Military Pilots: The View from 30,000 Feet

Photo Showing the F-16 Fighting FalconMilitary pilots fly both manned and unmanned planes to perform combat, transportation, and surveillance missions and other operations critical to national security.

Retaining qualified pilots is important not only to meet national defense needs, but also to recoup the military services’ substantial investments—of both time and money—in pilot training. For example, an Air Force fighter pilot requires about 2 years of training to be considered mission-ready, at a cost of about $3-11 million, depending on the specific aircraft.

As we approach National Aviation Day, today’s WatchBlog takes a look at the new world of military aviation that today’s military pilots face.

DOD Pilot Staffing Challenge

The military services report that both internal and external factors contribute to their pilot retention challenges. Internal factors include quality of life issues and the rate of missions and deployments (high operational tempo). Outside the military, low unemployment and an increased demand for pilots in the commercial airline industry can make departure more alluring.

Figure Showing Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps Pilot Loss Rates, Fiscal Years 2013-2017

In June 2018, we reported that to help retain pilots, each military service planned to increase aviation retention bonuses. In addition, the three services have developed a variety of non-monetary retention incentives to ease quality of life challenges such as the frequent moves pilots and their families experience throughout their military careers. For example, each service has pilots that have participated in the Career Intermission Pilot Program, which allows servicemembers to take up to a 3-year break in service in exchange for a period of obligated service when they return. We identified ways that DOD could enhance its pilot retention efforts and made recommendations to do so.

Fighter Pilots in Demand

In April 2018, we reported that fighter pilot staffing levels for the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps had fallen short of target levels by as much as 27 percent in fiscal year 2017.

Each service has developed workarounds to ensure they have sufficient pilots to deploy, such as

  • prioritizing staffing fighter pilots to flying positions, instead of rotating them to non-flying positions in headquarters
  • using senior pilots to staff junior positions
  • having pilots deploy for longer and more frequently than planned

However, fighter pilots told us that these workarounds can hurt morale and lead pilots to decide to leave the military.

Photo Showing the F-16 Fighting Falcon

Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems Growing

Each military service has expanded the use of unmanned aerial systems (a.k.a. drones), which require servicemembers to remotely pilot aircraft for missions such as reconnaissance and precision strikes.

As the numbers and types of these systems increase, there are opportunities for the military services to develop new staffing approaches. We have found that the military services generally use servicemembers and private sector contractors as drone pilots and recommended that they further explore workforce alternatives, such as federal civilian employees.

Figure Showing the Navy's MQ-4 Triton Unmanned Aerial System


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