June 22, 2018

Protecting the “Pipeline”: Overcoming the Air Force’s Pilot Shortage 

The US Air Force is increasingly challenged to meet national security requirements due to a shortage of trained, qualified pilots. The service finds itself about 2,000 pilots short, including nearly 1,300 empty fighter-pilot seats, and the trend is worsening.

Service leadership calls this a crisis. Many experienced pilots are leaving to work for commercial airlines, which are now hiring at high levels, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future. The Air Force is adopting a two-pronged response: instituting quality-of-life and quality-of-service measures to boost retention and increasing annual production of new pilots by 25 percent over the next several years.

Air Force leadership must remain vigilant in monitoring the shortage. Experienced pilots are a valuable commodity, and many are voicing specific concerns that tie to their desire to remain in the service. They should not have to deal with an unresponsive, indifferent bureaucracy when seeking a solution to remain in uniform. Further, the pilot-training pipeline is a strategic national asset. As such, the Department of Defense and Congress should fund the enterprise at levels that grow its ability to produce greater amounts of pilots when circumstances warrant. The T-X Advanced Pilot Training Family of Systems (APT FoS) will be an integral component of future pilot production process and must be prioritized accordingly with rapid fielding and investment across the Air Force’s training enterprise.

There is the opportunity—and an imperative—to reinvigorate the Air Force’s pilot-training pipeline as part of the production ramp-up, by removing inefficiencies, leveraging innovation, and rethinking the training enterprise as a whole. The Air Force should be open to experimentation with promising training concepts, and must show the courage to surmount parochial interests to jettison outdated pipeline elements, and should not shy away from accepting a greater role for contractors.