By the end of 2015, after decades of unpredictable budgets, a period of sequestration, forced personnel reductions and a relentless operations tempo, the Air Force was facing a huge hurdle to achieving its operational readiness goals – a shortage of roughly 4,000 aircraft maintainers across the service.
In response, the Air Force began to move its most experienced maintainers to air combat units with the highest operations tempo and emphasize the recruitment of new maintainers and cross-training personnel from other Air Force Specialty Codes, or AFSC, to fill the void.
By the beginning of 2019, Air Force leadership had cleared that hurdle.
“We were 4,000 maintainers short,” said former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, during a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, D.C. “As of December, we are fully manned in maintenance for our active duty units. So, we have closed that gap,”
Then she acknowledged that it was only the first hurdle in the race to readiness in the aircraft maintenance career field.
It was not just overall numbers of maintainers that had suffered during those trying years. Many of those that separated were the most experienced Airmen, NCOs and Senior NCOs from the largest career field in the service.
Those experienced maintainers were not only needed to meet mission needs but also train the oncoming flood of new maintainers fresh out of technical school.
“And now we have to season those people and make them exceptional Airmen on the flightline,” Wilson said. “Readiness is first and foremost about training people.”
Remedies administered from The Pentagon, such as reenlistment bonuses and high-year tenure extensions across the various maintainer AFSCs, have helped with retaining talent and improving experience on the flightlines and in the backshops.
Those experienced maintainers that have chosen to stay accepted the challenge of supervising and training more three-level maintainers than ever.
To do so, Airmen at aircraft maintenance squadrons around the service began innovating with new scheduling, accelerated hands-on training courses and virtual reality simulators to get new maintainers proficient quickly; keeping more aircraft ready to fly and improving operational readiness.