managing the pilot force. His slides were very effective, and I apologize for what is lost in the translation. The following picture (hopefully) captures the pertinent issues:
The notion behind the picture is this: in a typical fighter wing, experienced pilots make up about 45 percent of the force. They PCS [permanent change of station or transfer] during their careers into staff positions and training positions (to teach new pilots at UFT and new fighter pilots at FTU), cycling back to the wing level later in their careers. The frequency of PCS moves is dependent on the number of new, inexperienced pilots that arrive at the Wing. When the UFT spigot was turned down under Gen. McPeak's tenure, the frequency of PCS moves decreased. As the UFT spigot was turned up (in response to Gen. Fogleman's direction), the frequency of PCS moves for experienced pilots increased. The average PCS for fighter pilots is currently in the 2 year-8 month range, and 3 years is the preferred target.
But then Col. XXXX added retention to the picture. From the graphic that follows (note that DOS means date of separation), you can see that 767 pilots have put in a DOS to leave the service—and this is just a 6-month snapshot of the force. The bottom line is that the AF can't get there from here—the cockpits simply can't be filled. So what will happen?
The projection is that in FY99 it hits the fan, and ops units will drop below 100 percent manning—some units considerably below 100 percent. A 20-year problem looms ahead to cope with decisions made under Gen. McPeak to reduce pilot training output. More than 50 percent of pilots leave the service at about the 10-year point, and there appears to be no end in sight. The airlines are capable of absorbing any and all pilots who wish to leave the AF well into the first part of the next century, as airline pilots hired after the Vietnam conflict begin to retire.
Col. XXXX speculated that the reality of the situation will drive our AF leaders to make major changes to the force structure and promotion system. Decisions made during the McPeak era have greatly harmed the officer force -- and he emphasized it wasn't just the rated force that was affected.
For example, during the early drawdowns, the middle and upper crust of the non-rated force was allowed to leave the AF. During the same period, pilots were excluded from the drawdown. The result now is a very young non-rated force, where young officers are filling field grade and squadron commander positions, and a very senior rated force where some squadrons like the F-117 squadron at Holloman contain virtually all field graders. This means that non-rated officers are faring very well on promotion boards, while rated officers bring little to the table other than cockpit experience. The consequence of this dichotomy in the force is that pilots may be separated from the line AF promotion system to compensate for the differences in their records.
My worry (editorial comment here) is the unintended consequences that may come from "curing the problem" by taking pilots out of the line AF. With a 90 percent promotion rate to major, it's almost a sure thing to make field grade in today's AF, anyway. Imagine an AF where there is a 100 percent promotion rate to major (and possibly lieutenant colonel) for pilots, simply because they fly planes—not because they are (necessarily) the best officers in the AF. Remember what happened in the medical field early in our careers, when promotion was virtually 100 percent for doctors and dentists, and rank was merely an indication of longevity. Policy-makers should be cognizant that the officer corps could suffer a drop not only in quality, but also in respect, with a non-competitive promotion system for pilots that rewards longevity for meeting a minimum standard, rather than rewarding performance. The severe reduction in command and staff opportunities for more senior pilots and the recent decision to no longer promote captains to major below-the-zone, only reinforce the notion that all are created equal. Our similarity to the airlines would be even greater under such a promotion system. To use an overworked phrase, "the cure may be worse than the disease."
Col. XXXX cited what he called societal factors as contributing to our retention problem. He spoke of the current ops tempo and of the younger generation's low tolerance for long periods of separation from their families and for unpredictable flight schedules. He also tried to juxtapose the clear mission of the Cold War with the vagueness of American commitments today. He spoke of the differences in compensation (about 100 percent even with bonus) between AF pilot pay and airline pay, and he noted the better benefits available to airline pilots vice AF personnel.
He did not mention (editorial comment here) that we have raised a generation of young people who believe it's important to spend time with one's family on birthdays and anniversaries, and that men should play an equal role when raising children. Also, for many older officers, our wives stayed at home and raised the kids while we went off to fly and fight—and our families tolerated the constant moving associated with an AF career. Today, wives (translate spouses) have careers that they may not be interested in restarting every 2-3 years.
Col. XXXX also failed to mention the negative impact of the bonus on the officer corps in general. Many of my colleagues suggested at its inception that this very thing would happen—that it might result in a compensation fight with the airlines that we could not win and that the AF had to go for the intangibles. Col. XXXX did note that rated Colonels, who arguably take on greater responsibility and work longer hours than their younger counterparts, have their flight pay reduced and then eliminated in the latter part of their careers. One questioner noted that a captain receiving the bonus will make more money than his squadron commander.
Col. XXXX also did not mention the failure of Congress to close unnecessary bases, the unknowns surrounding the new AF assignment system, the perceived devaluing of benefits for military personnel, changes in medical care (i.e. Tri-Care), the effects of out-sourcing, the resignation of Gen. Fogleman, the recent events concerning our Commander in Chief, or a host of other potentially controversial issues that have involved the military in recent years. He said there was no one factor that could be identified as causing our retention problems, and I believe he is right. It is a confluence of events that is resulting in a bleeding out of the very heart of our officer corps.
Col. XXXX closed out this part of the discussion by saying that our Senior Leaders must come to grips with the changing priorities of young people entering the AF today—that both DoD and the AF must adjust to this reality. He stated categorically that our current combat capability can not be maintained in light of future projections.
He then off-handedly mentioned the 33xx career field as having the same problem (my career field). He alluded to the fact that poor retention in the 33xx career field boiled down to money, but I know talking with my own officers that it's more than that. My department 33xx officers haven't received a single 'DP' on four promotion boards to major for a 0 percent opportunity, while the AF as a whole has enjoyed over a 60 percent 'DP' rate (a 'DP', of course, permits an officer to compete for PME). Gen. Donahue (AF/SC) has beaten the out-sourcing drum at every opportunity and left 33xx officers with little hope for a productive future. Shredouts for our career field indicating competence in computer science are being removed from our AFSCs. My officer that separated most recently left not because he didn't want an AF career (he was promoted to major with his 'P'), but because he knew the AF did not appreciate his service. That's one of the intangibles the AF has lost, and it has little to do with compensation.
I then asked Col. XXXX if he would comment on the AEF [reorganization of AF into 10 expeditionary wings] and how it was expected to affect pilot retention. His response was surprising—our Senior Leaders haven't asked him that question, and no one knows the answer. If what I've been reading is true, the AEF is supposed to relieve ops tempo problems—but Col. XXXX was never asked to confirm that the rated force would respond positively to the AEF concept. So it's a train that's left the station without any passengers yet which I guess Gen. Ryan admitted in his last message about how the details were still to be filled in. I have to confess my surprise, however, that Col. XXXX hadn't been asked to comment on the policy before it was released to the world.
I then asked if pilots at the end of their commitments were being offered the opportunity to choose their next assignments. To make a long story short, the answer is no. The philosophy of AFPC [AF Personnel Center] is that if it's your turn to go remote overseas, then you can take the assignment or get out that if it's your turn to go to Fooville, then you can take the assignment or get out. It's no surprise to me that with their backs against the wall and with no opportunity to do other things during their AF careers, that many pilots are packing their bags.
I happen to have identified one officer at Luke AFB at the end of his flying commitment, who was willing to go to school and then return to USAFA and teach -- and then go back to the AF to fly fighters again. But the AF said no, so the officer said adios. That situation was the basis for my question, and I now understand why we lost the officer. In fairness to Col. XXXX, he said that 90 percent of the officers who make the decision to separate will not change their minds, no matter what you do for them. He may be right, but that still doesn't address the special situation where we might offer an officer the opportunity to choose his next assignment at the end of his commitment. I do not like the "it's your turn to get a bad deal and you'll take it or leave it" mentality that seems to pervade the Personnel Center. I have experienced the identical attitude from a previous 33xx career field manager. It seems that even in cases where we might help ourselves, we only dig the hole deeper. Perhaps this manning crisis will eliminate some of the incremental thinking that seems to plague our personnel system.
To go back to the issue of Prioritization, Col. XXXX believes that a simple Prioritization Plan will not suffice for FY00 and that the AF will have to review the entire AF structure to include MAJCOMs, staffs, etc. in order to compensate for the lack of pilots. Raking the rated officers out of the staff isn't working, and it will require more
Col. XXXX said that Senior Leaders won't cap PME numbers for the rated force. In response to a question with regard to pilots going for PhDs, he quoted a 2-star: "We don't need pilot PhDs at USAFA for the foreseeable future."
Senior Leaders are looking at hiring civilians to train our T-37 pilots (a proposal rejected just one year ago), and Phoenix Aviator will be an option for officers in the 1981 year group who want to be requalified in the cockpit and fly for several years before they retire. The AF will apparently waiver their requalification commitment to 24 months and pay for their ATP and FE ratings as part of the deal so they can go directly to the airlines upon retirement.
Col. XXXX then briefly discussed navigators. Suffice it to say that the nav situation is worse than that of pilots (again due to Senior AF Leader policies of the early 90's). There are few young navigators in the AF.
It was an ugly briefing, but Col. XXXX promised in the beginning it wouldn't be pretty—and it wasn't. Hope this summary helps. Sorry that it's a little bit of a dog's breakfast as I reread it, but I want to send it out while it's still a fresh topic of discussion.