The United States Air Force is reporting a shortage of pilots of fighter airplanes. The lack is so severe that some generals say it may affect the service’s ability to carry out operations as soon as next year.
The Air Force is training about 135 more fighter pilots this year than two years ago. But it will be a long time before they are ready for action.
Pilots must train for years -- at a cost of millions of dollars -- before they are qualified to fly fighter jets. The high-tech aircraft could be described as flying supercomputers so lengthy training is required.
The Air Force is permitted to have 3,500 fighter pilots. However, there are now about 725 fewer.
Major General Scott Vander Hamm and Lieutenant General John Cooper supervise Air Force pilots and mechanics who take care of the planes.
They recently spoke with VOA about the pilot shortage.
General Vander Hamm says the Air Force does not have enough pilots to meet the needs of commanders.
Pilot numbers began to fall following budget cuts that took effect after the United States left Iraq in 2010 and had plans to leave Afghanistan. But General Cooper says that did not happen.
“We didn’t plan for ISIS -- we planned to come home.”
VOA spoke with some fighter pilots at an Air Force base in Virginia. They said longer and additional deployments have hurt morale. One pilot said the rotations were 45 days at first. Then they increased to 90 and later 120, he said. Now, he said, the pilots are deployed for six months or even a year.
And pilots must often spend much of their non-deployed time on administrative duties and additional training.
After 10 years of service, jet fighter pilots are offered an additional payment if they agree to stay on active duty. But this year only about 40 percent of the pilots agreed to stay. The Air Force says it must keep at least 65 percent of its pilots to complete its missions.
The fighter pilot shortage has happened at the same time private airlines are hiring more pilots. Private airlines pay more and their pilots spend less time away from home.
This Air Force fighter pilot said his family will decide whether he stays in the service.
“If it’s up to just me, I definitely would stay in, but my family has a vote and so if they're doing well and they're enjoying where we’re at, then we’ll stay. If they want me to leave to do something else, then that’s probably what I’ll end up doing.”
Tom Hunt left the Air Force in 2013. He earns more money working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. than he was paid as a fighter pilot. He says the Air Force could end the shortage if it paid the pilots a large bonus.
“Some people say you can’t throw money at everything (but) you can. You absolutely can. If you said ‘The pilot bonus is now $500,000, single-lump sum payment,’ (I) guarantee you will solve your pilot shortage.”
The Air Force is asking Congress for money to increase the bonus from its current $25,000 to $48,000 a year. It would be the first bonus increase since 1999.
The Air Force hopes that amount will be enough to persuade experienced pilots to stay in the service. It says they are needed to help the Air Force succeed in its missions and to train new pilots. The generals also have agreed to reduce administrative work for pilots who are not deployed.
The generals say they are still able to meet the demands for fighter jet support. But they say if more pilots do not join the Air Force and stay in, the service will soon be unable to meet the demands of commanders.
They warn that this could possibly cost the lives of troops and civilians.
I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.
Words in This Story
qualify – v. to have the necessary skill or knowledge to do a particular job or activity; to have the qualifications to do something
morale – n. the feelings of enthusiasm and loyalty that a person or group has about a task or job
rotation – n. the group of people who take turns doing something
mission – n. a specific military or naval task
bonus – n. an extra amount of money that is given to an employee
throw money at – expression. to try to solve (a problem) by spending a large amount of money on it, sometimes without giving enough thought to exactly what should be done
absolutely – adv. completely or totally (often used to make a statement more forceful)
lump sum – n. an amount of money that is paid at one time; a single sum of money