The Air Force is mired in a deepening pilot crisis, with a shortage of approximately 2,000 pilots from the active-duty Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve at the end of fiscal year 2017 in September.
The Air Force has pursued a number of policies to correct that shortage, including quality-of-life improvements, opening positions for retired pilots, and drawing more active-duty pilots from the National Guard and Reserve. The force also has the option to recall retired pilots, but says it will not avail itself of it.
Now it appears the Air Force is considering a step it has long avoided: training enlisted airmen to be combat aviators.
A new six-month pilot-training program will consist of 15 officers and five enlisted airmen, Maj. Gen. Timothy Leahy, chief of the Second Air Force, told his commanders in a November 30 email, seen by Air Force Times.
Currently, the only Air Force personnel eligible to be pilots are commissioned officers, and achieving officer status requires a four-year college degree.
"Enlisted volunteers will be pioneers in innovating Air Force aviator recruitment, selection, and training processes by demonstrating the potential of non-college graduates to succeed in a rigorous pilot training environment," Leahy, whose command is responsible for basic military and tactical training for Air Force personnel, wrote in the email.
Leahy added that the training program would provide data to Air Education and Training Command commander Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast about "the potential for enlisted members to train to fly modern combat aircraft," according to Air Force Times. The email was obtained by former airman Steven Mayne, who runs the unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page.
The email said there was a December 15 deadline for airmen to volunteer online and that those picked would start training on February 15. Those who succeed would take solo flights in T-6 single-engine turboprop training aircraft.
Air Education and Training Command spokeswoman Marilyn Holliday confirmed the email to Air Force Times and said the command "chose to focus on flying training because of the urgency involved with the enterprise." She added that the program was meant to examine how airmen learn and would look at technology that could lead to better and faster learning.
However, she also downplayed enlisted airmen's proximity to the pilot's seat, telling Task Purpose that, while the training program was started because of the need for pilots, the "study is not looking at changing our pilot force, but rather it is exploring new ways to effectively and efficiently deliver training."
"The plan for this six-month program is to explore the technology available to produce a student, similarly-skilled to a UPT graduate," Holliday told Task Purpose, referring to the Air Force's yearlong basic aviation course, Undergraduate Pilot Training.
Officers who pass the six-month course will get pilot's wings and move on to specialized training, while enlisted airmen who pass will return to the specialty they were selected for during basic training, Holliday said, adding that they could have their flight hours applied to a civilian pilot's license.
'The natural progression'
The Air Force said at the end of 2015 that it would begin training enlisted airmen to fly RQ-4 remotely piloted aircraft — part of an effort to meet demand for unmanned-aircraft pilots. At the end of 2016, two master sergeants became the first enlisted airmen in 60 years to complete solo flights during initial flight training.
The Air Force continued that training this year, with 30 enlisted airmen (chosen from 800 initial applicants) starting training for the RQ-4 Global Hawk in March. Outside of that initiative, however, the force has shown little interest in training enlisted airmen to fly manned aircraft.
Despite that reluctance, Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright told Air Force Timesearlier this year that many enlisted men have pilot's licenses and that enlisted airmen piloting manned aircraft appeared to be "the natural progression."
Wright also started a study at the end of the summer to explore what benefit the Air Force would get from bringing back the warrant officer program, which some have said would be a way to properly recognize and compensate enlisted pilots for their expanded duties as fliers.
Air Force officials have pointed to a number of reasons for the force's pilot shortage including quality-of-life issues, recruitment by private airlines, as well as strain created by three decades of ongoing operations around the world.
The shortage of qualified fliers has also been exacerbated by a bottleneck in the Air Force's training pipeline, caused by a combination of factors like force drawdowns, longer deployments, and budget restrictions.
Air Force leaders have zeroed in on budget woes as a particular problem.
Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said in November that he worried, "if we cannot move past sequester in its current form, we're going to break this force."
This month, with the window closing on budget legislation, Goldfein again sounded alarm about the worst-case scenario for the Air Force: A budget deal that doesn't lift spending limits put in place by the Budget Control Act.
Such an outcome would "devastate" the Air Force, Goldfein told Air Force Times, adding to problems created by the last budget sequester and hindering the service's ability to keep pilots in their planes and, in turn, in uniform.
"If you're not preparing for or executing combat operations, then you'll likely stop flying," Goldfein said. "Currencies will lapse, qualifications will cease, and we'll potentially look back on the timeframe of having an only 2,000 pilots short [force] as a dream."