The United States Air Force is experiencing an unprecedented pilot shortage. This has the potential to impact not only combat operations and strategic mobility but also areas as pilot training, including training pilots from NATO countries. The Pentagon is ready to go as far as hiring private contractors to fly aggressor training. But while the problem with replenishing pilots comes from a lack of training capacity, one of the biggest reasons for military pilot exodus is hiring by commercial airlines. AeroTime talks with former military pilots to understand the reasons behind what is sometimes dubbed as the "pilot exodus".

“Commercial airlines continue to attract quality candidates for our openings – including pilots - because we offer well-paying jobs with good benefits. Several of our members are hiring, and the market remains competitive,” wrote Airlines for America, the trade organization representing the principle US airlines, in a statement for AeroTime.

This comes as no surprise to anyone, especially the US Air Force representatives that speak bluntly about the shortage of pilots felt in recent years. And the gap between the number of pilots they need and the number they have is slowly growing. The USAF was missing around 500 at the end of 2015; by the end of 2016, that number had grown to 750. One might rush in with conclusions about better pay being the main, if not the sole reason for such a shortage, but things are a bit more complicated than that.

The importance of keeping flying

For military pilots, going commercial provides such motivators as keeping them flying. “At the time – 1974 – one could not make a career out of being "just a pilot" in the Air Force,” Ross Detwiler, former military and retired commercial pilot, told AeroTime. “I did not want to waste years not flying, doing administrative work.”

For others, it’s a way to access new challenges and experiences. “I flew for the Air Force for over 9 years and by that time felt that I'd done all that I wanted to do in the military,” wrote Robert Graves, Boeing 737 pilot and author of the This Is Your Captain Speaking blog. “After my second assignment was completed, I was offered flying that I had already done. Other than climbing in rank, there didn't seem to me to be much more to accomplish.”


Ross Detwiler (left) and Robert Graves (right)

Another issue today is the grueling pace for the pilots in the USAF. The tempo of operations is increasing, with fighters supporting various actions in the Middle East, while the personnel pool is dwindling.

“The “volunteers,” while the best in the world, shoulder an unfair amount of the horrors of war. Nobody “volunteers” for 4, 5, 6 or more tours of combat interspersed with time at home,” commented Ross Detwiler, who flew in the Vietnam War.  

Pilots seek stability and predictability

As the findings of RAND Corporation outlined in their paper “Retaining U.S. Air Force Pilots When the Civilian Demand for Pilots Is Growing“: “Opportunities for salary growth are best for military pilots leaving at the end of their active-duty service commitment and worse for those leaving later, such as after a 20-year military career.”

It is one of the reasons to leave military sooner rather than later. “Virtually every airline will start any pilot, regardless of background, as a First Officer,” explained Norm Gage, the Assistant Director of Operations at cargo carrier Kalitta Air. “All union airlines are seniority driven for advancement.  It doesn’t matter if you were an astronaut or an Air Force One pilot: it depends on where you fall on the seniority number list.”


Photo by Kim Min-Hee-pool/Getty Images

Seniority matters a lot when reaping the perks of a more controlled life, as the more senior pilots get to choose routes and flight times that they like and can pass over flying during the weekends. There’s also the fact that seniority doesn’t transfer between airlines or even in the transition from First Officer to Captain. You start from scratch in a new airline and have to earn those privileges.

A captain (rank) pilot in the USAF can earn $55,000 per year. Meanwhile, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the median wage for an airline pilot is $76,000, with the top 10% of pilots earning over $180,000. 

And the commercial airlines have much more to offer. “In general both the pay and schedules are superior,” Robert Graves listed some of the common benefits of going corporate. “Military pilots can deploy away from home for lengthy amounts of time whereas airline pilots fly trips that are a maximum of perhaps 7 days with most being 3 to 4 days.”

Ross Detwiler also added that technology is more modern in the airlines – an easy point to understand once you consider differences between the procurement in military and civilian sectors. So it makes sense to transition when the chance comes up.

Pentagon is already springing to action

“The health of the fighter pilot community is bad,” said Lt. Gen. Chris Nowland, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements (AF/A3), in a conference aimed at addressing the shortage of pilots. “We focus on fighter pilots, but it’s not just [them]. We have a national pilot crisis. Essentially the Air Force, when it comes to pilot production, is going to have to change.”


However, measures are being taken to address the issue. “Senior leadership is extremely engaged,” said Col. Jason Cockrum, AF/A3 director of staff in the aforementioned conference.

“They care deeply and are taking this very seriously. They know and appreciate the high operations tempo that our fighter forces have been operating at for the past 25 years, and recognize the new and emerging threats in the Pacific, Europe and the ongoing operations in the Middle East. They understand those demands and the requirements for a strong sustainable fighter force in the future.”

They say that the work is aimed at training more pilots, reducing requirements for fighter pilots and increasing retention.

“I don’t think there will be a shortage of people applying to become military pilots. I think the challenge will be to retain them after their military commitment is completed.  Pay, work rules, and stability is far better in the airline world,” said Norm Gage, a sentiment that was echoed by Robert Graves.

The solution is about more than just the money

At least per RAND calculations, the retention pay would have to increase from $25,000 to $38,000 or even $62,500 annually. As for additional measures, general Calton D. Everhart, Air Mobility Commander for the service, met with representatives of Delta, United and other airlines in January 2016, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein will meet them in May 2017. The discussion is about making reserve pilot commitments more predictable – which would allow them to fly both commercial and military – as well as looking into the 1,500 hours, a number that is, in the end, arbitrary and could be lowered to hasten the production of civilian pilots.

But whatever happens, the airlines aren’t just going to leave USAF out to dry. As Airlines for America wrote in a statement for AeroTime, “US airlines have a long history of hiring military pilots who have completed their service and we continue to work collaboratively with military officials to ensure the future supply of pilots is being met.” The solution to the shortage of pilots doesn't rest on pay alone - the quality of life being a big issue - and the USAF will have to work the airlines to work this issue out.