The TacAir Navy has a pilot retention problem. Money isn't the only reason, but it's a contributor. (U.S. Navy photo)
When Navy leaders talk about pilot retention, they have said we cannot “buy our way out of this mess.”1 I disagree. They view it as a dollar for dollar competition with the airlines, but it does not need to be. That said, once my service obligation is complete, I have a duty to my family to provide the best quality of life I can.
Without qualified and experienced TacAir pilots (strike fighter/electronic attack), global air superiority is in jeopardy, regardless of the aircraft technology. Today, the main competitor for those pilots is the airline industry. It is the easiest adversary the Navy has ever faced, yet it is losing the battle. Why are people doing a job most have dreamed about their whole lives so willing to walk away?
As with any battle, start with a threat brief. At an airline, pilots are gone six months a year, three days at a time. They may have to commute, but they also can move to their assigned hubs. While specific working hours fluctuate, pilots fly 60-90 hours a month. Airlines don’t have ready rooms. Scheduling is done a month ahead. When pilots are not working, they are not on call. The job is subject to industry fluctuations to include furloughs and career regression.
In the Navy, on the other hand, TacAir pilots will fly 11 hours a month in the most advanced jets in the world, but purposely forced against tactical “red lines.”2 Deployments are at least six months plus work-ups. They generally work five days a week, 8-12 hours a day on paperwork, awards, evals, nonjudicial punishments, etc. This highlights the readiness challenges anyone who stays in will face and is another reason to retain current experienced pilots. The job is more stable and less vulnerable to outside factors.
Both jobs have some pluses and minuses up to this point.
Then there is pay. Past the first year, all major airlines pay at or above O-3 over 10. TacAir pilots at the ten-year point in Navy service come to a decision: (1) move to the airlines and in ten years be a captain making $240,000-plus a year, or (2) remain in the Navy for ten more years, retire as—hopefully—an O-5, and get $53,000 a year in retirement plus about $100,000 for year one at the airlines. Where the rubber really meets the road is the extra ten years on the backside of the airline career, where it is feasible to make more than $400,000 a year. It impossible for that retired O-5 to bridge the gap. Leaving early is certainly a gamble on both personal and industry health, but the payoff is big, and it’s clear many pilots find it to be a safe bet.
While money won’t buy happiness, it is important to note that the Navy is asking pilots for 100 percent loyalty, and given the current operational tempo and readiness issues, those choosing to stay are taking on unprecedented challenges. In return, the service offers a 50-50 chance that career incentive payments—and flying for that matter—could be derailed for something as trivial as poor timing. If everyone made admiral or even commanding officer, job satisfaction likely would weigh heavier in the stay-or-go calculation, but it is risky to bet your future on being the exception.
In 1996, the flyaway cost of an F/A-18E/F was $48 million (about $76 million adjusted to 2017).3 Today, the Navy pays $94.5 million, albeit with limited aircraft improvements.4 That’s a 66 percent premium over inflation.
For a $94 million F/A-18E/F, the Navy gets 6,000 hours of operation, about a 16-year lifespan. Published operating cost is $10,507 an hour, but that doesn’t account for the parts, labor, and administrative support to run a squadron, air wing, carrier, etc., so round support cost to roughly $20,000 an hour.5 Also not included is the $15,000 of asset life each hour is worth. It all adds up to $45,000 per flight hour for a warfighter to kick the tires and light the fires.
Assume an average 800 hours between the fleet replacement squadron (FRS) and a junior officer (JO) tour, and that is $36 million of experience every TacAir aviator carries around. Add the time and experience gained in initial training, a production tour, or the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, and it is easy to see $40 million men and women gracing today’s ready rooms.
After $40 million invested in a person what is the return? The average TacAir JO pilot returns 6-12 months as a Level 3 or 4 (tactical mission commander). Assuming 40–50 percent of those pilots never go back to the fleet, it is a terrible return on investment.
The cost in platforms is no better. FRS to Level 3 training takes on average 600 hours. This means 10 percent of every F/A-18E/F is being spent on training. If an estimated 50 TacAir pilots never go back to the fleet after their initial commitment is up, the Navy will spend the equivalent of five airframes every year training their replacements to Level 3. Add that up over a ten-year period and it is a full air wing of Super Hornets that isn’t on the tip of any spears.
Dollars and Sense
At a Tailhook 2017 brief, PERS-43 said naval aviation is healthy but has “challenges” in TacAir.6 This statement minimizes trends that point to a manpower crisis. VAQ (electronic attack squadrons) has failed to meet its pilot department head numbers three years in a row, and VFA (strike fighter squadrons) barely skated by last year screening at 100 percent—and saw 46 percent of eligible individuals turning down department head this year.
Monthly flight pay (aviation career incentive pay [ACIP]) for under 14 years of flight duty was last changed in 1990. The department head retention bonus (aviation career continuation pay [ACCP]) was last raised in 1999. Both will be updated this year, but neither amount—conditionally $1,000 a month after 12 years of flight duty or $30,000 a year for the bonus—is reaching the maximum limits of 37 U.S. Code § 334 (updated by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act) or even matching inflation, which would bring those numbers to $1,268 a month after six years of flight duty and $37,200 a year, respectively.7
Essentially, when the Navy pays TacAir JOs monthly ACIP, it is telling them they are worth half as much as a lieutenant was 27 years ago, because that is the spending power the Navy is providing. Navy leadership has not batted an eye about paying exponentially more per aircraft and flight hour, but it is unwilling to lobby Congress on behalf of its existing pilots.
The Navy could do better, must do better, and has done better for years for skilled talent in the medical field and submarine community:
• It will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical school, commission a doctor as an O-3, and pay a $30,000 a year bonus for a three-year commitment as a flight surgeon—plus monthly flight pay.
• It will pay an accession bonus of $15,000 to nukes just for signing up, $2,000 for finishing a year and a half of training, and after six years of service, offer the option of a three- to seven-year contract at up to $35,000 per year (multiple times until 24 years of service), in addition to paying a monthly bonus that is higher than flight pay plus sea duty pay.
However, that same Navy will invest four-plus years and $40 million in a TacAir pilot, offer a $150,000 bonus after requiring ten-plus years of service, and think money isn’t a reason people are leaving. Monetary compensation is how an organization ascribes worth, and this certainly shows how much a pilot is valued halfway into his or her career.
The pilot shortage in the Navy is real. Even if you argue that we “have butts in (fleet) seats,” training commands are manned at 50-75 percent and unable to safely meet fleet demands. Plus, if you dig deep into the quantity versus quality aspects, a lot of the tactical experts and accomplished JOs are the ones getting out. “Butts in seats” simply should not and cannot be the standard we accept.
Past leaders who contended the pilot exodus would be a blip for the Navy punted the opportunity to be proactive. Age 65 retirements, airline transport pilot certificate minimums, and economic growth came with warning, and qualified pilots will be in high demand for the foreseeable future.
The Way Forward
First, the Navy must get much more out of its existing investment. This already is done through super JO tours, but those are limited in scale. What I envision is creating two tracks. Post–JO shore tour, everyone has a choice: go the path of command or go the path of career lieutenant who gets to keep flying until 20.
This approach would keep more pilots content with their careers, which likely would increase retention, allowing the training pipelines to reset and actually meet fleet demand. It also would create a more lethal force overall. If an air group commander had the choice between ten combat-tested 1,000-hour pilots or ten nuggets, the choice would be easy.
Of course, the Navy must continue making new pilots or it will die off from age, but it is a shift in mind-set. This program would be a bridge to the future using the investment the Navy already has made.
Assuming initially the Navy is able to keep 25 of the 50 pilots who otherwise would have walked out the door, it would be saving the equivalent of 2.5 airframes from rudimentary training and would retain $1 billion of spent money every year.
Other ideas would be to expand the existing reserves to retain pilots if even in a part-time manner, or to start using the Air Force “no iron” associate reserve model, where reserve pilots supplement operational units.
Second, the Navy must fix pilot incentive pay. The idea that pilots stay in for the camaraderie is flawed. Camaraderie is valuable, but its value is quickly balanced by the challenges facing the fleet.
The value of each asset hour is exploding. The Navy is paying $122 million for an F-35C—60 percent higher than the basic inflation adjustment of an F/A-18E/F price tag 20 years ago.8 Extrapolating from that spending formula, pilots with more than six years of flight duty should receive $2,046 a month in ACIP and, at minimum, no less than the inflation adjusted $1,268.
Given the external variables that can derail a career, requiring a pilot to hit certain milestones or not get compensated fully, as currently proposed, is misguided. Base pay and career retention bonuses are for leadership and career milestones; ACIP is compensation for a skill set in the cockpit. As easily as poor timing can derail a career, superior timing might be all someone needs to meet milestones. It is hard to justify flight pay based on subjective milestones while at the same time trying to sell pilots on the organization’s stability.
Finally, the department head bonus. The military cannot and need not match what a pilot can make in an airline career, but the number should make the total package competitive. Keeping up with inflation would be a start, but using the same formula as for flight pay, the bonus should be at least $60,000 a year. However, to account for the difference in career earnings and to get the quantity of quality people to stay to solve the problems, the number likely will need to be higher.
In his Tailhook briefing, Captain Michael W. Baze said money is never near the top of the reasons pilots get out, but I would argue that everything above money is not something that can be fixed easily or inexpensively.9 We can’t tell the enemy to take a month off or fix years of readiness shortfalls overnight.
A “mega” bonus of $1 million over ten years effectively offers a pilot security in the Navy today in exchange for giving up the dream of what a 30-year career could bring at the airlines. It would show that leaders are taking this problem seriously, after years of dismissive responses, and are acknowledging the challenges they are asking operators to face (e.g., tactical hard decks and undermanning, doing more with less). It would allow the Navy to retain the talent to lead through the challenges on the doorstep, not simply people to sit in the seats.
These fixes are not inexpensive; however, solving the pilot retention problem will be costly no matter what. It would be both cheaper and more operationally manageable to retain trained aviators. I believe leadership would be amazed at the challenges and sacrifices I am willing to endure, if it means I am able to provide better opportunities for my family.
Leaders have said pilot retention can’t be fixed with all the money in the treasury.10 But even with nothing else slowing the exodus, I have yet to see anyone actually try it. For the nation to remain at the forefront of military dominance, pilot retention must be solved. The Navy can either protect its investment in the pilots who already exist or plan to spend exponentially more to continually replace that investment over and over again.
Author’s Note: For the purposes of this article, it is essential to assume that readiness and operational tempo are being addressed and corrected. Also, while retention currently is most highlighted in the TacAir specialty, given the commercial demand signal, all communities should heed this warning, given the high cost to train replacement pilots.
1. RADM John F. Meier, USN, Tailhook 2017 Flag Panel, video at 54:09.
2. VADM Mike Shoemaker, USN, Commander, Naval Air Forces, Tailhook 2017 Flag Panel.
3. Government Accountability Office, “Naval Aviation: F/A-18E/F Will Provide Marginal Operational Improvement at a High Cost” (June 1996), 5.
5. “Fiscal Year 2016 Department of Defense Fixed Wing and Helicopter Reimbursement Rates,” memorandum, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2 October 2015.
6. Captain Michael W. Baze, USN, Tailhook 2017 PERS-43 brief, video at 2:55.
7. See Shoemaker, Tailhook 2017 Flag Panel, and FY18, Aviation Department Head Retention Bonus, ACCP. $35,000/year until 24 years of service; $1,000/month at 10 years, FY17 NDAA.
8. Marcus Weisgerber, “Here’s How the Cost of Each Version of the F-35 Is Changing,” Defense One, 15 February 2017.
9. Baze, Tailhook 2017 PERS-43 brief, video at 12:00.
10. Tara Copp, “Air Force Chief Seeks to Lower Commercial Flight-Hour Requirement,” Stars and Stripes, 7 February 2017.
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