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US Air Force - The Plane Truth

US and Coalition airstrikes against ISIS are now effectively breaking the back and power of the Islamic State. China is ramping up efforts to establish a dominate presence in the Pacific region thus strengthening its global projection of power. The Mediterranean and Horn Of Africa remain volatile regions. Government instability, not to mention rogue states and leaders are an ever clear and present danger. Given the current world climate, anything can happen, any where at any time. The key to American global projection of power is air superiority and dominance. But how can the US maintain perhaps its most noted lethality when its manpower is dwindling – the aviator ?

Many will agree that the most iconic figure of the 20th century was the aviator, culminating in the 1980’s with motion picture classics such as Top Gun and Iron Eagle. These two films in turn inspired many Generation X’ers to pursue careers in military aviation. The whole world watched in awe of the complete annihilation of Iraqi assets in Kuwait due to America’s complete air dominance. Although a conventional war can not be won solely by air superiority, no war can be fought without it. According to Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein at an Air Force press conference this past August, “Air Superiority is not an American birthright. It’s actually something you have to fight for and maintain.” But why is the USAF seemingly tripping over its own two feet?

War takes a toll. Although the weariness and fog of war is very much so understandable for ground based troops, but combat takes a tremendous toll on aviators as well. After 9/11, and war on two fronts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, multiple deployments and Temporary Assigned Duties (TAD), not to mention a reduction in personnel due to the drawing down of US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. This factor alone forced many aviators to take early retirement packages thus opting out of the military. This situation became even more problematic with “down to the bone” budget cuts when President Obama announced drastic cost cutting measures in an attempt to reel in war time expenditures which had taken a depressing effect on the US economy and tax payer. Furthermore, with the advent of UAV’s, the human element was seen as on the horizon of being extinct. Throughout the aviation components of all branches of the US Armed Forces, many legacy aircraft were being scrapped as so was the aviators that flew them. Given the strain on families left behind for extended periods of time, room being made for next generation fighter craft, major budget cuts, and a host of other impediments, many US military aviators simply asked, was being a career military aviator worth it ? The commercial airline said no and was willing to match truth with cash.

In the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, the airline industry took serious hits. Ranging from rising fuel costs to operate aircraft, to a steep decline in consumer air travel and reduction in aircraft manufacturing, the commercial airline was in near shambles. From the mass retiring of 1980’s era Air Traffic Control personnel to airline mergers, to the threat of bankruptcy looming over airlines and mass layoffs, it was very common to hear of once gloried pilots suddenly on public assistance. But eight years later, a much different picture is being painted of commercial travel. To capitalize on this new boom being forecasted by top aviation experts, many commercial airlines are using great incentives and bait to lure seasoned military aviators.

This major effort to recruit skilled military aviators stems from the tragic 2009 Colgan Flight 3407 crash. The NTSB concluded that pilot fatigue and questionable training was a major contributor to the doomed flight that killed all 49 passengers and crew onboard. The FAA implemented new regulations requiring 1500 hours of flight experience for new hires. This regulation deemed many civilian pilots ineligible, thus making the military a gold mine for commercial new hires. By the time most military aviators reach the rank of O-4, they’ve met commercial airline requirements while simultaneously observing and weighing the burdens of military life against a lucrative commercial airline career. Many yield to civilian life. This has now provoked the “quiet crisis” in the USAF.

According to Lt Colonel John Hale, commander of the 77th Fighter Squadron based out of Shaw AFB, the USAF generates between 1,000 to 1,200 aviators a year while commercial airlines hire between 3,000 – 3,500 pilots annually. The military is seen as fertile recruiting ground due to a strict adherence to safety, FAA guidelines, capstone training second to any other internationally, as well as more than the required amount of flight time by civilian standards. Therefore, the commercial community needs the best from this nation’s pool of elite professionals. However, the USAF isn’t going without a fight to retain its own.

Some pilots are being offered up to $225,000 as a part of the Air Force’s Aviator retention pay incentive bonus for extending up to nine years beyond their initial term of contract service. Currently, Congress is being lobbied to increase the annual maximum retention pay to $48,000. On paper, this seems like a sure win for a money motivated aviator. However, in 2013 only 62% of pilots took the bonus. In 2015, it was a disappointing 47.8%. As of the past August, it had plummeted to a depressing 34.4%. It can only be forecasted that next year’s percentage will be even lower. This is clearly not good for global power, nor national security.

With the ever increasing rising threats and military capabilities of Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China this is the wrong time to project an international image of strained aviation assets, particularly manpower. Last year, President Obama announced that he would reduce the military to pre-WWII levels. As history has shown us, this is a tactical tight rope walk over deep waters. With particulars to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, these two Axis powers took full advantage of the economic lull plaguing the US by increasing the total buildup and effectiveness of the Luftwaffe and Imperial Army and Naval Air Forces. Other emerging powers are investing lock, stock, and barrel into increasing their aviation and space based assets while the US is seemingly chasing its own tail.

The economic meltdown of 2008 and its subsequent force reconstruction and reduction is still felt. In 2015, the USAF was 511 fighter pilots short of its current needs. By March of the same year, a dismal 614. By the current assessment and selection board convening of this recent September/October, it is believed to be in the vicinity of 700. Top Air Force brass have concluded that it may be incapable of filling its 2018 pilot slots. It is forecasted that by the year 2022, the pilot shortage may reach 1,000. This clearly means that incentive bonus pay outs are insufficient. It is very difficult to retain pilots when you do not produce them fast enough.

Currently it costs the government approximately $10 million dollars to train an Air Force pilot. In a capitalistic society, it is only natural that a well trained commodity will weigh a $48,500 bonus over several more years against a job that will allow him to live in the same place, consistent schedule, higher rate of pay, and more time for family and personal recreation. Clearly, it’s a money issue. The current US President elect ran on a platform of “peace through strength”. This is a throwback to a Reagan era build up to counter the Soviet threat. The crown jewel was America’s industrial might to finance it. The scenario is much different than the 1980’s but the sovereignty and security of this nation is still at stake. It will require money to keep ‘em flying because after all, you have to pay the cost, to be the boss.

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