Fix the Fighter Pilot Shortage: It Can Be Done

By Commander George Perry, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

This seems like an unimaginable problem. How can one of the coolest professions in the world have a shortage? Who wouldn’t want to be a military pilot, and for those already serving, why would they want to leave? The answers go to the heart of long-term systemic problems with leadership and culture within the military aviation communities.

After joining the Navy in 1993, I served as a fighter pilot for over 20 years. During that time, I was faced with the same decisions on whether or not to continue serving. The pull from a lucrative airline career and significantly more time to spend with my family were hard to ignore. I opted to stay in and serve until I was eligible for retirement, but many of my peers did not, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Over the past two decades the culture and climate of our air forces have changed and, in many ways, not for the better. For a variety of reasons, opting for or continuing to be a pilot in the military has become unattractive. I do not believe today’s pilots are any less patriotic or have any less desire to serve, but the underlying problems, as highlighted by the pilot shortage, are undeniable.

So what’s gone so wrong that no one wants the best job in the world? First, a cancer has infected our military and it is a zero-defect, counter-warrior culture that has created an environment so unappealing, many pilots want no part of it. Today’s risk-adverse military leaders have no tolerance for error. The smallest mistake or transgression often results in draconian, career-ending consequences. Political correctness has become the dogma imposed on warfighting aviators. As a result, the warrior culture slowly has eroded to the point that the type of pilots you most want fighting in your corner have become so disillusioned they are voting with their feet and leaving.

As military aviation culture has changed, warfighting prowess and mission accomplishment have become less important as core competencies and have been replaced with an ever-growing emphasis on process, procedure, and decision making by committee. In addition, for young college graduates who are weighing post-college employment options, the prospect of signing up for a 12-year commitment (pilot training plus 10 years) can be overwhelming. According to an April 2016 report from CNN, college graduates on average change jobs four times before they are 32. Signing up for a commitment that lasts a decade or more is a barrier for young people wrestling with the decision whether or not to serve.

Beyond the quantifiable pilot-shortage numbers, examples of a negatively eroding aviation culture are easy to find. Authority is no longer aligned with responsibility; aggressiveness and assertiveness are frowned on; and innovative free thinking is often looked upon as disruptive. Short-sighted decisions made in recent years still permeate and effect the services' pilot culture today. For example, open-ended deployments originally scheduled for six or seven months are routinely extended to eight, nine, or more. This uncertainty leaves families in a lurch and the effects on morale can be devastating. Over time the cumulative de-motivational effects, family sacrifice, and nearly 15 years of war-driven operational tempo have become a burden too great for many to carry.

Some may argue that the health of today’s economy and a boom in airline hiring are significant factors and make life in the military less attractive for pilots. But just because major airline hiring was stagnant from 11 September 2001 until recently isn’t a reason for military leadership to blame an economic upturn for the shortage of pilots. The issues have been festering for quite some time. But until recently, civilian employment options have not supported the mass exodus we see now. With airlines projected to hire pilots in significant numbers for the next decade, the employment battlespace has changed and the all-volunteer force now has a choice.

In an attempt to stem the outflow of pilots, the Air Force and Navy have increased significantly retention bonuses. These efforts have been mostly ineffective. While compensation is a factor, it is not a fundamental motivator. Money is a band aid for a serious problem, and long-term military pilot shortage solutions will require a much more comprehensive approach.

At the heart of the issue is the disconnect between what a pilot hopes for and expects when he or she decides to serve, and what he or she ultimately gets. “This isn’t what I signed up for” is a common sentiment among pilots who opt to leave the service. Just like other highly sought-after professionals, the military needs to do a better job of satisfying the needs of those they wish to attract and retain. 

I offer the following recommendations as potential solutions. If the military chooses to implement them, I am confident these suggestions would help turn the tide and create lasting pilot shortage solutions while simultaneously making a choice for service over self a more attractive option.

·      Reverse the zero-defect mentality that’s permeated our military’s aviation communities. Allow for and embrace well-intentioned mistakes, because mistakes should be thought of as "learning in progress" and should not derail a promising pilot’s career.

·      Leaders at all levels need to better delegate authority and underwrite risk to allow subordinates to have authority commensurate with responsibility. Eliminating decisions by committee will allow actions to happen at the "Speed-of-Right."

·      Tell deploying service members upfront how long they can expect to be away from home, and then stick to it. Do not extend deployed units beyond the initial time limit unless it is critical to our national security.

·      Balance operational requirements with realistic capabilities to allow pilots to work as hard on the homefront as they do in the cockpit.

·      Better emphasize, recognize, and reward warfighting prowess that supports mission effectiveness.

·      Pilots want to fly, so let them fly. Allow them to hone their warfighting skills with a stable budget and predictable levels of flying. Do not force pilots to move to an unwanted platform or a non-flying position.

·      Not every pilot wants to be a flag officer. Balance better or eliminate distractive administrative requirements, such as professional military education, early in a pilot’s career.

·      Reduce a pilot’s initial commitment period back to six years. Many young people want to serve, but signing up for a decade or more of service is a barrier to entry.

·      Upon successful completion of pilot training, provide newly “winged aviators” a pilot-training completion bonus and/or assume any outstanding college debt.

If implemented, these changes will undoubtedly improve pilot recruiting and retention. The changes will restore trust and motivate service decisions that once again will make flying fighters for the United States the best job in the world. 

Commander Perry, U.S. Navy (Retired), competed a 20-year career in the Navy as an F-18E Super Hornet Squadron commanding officer based in Atsugi, Japan. While in the Navy, he held numerous leadership positions in aviation safety, including Director, F-18E Super Hornet safety systems model manager, F-14 Tomcat fleet safety programs, Safety Director in Carrier Air Wing Seven and Three, as well as F-18E/F carrier pilot training manager.  While serving in Iraq, George worked for General David Petraeus conducting studies and analysis and later as a special assistant to General James Mattis at US Joint Forces Command. In addition to being an F-18 and F-14 pilot instructor and check pilot, George has over 850 carrier-arrested landings, has flown over 150 combat missions, holds ATP, CFII, and MEI certificates, a 525S type rating, has logged over 5000 hours, and currently owns a Mooney M20F. He currently resides in Louisville, Kentucky. 



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