Crisis In The Sky: How A US Fighter Pilot Shortage Affects Arizona Air Force Base

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 6:57pm
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(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Maj. Brian Healy is the director of operations for the 62 Fighter Squadron.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Vice Commander of the 56th Fighter Wing David Shoemaker.

For the past two decades, the United States Air Force has kept up a steady drumbeat of operations around the world. But now demand is far outpacing the supply of fighter pilots needed to fulfill those duties. Officials are calling the pilot shortage a crisis. Arizona's Luke Air Force Base has been tapped to help solve the fighter pilot problem.

American fighter pilots actively operate around the following places — Iraq, Syria, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe.

Some of those pilots probably went through training at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, where Col. David Shoemaker is the vice commander of the 56th Fighter Wing. He said service officials saw the shortage coming, but weren’t anticipating such a drastic drop in numbers.

“What we’re really concerned about, what we’re really harping on is if we continue to do this the way we’re doing it, the shortage by 2022 is going to be extremely alarming,” Shoemaker said.

More empty pilot positions

Three F-16 fighter jets take off at Luke, and pilots do adversary training and techniques.

About 300 fighter pilots trained at Luke last year, but of those, only about a third are first time pilots — the rest are being pulled out of service jobs or haven’t flown for a few years.

Shoemaker said putting more new pilots through training will help, but at the current rate, the Air Force can’t keep up with the number of pilots leaving.

“It’s not a mass exodus but there are enough getting out that we’re going to have to overcome that by upping that production,” Shoemaker said.

In the past five years, more than 500 pilots have left the Air Force. Meanwhile, pilot jobs have been added, widening the unfilled-position gap. That leaves about 723 fighter pilot jobs empty in 2016.

Put another way, in 2012, 98 percent of available pilot jobs were filled — this year, 79 percent were filled. Officials are worried that number will keep dropping and the front lines will take a hit.

“It’s a crisis right now because if unmitigated, in less than 18 months we won’t have enough fighter pilots even to fill the combat front line squadrons.” Air Force Operations Deputy Chief Of Staff Maj. Gen. Scott Vander Hamm said. ”And at the same time we thought we would be out of certain engagements around the world, which we’re not.”

The question is how to retain experienced pilots once the option to leave the service comes up. It can be difficult when commercial airlines are hiring more, offer more pay and more stability. But Vander Hamm said the Air Force is turning to Congress this year for more incentives.

“Currently at the end of their commitment they’re offered a pilot bonus of $25,000 a year, and we’re asking for an increase, a significant increase, to $48-$50,000 a year,” Vander Hamm said.

Fighter pilot shortage could take years to fix

Maj. Brian Healy is a reserve fighter pilot at Luke Air Force Base, currently directs operations of a fighter squadron and chose to get out of active duty when the option came up — though the decision wasn’t easy.

“It was a very painful process, to get out or stay in,” Healy said, pausing.

For him, being in the reserves was the best choice for stability in his life, and he said a lot of his peers left for similar reasons.

“In the guard and reserve, you have a lot more consistency, a lot more control over when you deploy, which I think is a big factor," Healy said. "You just have a lot more control over your life.”

He doesn’t think the pilot shortage crisis can be solved just with higher bonuses, but, it’s a start.

“It’s going to take a long, long time to change the direction of this ship, if you will," Healy said. "Right now I’d say the best thing they can do is throw money at it.”

Air Force officials expect it to take five to 10 years before the fighter pilot shortage is sufficiently addressed. That's because of the time it takes — more than a year — to finish fighter pilot training.

In the meantime, Luke Air Force Base and other bases with fighter pilot training are expected to up their pilot production, while trying to retain pilots already on hand.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated to reflect David Shoemaker and Scott Vander Hamm's title.

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