The Air Force's protracted pilot shortage has garnered considerable attention.
Air Force officials said this spring that the force was 1,555 pilots short — about 1,000 of them fighter pilots. But the shortage of pilots continued to grow during the 2017 fiscal year, which ended in September.
At that point, it had expanded to 2,000 total force pilots — active duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve. That includes nearly 1,300 fighter pilots, and the greatest negative trends over the past two fiscal years have been among bomber and mobility pilots, Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen told Business Insider.
But fliers aren't the only ones absent in significant numbers
According to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the lack of maintainers to keep planes flying has also become a hindrance on the service's operations.
"When I started flying airplanes as a young F-16 pilot, I would meet my crew chief ... and a secondary crew chief at the plane," said Goldfein, who received his commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, in a briefing in early November, adding:
We'd walk around the airplane. I'd taxi out. I'd meet a crew that was in the runway, and they'd pull the pins and arm the weapons and give me a last-chance check. I'd take off. I'd fly to a destination [where] different crew would meet me. Here's what often happens today: You taxi slow, because the same single crew chief that you met has to get in the van and drive to the end of the runway to pull the pins and arm the weapons. And then you sit on the runway before you take off and you wait, because that crew chief has to go jump on a C-17 with his tools to fly ahead to meet you at the other end. This is the level of numbers that we're dealing with here.
U.S. Air Force Senior Airmen Krystalane Laird (front) and Helena Palazio, weapons loaders with the 169th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina Air National Guard, download munitions from an F-16 fighter jet that was just landed after a month-long deployment to Łask Air Base, Poland. (South Carolina Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Caycee Watson)
'The tension on the force right now is significant'
The pilot and maintainer shortages are part of what Air Force officials have called a "national air-crew crisis" that has been stoked by nearly 30 years of ongoing operations, hiring by commercial airlines, as well as quality-of-life and cultural issues within the force that drive airmen away. In recent years, pressure from budget sequestration has also had a impact on Air Force personnel training and retention.
The maintainer shortage has been a problem for some time. In 2013, the total shortage was 2,538. But the force's drawdown in 2014 — during which the Air Force shed more than 19,800 airmen — added to the deficit. Between 2013 and 2015, the shortage of maintainers grew by 1,217, according to Air Force Times.
By the end of fiscal year 2015, the service was short some 4,000 maintainers, Yepsen told Business Insider.
Blue Angels pilots greet Thunderbirds maintainers.
The shortage of maintainers created hardship for the ones who have remained.
The commander of the 52nd Maintenance Group at Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany told Air Force Magazine in late 2016 that workdays had stretched to 13 or 14 hours, with possible weekend duty meaning air crews could work up to 12 days straight. In the wake of the 2014 drawdown, maintainers at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina saw their workdays extend to 12 hours or more, with weekend duties at least twice a month.
"There comes a point where people stop and say it isn't worth it anymore," Staff Sgt. Stephen Lamb, an avionics craftsman from the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Shaw, told Air Force Times in March. "I've seen, in the past few years, a lot of good friends walk out the door."
As with pilots, the Air Force has made a concerted effort to improve its maintainer situation. In 2016, the force quadrupled the number of jobs eligible for initial enlistment bonuses — among them 10 aircraft maintenance and avionics career fields.
The Air Force has also offered senior crew chiefs and avionics airmen perks, such as reenlistment bonuses and high-year tenure extensions. At the end of 2016, 43 Air Force specialty codes, many of them flight-line maintainers, were being offered bonuses averaging $50,000 to remain in uniform for four to six more years.
Air Force Airman 1st Class Nathan Kosters, a crew chief with the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, prepares to launch an F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter during Red Flag 17-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Feb. 7, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)
Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for manpower and personnel services, said earlier this year that the service closed 2016 with a shortage of 3,400 maintainers, warning that the ongoing shortage held back personnel development.
"Because of this shortage, we cannot generate the sorties needed to fully train our aircrews," Grosso told the House Armed Services' personnel subcommittee at the end of March.
According to Yepsen, the Air Force spokeswoman, that shortage has continued to decline, falling to 400 personnel at the end of fiscal year 2017. Several Air Force officials have said they hope to eliminate the maintainer shortage entirely by 2019.
But the health of the Air Force maintainer force won't be solved by simply restoring its ranks. The complex aircraft the Air Force operates — not to mention the high operational tempo it looks set to continue for some time — require maintainers with extensive training. Air Force units can only absorb and train so many recruits at one time.
"We have to have time to develop the force to ensure that we have experienced maintainers to support our complex weapons systems," then-Col. Patrick Kumashiro, chief of the Air Force staff's maintenance division, told Air Force Magazine in late 2016. "We cannot solve it in one year."
Heftier bonuses for senior air-crew members are also a means to keep experienced maintainers on hand for upkeep of legacy aircraft and to train new maintainers, with the addition of those new maintainers allowing experienced crew members to shift their focus to new platforms, like the F-35 fighter and the KC-46 tanker.
"While our manning numbers have improved, it will take 5-7 years to get them seasoned and experienced," Yepsen told Business Insider. "We are continuously evaluating opportunities to improve our readiness as quickly and effectively as possible."
"We're making the mission happen, but we're having to do it very often on the backs of our airmen," Goldfein said during the November 9 briefing. "The tension on the force right now is significant, and so we're looking for all these different ways to not only retain those that we've invested in, but increase production so we can provide some reduction in the tension on the force."