Here's how bad the Air Force's pilot shortage really is

Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II is commander of Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.

Our nation expects a great deal from its military, but it comes at a cost. Air Mobility Command — the organization responsible for airlift, aerial refueling, aeromedical evacuation, and enroute support — is constantly faced with challenges testing the resilience of our airmen.

Whether airdropping combat supplies, fueling fighters and bombers on the way to destroy terrorist camps, or aiding natural disaster victims around the world, Mobility airmen perform the mission with professionalism and at great personal risk and sacrifice.

I’m painfully aware our airmen have been subject to high operations demand for quite some time. Most are tired, as are their families. They do what we ask them to do, and they are always there, conducting the mission professionally, selflessly and with great effect.

Capt. Michael Kerschbaum, a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot and 1st Lt. Renn Nishimoto, a pilot with the 203rd Air Refueling Squadron, taxi a KC-135 to the runway at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. | U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Allen

However, a concern is how much longer they can sustain the pace and whether they will leave our Air Force.

The manning shortage extends beyond fighter pilots. What happens when we face a potential exodus of mobility skill and talent? Consider approximately 1,600 mobility pilots are eligible to leave the military in the next four-plus years. We are already more than 300 total force mobility pilots short of what we need today.

Commercial airlines are projected to be short 16,000 pilots by 2020. The math demonstrates the challenge is not looming, it is here. The time to find solutions is now.

A Pilot Shortage

This is a national problem with real security implications. As a result of new safety regulations, increased experience requirements, and attrition through commercial airline pilot retirement, experienced aviators are in high demand.

Mobility pilots are some of the best in the world and represent a lucrative talent pool for the civilian industry. As a natural feeder system for the airlines, we lose talent as civilian airlines’ needs increase.

This comes at a time when our airmen are feeling the strain. Consider aerial refueling tanker pilots as an example. These professionals flew nearly 31,000 tanker missions in support of operations in Iraq and Syria alone. We ask them to do this with a 60-year-old KC-135 Stratotanker or vintage KC-10 Extender aircraft, relying on the strong backs and tremendous pride and skill of our maintainers.

f16 falcon pilot

An F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, assigned to Detachment 1, 138th Fighter Wing, dons his helmet in preparation of a barnstorming performance for reporters, Feb. 1, 2017, in Houston. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Tech. Sgt. Drew A. Egnoske)

Many yearn for newer equipment; consistent work schedules; family, personal time; and a homestead. Many believe that commercial pilot life offers the potential to achieve balance.

The need for skilled military and civilian pilots will put us in an unfortunate and natural competition with our industry partners — not a good position for either party.

Pilots departing is a problem, but if they don’t consider serving in the Reserves and Guard, that problem becomes a crisis. If our airmen don’t continue to serve with our total force partners, the active force will face additional strain.

Productive dialogue can help us find great opportunities amidst the challenges, but it requires industry, academia, and airman ingenuity.

Recently, I sat down with some of our airline partners to begin this discussion, and I am confident that this is a start toward better understanding and a collaborative approach to improving circumstances.

We are focused not only on the pilot shortage challenges, but also addressing aircraft maintainer shortages.

Air Mobility Command never fails to deliver rapid global mobility anywhere, anytime. The mobility mission is similar to an offensive line in football. When the capability isn’t there, everyone notices, and scoring — or, in our case, striking a target, delivering relief or helping to save a life — wouldn’t occur.

The value of mobility airmen to national defense is critical.

This issue calls for a national dialogue and understanding before strain becomes breakage, and national objectives and security are at risk.

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