The Air Force’s pilot shortage has been well-documented over the past few years. Senior leaders – including the Secretary of the Air Force and its Chief of Staff – are aware of it and are continually looking at ways to remedy the issue.
A task force was also recently created to specifically address pilot manning. Called the Aircrew Crisis Task Force, it provides strategic direction and actionable recommendations to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force on issues regarding the aircrew manning crisis across the Total Force.
The task force’s director, Brig. Gen. Michael G. Koscheski, sat down with Airman magazine to talk about pilot manning and what the Air Force is doing to combat the current shortage.
What would you say is the current state of the Air Force’s pilot manning?
It’s really hard to articulate because it’s not necessarily black and white – it’s shades of gray. What I mean is we are short pilots, but there’s a lot more to it than just the numbers. Overall we’re about 2,000 pilots short across the Air Force, and that’s if you include remotely piloted aircraft and our manned aircraft. Our most acute shortage is in the fighter pilot career field, and then it’s being followed by mobility. We’re seeing a decrease there, and we’re also short in the RPA career field. Eventually we’re going to run into a problem where we’re not going to have enough experienced folks in the aircraft to train the inexperienced pilots that come out of our training pipelines…so they have pilot training and undergraduate levels and then they have graduate-level training. So, once they go into the operational squadron, about three years is what it takes on one assignment to experience that pilot.
They learn to fly in undergraduate pilot training, they learn to fight in graduate, formal training units and then they learn to win through their operational squadrons. And then, as they grow through the ranks and become a flight lead and then instructor, then we’re looking to use that talent in training and test aircraft. That’s where we look now to focus on retention efforts because the Air Force has made a large investment in those aircrew and pilots. We want to retain that talent.
When did the Air Force start noticing pilot manning issues in the fighter community?
The fighter pilot crisis manifested itself because when you only have single seat fighters, it becomes a cockpit training capacity issue quickly compared to larger aircraft with multi-seats, where you have an aircraft commander and a copilot. You have a little bit more flexibility to manage your pilot training. The crisis happened quickly in the fighters because of that very reason.
But what we’re seeing is the same dynamics are in place for other career fields, and also because of the fighter pilot shortage, the mobility Air Force has been carrying some training shortfalls and pilot training to cover the shortage of fighter pilots. So, their effective manning has been hit and they’ve been doing more than their fair share, trying to help out while we heal the fighter pilot crisis.
What are some of the challenges leading to the current pilot shortage?
The ops tempo is higher now than it’s ever been, and that’s one of the problems. The ops tempo is extremely high, and it’s an enduring challenge and folks don’t see an end state to reduced ops tempo. Folks are working really hard when they’re deployed, and then the big challenge is, when they come home, everybody says, “great, they’re home from their deployment,” and now they’re behind from being deployed and they’re trying to catch up. And they’re almost busier at home than they were deployed. That’s just a vicious cycle that we’ve got to work on getting after.
The Air Force tends to worship at the altar of technology. I mean, we’re a technology-based service, and we forget about the human element and pilots are the lifeblood of our service when it comes to combat capability. And so, we focus so much on modernization that sometimes we lose track of Airmen development, and so I would say that the pilot crisis is an example of us shifting a little bit away from a sole focus on modernization, and we’re looking to train and grow our Airmen that we have.
But, right now, the biggest challenge we look at is just the production pipeline is too small and we don’t have the ability to get enough pilots through the pipeline.
What is the Air Force doing to combat this shortage?
We’re improving force development and talent management. We’re taking care of families better and we’re treating pilots like professional athletes and working on neck and back care, and we’re just doing a lot of things that needed to be done to take care of our Airmen. We see an opportunity to really just improve how we take care of our pilots and Airmen at large.
If you look at the pilot population, it’s basically an ecosystem. It’s just an infinite growth of pilots across a lifecycle, and you want a nice slow, smooth stream of pilots. The strategy is production, but stable production over time. That is really the ultimate fix to the pilot crisis. In the meantime, we need to focus on retention. So, our banner is “Aim high, stay Air Force,” and we’re trying to retain experience, so we can have the instructor pilots that we need to grow the pipeline.
But, we need to make sure we have the right candidates in the pipeline. We need to hold standards because quality control is absolutely essential. It would be a short-term approach to creating an even longer-term problem if we didn’t hold standards. We need to make sure that we have the right individual, the highly qualified individual that we can get through training.
Then, we need to grow the organic production capability of undergraduate pilot training. We’re working on increasing plant capacity short-term by just increasing the number of our instructor pilots. But, longer-term, we’re looking at 21st-century pilot training through more technology. So, things like virtual reality, mixed reality, automated instruction capabilities or other capabilities that are out there.
One of the chief of staff’s priorities is revitalizing squadrons. Has this helped retention and improved manning efforts?
One of the chief’s big rocks, revitalizing the squadron, is helping a lot because we’re basically getting our instructor pilots to have more time to spend on instruction of the student pilots, and it takes away the additional duties requirement, or at least minimizes it. We’ve seen that help a lot, and that’s increased efficiency at both the undergraduate level and graduate level pipelines. It’s not Air Force-wide yet, and we’re working on that, especially overseas.
If there is a shortage, why doesn’t the Air Force just produce more pilots?
To be honest, that’s the biggest thing people don’t understand. They’re like, “If you’re short of pilots, why don’t you just produce more in pilot training?” It just doesn’t work that way. Producing pilots is not cheap. That’s why we need stability because changing budgets creates problems within the pipeline if we have to vary production up and down. And we need to be able to plan because we need to be able to lay these resources in place to get ready for the students, at a minimum, a couple of years out. The speed at which you can learn with technology is faster, so we’re looking to leverage that to produce more pilots at cheaper price points.
How important is pilot manning to the overall health of the Air Force?
Pilot production is critical to overall lethality and readiness, in direct support of the national defense strategy. And, in terms of readiness, pilots are basically the personnel piece that feeds overall combat readiness. Because the aircraft and the pilot and all the things that go into basing and all the things that we need for combat capability, pilots are obviously a critical piece to that. And with the shortage, we need to get those numbers back up to standards.
Once we start to heal the fighter pilot crisis, it’ll have an impact on the mobility forces and special ops forces as well to make them healthier.
You are in charge of the Air Force’s Aircrew Crisis Task Force. What is this and what is the team focused on?
I’m the director and I have a few folks that work for me, but, for the most part, everybody that works for me on the task force lives in another organization. So, I’m matrixed into all the major commands and all the deputy chiefs of staff. We call it a matrixed organization. We synchronize the tasks they’re working on and then they work for the task force overall. But they also have other jobs within their primary duties.
It’s a completely different experience from what I’ve had because I’ve had commands at all levels in other staff jobs. But this is a matrixed organization, so that is a very different experience. Instead of having teams that are directly assigned to me, I now almost exclusively work with external organizations. And that’s just a different dynamic. It’s exciting because we have access to a lot of resources, but just the dynamics of how you lead and interact are just different in this job. I rely on [my flying squadron] experience quite a bit and that understanding has really helped me in this job. That operational experience is still a good backdrop and a frame of reference for when we look at problems in the current position.
The mission of the Aircrew Crisis Task Force is essentially to get production through integration. And then also we have some other lines of effort working with industry, academia and nonprofit organizations and we spend a lot of time working with personnel on force development and force management.
What is your job as director of the Aircrew Crisis Task Force?
Day to day I spend most of my time on production and retention, because that is what is going to move the needle the quickest. So, that’s near-term, and then I have a lot of folks who work for me that do a lot of the integration of the industry, academia, nonprofits and a lot of that work I’ve delegated, and I’m involved in, but I’d say production and retention is most of my time.
I’m also up and out, so I do outreach and I talk to external audiences, and then I keep senior leadership informed. And then I spend a lot of time going over to the [Capitol] Hill, articulating the issue with both the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. I think having a general officer in charge has been able to bring together a lot of disparate initiatives that were going on already, actually for several years, and this brought that together.
What would you tell pilots who may be thinking of leaving the Air Force?
I think the Air Force gives Airmen a chance to live a meaningful life and you get to see tangible results of the work you do. It’s important. It matters. You don’t wake up in the Air Force and go to work and go, “I wonder if what I do today, if it matters or not?”
In terms of quality of service, quality of life, I think we’ve also got a lot to offer, and folks see that and I also think pilots have seen the efforts that we’ve taken through retention, especially to try to improve things. We reduced some deployments, and we’re improving assignment processes. We’re trying to give stability to families, and they see that, and we have a lot of good faith going on right now across the force of people wanting to hang in there and stay Air Force, so they can live a life that matters, and they see that we’re trying to take care of them and make things better for them.