Solving the Pilot Shortage: Air Force Reserve, airlines fishing in the same pond

The Air Force Reserve has 290 pilot vacancies across the command. The Air Force has a shortage of more than 1,500 pilots across the total force.

The Air Force Reserve has 290 pilot vacancies across the command. The Air Force has a shortage of more than 1,500 pilots across the total force.

Maj. Tim Pfeifer, an Air Force Reservist with the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, and a commercial pilot with American Airlines, prepares his HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter for a mission. The Air Force pilot shortage that is impacting the total force is expected to grow, given the fact that the major airlines are projected to hire more than 4,000 pilots a year for at least the next 10 years. (Senior Master Sgt. Elaine Mayo)

Maj. Tim Pfeifer, an Air Force Reservist with the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, and a commercial pilot with American Airlines, prepares his HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter for a mission. The Air Force pilot shortage that is impacting the total force is expected to grow, given the fact that the major airlines are projected to hire more than 4,000 pilots a year for at least the next 10 years. (Senior Master Sgt. Elaine Mayo)

Capt. Lyndsey Goodman is a C-17 pilot with the 317th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. Her organization is breaking the pilot shortage trend with 100 percent manning. (Staff Sgt. Jeff Kelly)

Capt. Lyndsey Goodman is a C-17 pilot with the 317th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. Her organization is breaking the pilot shortage trend with 100 percent manning. (Staff Sgt. Jeff Kelly)

Even though the pilot shortage is hitting fighter units the hardest, it is also having an impact on other flying organizations as well, including training squadrons like the 5th Flying Training Squadron at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, where Lt. Col. Darren "Shead" McTee, a T-38 instructor pilot, is assigned. (Courtesy photo)

Even though the pilot shortage is hitting fighter units the hardest, it is also having an impact on other flying organizations as well, including training squadrons like the 5th Flying Training Squadron at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, where Lt. Col. Darren "Shead" McTee, a T-38 instructor pilot, is assigned. (Courtesy photo)

Citizen Airman/Aug. 2017 -- In the wake of the ongoing Air Force-wide pilot shortage, the Air Force Reserve and its units are trying their best to overcome this obstacle and continue the flying missions they are uniquely suited for both today and tomorrow.

As of February, the Air Force had a shortage of more than 1,500 pilots across the total force. The data also suggests that the shortage is having the greatest impact on the fighter community.

One of the Reservists actively involved in dealing with the pilot shortage issue is Col. Mike LoForti, former Air Force Reserve Command Combat Operations Division chief and current 920th Rescue Wing Operations Group commander at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. LoForti said with commercial airlines stepping up their hiring efforts, the continuing budgetary constraints, and the high operations tempo, many Reserve Citizen Airmen are converting from full-time air reserve technician and active Guard and Reserve to traditional Reservist status.

“As a result, AFRC’s overall pilot numbers haven’t changed dramatically due to this shift,” he said. “However, the full-time manning now has 290 pilot vacancies across the command. This issue will continue to grow given the major airlines are projected to hire over 4,000 pilots a year for at least the next 10 years due to the fact that a large number of pilots hired in the 1990s are reaching mandatory retirement age imposed by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).”

To meet this challenge, LoForti’s former Headquarters division along with Doug Miller from the Rated Management Division are implementing several initiatives to recruit and retain pilots across AFRC.

One initiative involves transitioning some vacant ART positions into AGR positions, as the AGR positions provide more pay equity and flexibility for pilots in commercial aviation. Currently, the manning rate for ART pilots is about 67 percent, while the AGR pilot manning rate remains above 90 percent. In addition, many new pilots prefer AGR status positions, LoForti said.

“Also, pilots who transition to airlines can return to an AGR full-time status on military leave up to five years after finishing a probationary period with their respective airlines. However, they are ineligible to take this leave for ART positions, with a vast majority of airlines,” he said.

AFRC is also working to educate more Citizen Airmen about the ART recruitment, relocation, and retention program and the incentives available to qualifying Reservists.

“For years, eligible AGR pilots received bonuses of up to $25,000 per year. However, far fewer ART pilots were qualifying for similar incentives until very recently,” LoForti said. “The request for ART retention incentives has increased dramatically in the past year, but the process is laborious, compared to applying for an AGR bonus. Therefore, the command is looking at ways to streamline or simplify the process for commanders.”

In addition to streamlining incentives, the command is attempting to minimize the length of time it takes to hire ARTs. The hiring process usually takes at least 120 days to complete but, in many cases, can take significantly longer. This time-intensive process can make it difficult to recruit pilots who are in high demand throughout the aviation industry.

“AFRC is competing for a very small pool of experienced pilot candidates. Therefore, we must streamline our processes if we are to compete with the Air National Guard, active duty, or the airlines,” LoForti said. “Many candidates will not wait a significant amount of time when there are other opportunities elsewhere.”

As commander of the 476th Fighter Group at Moody AFB, Georgia, Col. Michael "Angry" Schultz sees firsthand that the high demand for pilots is a major issue and one that makes things even harder for the pilots who choose to stay in the Air Force.

“The pilots who stay are carrying more weight because the demand for them doesn't change just because there are fewer of them to go around,” Schultz said.

For his part, Schultz is finding a way forward by helping interested enlisted Reserve Citizen Airmen take steps to become pilots.

“We recently interviewed enlisted candidates from our own unit and hired two young pilots,” he said. “There are success stories here at the 476th of hiring from within. We actively seek potential pilots from within our existing enlisted ranks and train our own.”

Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller, AFRC commander, said in an interview with Federal News Radio in March that the pilot shortage is a central personnel issue the command is facing.

“With respect to our personnel readiness challenges, I am focused on three main areas: the first being the pilot shortage; the second the shortfalls in full-time support; and, finally, critical skills manning,” Miller said.

Miller went on to say that when it comes to the pilot shortage, the most challenging part isn’t attracting pilots, it’s keeping them. She explained that AFRC as a whole is able to bring on a sufficient number of new pilots, but retaining them for the long term continues to be very problematic.

Lt. Col. Todd Halverson, branch chief of AFRC Rated Management and Full-Time Support Working Group deputy chairman, has been working on the issues involving the pilot shortage for the past few years and has been working with AFRC leadership on possible solutions.

“We built a pilot survey, which went out in the summer of last year,” Halverson said. “That survey gave us the qualitative and quantitative data we needed to attack some of the problems.”

The two major issues the results of the survey identified were payment matters and administrative workload. Many Reserve pilots face unique challenges because of their dual military and civilian statuses involving pay differences, medical benefits, travel orders, training requirements and other issues.

Halverson and his team are developing initiatives to try to close the pilot pay gap between the Reserve and the commercial airlines.

“We really focus on the retention piece and trying to streamline the process by which pilots across the command can get a retention incentive to potentially stop them from leaving,” he said. “That’s still ongoing, and we’ve had some success.”

Halverson said the pilot shortage is made worse because of the significant shortages in the maintenance and enlisted aviation fields.

“Maintenance and ops go hand in hand,” he said. “If you can’t fix them, then there is nothing to fly.”

On the pilot side, Halverson is part of the pilot training boards that work to bring new pilots into the Reserve. The boards, which have previously convened twice per year, are now scheduled to meet six times per year, starting this September, to try to bring on more pilots faster than before.

Another initiative now underway involves bringing Air Force ROTC students directly into pilot training upon their commissioning. The ROTC board will meet once a year in October to look at students in their junior year who are interested in joining the Reserve as pilots.

Even though the pilot shortage is hitting the fighter units the hardest, LoForti said the mobility air forces are now feeling the effects of the same shortfalls.

Lt. Col. Michael Vinson, 79th Air Refueling Squadron chief pilot at Travis AFB, California, said the pilot shortage is partly a morale issue.

“With the stress of ops tempo, this has dropped off our radars,” Vinson said. “I've heard senior officers say morale is not the problem, readiness is. While I agree with the readiness piece, I take extreme issue with the approach to morale. Morale is fundamentally the cornerstone of dignity, respect, and understanding. My daily mantra is, ‘Let's remember who's doing who a favor around here.’”

In addition to being a morale issue, LoForti said the pilot shortage has been a long-term issue.

“The problem can be traced back over a decade ago when we started under-producing pilots after the last two rounds of the defense base closure and realignment actions,” LoForti said.

But there are success stories. Lt. Col. John Robinson, 315th Airlift Wing Operations Group deputy commander at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, explained that his unit is bucking the pilot shortage trend with 100 percent manning. Robinson attributes the unit’s strong manning numbers to personnel planning.

“We are proactive and plan for losses and retirements and hire based on those projections,” Robinson said. “I think we are better off than most units because of the age of most of our ARTs. We have a great location, a great mission, a great aircraft, and three active-duty squadrons here with us.”

Robinson said a major factor for the Air Force-wide pilot shortage is the competition from the commercial airlines.

“Air Force can't compete with airlines with respect to money,” he said. “The military must work to reduce the issues that face people who work here on a daily basis.”

In May, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein hosted a national pilot sourcing meeting with airline industry executives to discuss how the Air Force can work together with the commercial aviation sector to address the pilot shortage.

“Today’s aviation enterprise doesn’t adequately meet the needs for national defense and national commerce,” Goldfein said. “This is the beginning of something I think will have big payoffs, if we’re disciplined in the way we approach it.”

Miller echoed the need to collaborate with the airlines in a statement saying, “We're not going to fix the numbers anytime soon, so we have to get after how we use those pilots in both uniforms.”

In her testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on the National Guard and Reserve in May, Miller explained how the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal will affect the Air Force Reserve and the pilot shortage.

“The fiscal year 2018 president’s budget request continues our efforts to build readiness and capability by adding 800 positions across our rated, space, cyber, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions,” Miller said. “The budget request, with additional overseas contingency operations support, begins to fund weapon system sustainment closer to required levels, ensuring we can produce the exercise, training and combat sorties needed to sustain the best Air Force in the world.”

In June, the Air Force announced changes to the aviation bonus program, including increasing the maximum bonus amount from $25,000 to $35,000 per year. The program also provides more flexibility with more contract options based on the various airframes.

(Editor’s Note: In a recent episode of “Airmen's Moments,” Air Force Reserve Vice Commander Maj. Gen. William Waldrop, now retired, and 1st. Lt. Jordan Echols from the 476th FG at Moody AFB, discussed the pilot retention issue, the enlisted-to-officer path and the need for more Reserve Citizen Airman pilots. Check out the video at http://www.afrc.af.mil/News/Video/videoid/514557/#DVIDSVideoPlayer12600.)