As we take a look at the current pilot shortage wreaking havoc on the readiness levels of tactical aviation DoD-wide, it’s important to see how we got from “there” to “here.” How does this happen? How do you go from being a young, twenty-something fighter pilot fresh out of your basic course to being willing to walk away from the career you always wanted barely a decade later? It’s a slow, insidious process, and it might look like this.
You’re twenty one years old and just picked up a coveted pilot slot in the United States Military. It’s what you’ve dreamed about and worked toward your entire life, and after commissioning, you realize that dream has finally become a reality. It’s 2006, and the world is at war with terrorism – three years into Iraq and five years into Afghanistan. You are ready to make a difference.
You show up at pilot training and meet twenty other like-minded individuals. They will become your best friends for the next fifty four weeks and possibly your entire career. The excitement is palpable as you attend your first briefing.
Pilot training is hard, they tell you. Twelve hour days, studying, flying, and finding time to stay in shape to endure the forces on your body. You have to put forth your best effort, but you can’t do it alone. Cooperate to graduate. It’s a team effort. Help your buddies and they help you. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
So you do exactly that. Phase I is strictly academics and survival training. You learn the physics, the rules, and the procedures. You learn how to survive an ejection and you get the first look at the systems of your new aircraft. You and your newfound friends study and work together to pass.
Hitting the flightline, your hard work finally pays off. You get your “Dollar ride” in your first military aircraft. You can’t believe you’re getting paid to do this job. Your friends all celebrate with you.
The next few weeks are grueling. Six AM stand-up being grilled in front of your peers on what you would do in an emergency situation starts every morning. There are more tests, both flying and academic. You learn to balance study time with sleep and fitness. You spend extra time in the simulators helping struggling classmates and reviewing lessons learned.
You go through the highs – soloing, passing checkrides, and flying formation and aerobatics for the first time. And you go through the lows – busting rides, having to “sit down” during standup, and watching your friends struggle. Throughout it all, you’re told to focus on the mission. Cooperate to graduate.
Phase II draws to an end and track select night happens. You manage your expectations with the needs of the Air Force. The people with the highest scores track fighters, some happily go to heavies, while others select helos and C-130s. Your class suddenly goes from 30 to 7 as you move to T-38s.
Wash, rinse, and repeat from Phase II, but this time, the expectations are higher. You band together and get through it, once again experiencing the highs and the lows.
At the end of the year, you finally reach graduation night. Assignments are passed out. You are excited to fly the Mighty Viper. You’ve been in love with that airplane since childhood.
Graduation night happens. Your parents, friends, and family are beaming with pride as you pin on your wings. You walk away with several awards – Distinguished Graduate among them. Your hard work has paid off.
The hard work continues. You are just barely an apprentice in your craft – the art of killing people and breaking their things. Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals is even tougher than UPT. You’re taught how to be a wingman – sit down, shut up, take notes, and only talk to ask questions. No one will coddle you this profession. If you don’t like it, well, the world needs ditch diggers too.
You survive IFF and go to SERE. You learn how to Survive, Evade, Resist, and Escape capture. The enemy sees you as a high value target. You have information that they want. They will torture you to get it. You learn how to survive in the wilderness until the good guys can get you, or, worst case, how to retain your honor as a POW. America is depending on you.
You lose fifteen pounds, but you get through SERE. The centrifuge is yet another test. Nine Gs sucks, but it sucks even worse in a spinning torture machine. You fight for the career you’ve worked so hard for, knowing that if you fail, you will never see that Viper. You get through it and are cleared to go to your B-course.
Like the rest of your training, the B-Course is focused. You meet guys with war stories. Guys who have dropped bombs on terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some reservists who fought in Desert Storm and Kosovo. You realize that the warnings and cautions in the flight manuals are written in blood.
You get to the vault and study. In part, because you want to do well, but also because you realize that your brothers and sisters depend on you to know how to react to that SAM site or MiG. It’s about survival, and serving your country proudly.
Once again, you excel. You graduate in the top of your F-16 class. It’s the best job you’ve ever had. You can’t wait to finish MQT and get to the mission. That’s all you’ve known so far in your short career. Fly. Fight. Win. And you just received the best training in the world on how to do exactly that.
You get to your squadron, and the mood changes slightly. Some of the old hats show signs of wear and burnout. You ignore it, going back to what you’ve been trained – study in the vault. Focus on the mission. Shut up and learn.
You finish Mission Qualification Training and become a Combat Mission Ready Wingman. You keep studying in the vault, but one day you realize that your job is much more than that. The squadron is deploying soon. Your readiness items are out of date.
So you chug through the Computer Training. You need to turn circles green, so you start at the top. Eight hours later, you’re complete. It was mind-numbingly painful, but you don’t care. You’re ready to go to work in the sandbox.
You show up in theater and get more briefings. Don’t go anywhere without your reflective belt. Make sure your PT shirt is tucked into your shorts like Steve Urkel. Don’t put a magazine in your M9 pistol unless the base gets overrun. It’s silly, but you don’t care. You’re young. The mission is more important.
Four months later, you come back from your first deployment. You’ve dropped bombs, shot the gun, and saved good guys on the ground. You can’t wait to go back.
As your career progresses, you move jobs from Weapons to scheduling. You get through the Flight Lead Upgrade Program. You’re flying as much as possible, sometimes 20-30 sorties per month. You’re learning from the best and loving every minute. But as your career progresses, the culture slowly starts to change.
Your promotions from O-1 to O-3 are pretty much guaranteed. You go to the Aerospace Basic Course and realize that the rest of the Air Force has no real clue what you do. Half of them can’t even pick a Viper out of a lineup.
You get back and keep flying. But as you pin on O-3, you’re told that you need to go to Squadron Officer School. No problem, you’ll make time. It’s just a few weeks of correspondence, right?
Not so fast. Your non-pilot peers go in residence, and that’s who you’re competing against. You need to do it by correspondence and then get selected for in-residence. You need to volunteer and do wing activities outside your job. Maybe you should organize the wing Christmas party to help your chances?
You go to Squadron Officer School (SOS). You play flickerball and think it’s embarrassing that you’ve been reduced to this while flying for the world’s greatest military. You do well, but you want to get back to flying. Ten weeks out of the jet to learn what you already know is ridiculous and is nothing short of a dog and pony show. You’re tired of listening to speakers drone on about nothing.
The mission creep gets worse. You soon realize that the military doesn’t care about your tactical prowess, or how you successfully defended your notional home base in that 4 v 16 yesterday. They only care about checking boxes. Why haven’t you completed your Masters degree yet? Why are you behind on your Sexual Assault Response CBT?
You’re a warrior. You don’t care about any of that and decide that flying the Viper is more important. You volunteer for more deployments. You become an Instructor Pilot and get selected for Weapons School. You graduate Weapons School at the top of your class as a distinguished graduate and are asked to return as an instructor.
As your friends are all getting tagged to fly UAVs and white jets, you somehow manage to stay in the Viper for three assignments, capping it off with an assignment at Nellis as a Weapons School Instructor Pilot. At the end of twelve years, you’ve dropped bombs in three different theaters, become an expert at your craft, and taught others how to do the same.
But that’s not good enough. Your Officer Performance Reports don’t fill up the required white space that the Comm officer you’re competing with does.
Despite having been a mission commander responsible for the success of 80 ship packages encompassing a wide array of mission sets, and being able to effectively and efficiently integrate platforms and effects as a Weapons Officer, you don’t have enough “leadership experience” as those who babysit 10 or so 18 year old airmen.
In the eyes of the Air Force, flight leadership doesn’t qualify as “leadership” in the dynamic environment that we operate in. For pilots, that’s a given. You lead your fellow pilots into combat consistently and professionally. But hey, since you haven’t volunteered for enough extracurriculars, or gotten that Masters, you’re not really a leader. Nevermind being at the top of your career field; you’re still passed over.
By now, the mission creep has gotten extreme. The military trusts you to correctly identify friend or foe with a $40 million aircraft and not start World War III, but you can’t be trusted to not drink and drive, not rape, not kill yourself, or log into a computer without sending China all our secrets.
The culture has changed as well. The camaraderie that you learned in pilot training is gone. Roll calls and socializing after work are frowned upon. Security Forces camps out in front of the Officer’s Club, hoping to snag a drunk pilot. Squadron commanders are fired without cause, leading you to question the integrity and spine of senior leaders for not standing up for people being thrown under a bus. In twelve years, the military has shifted from encouraging the mission to trying to downgrade pilots as much as possible.
As you look at your options, you realize that the military doesn’t care about you. You’re just a number. Time to look out for your family. You hang up that G-suit and head to the airlines. Your friends have all made the switch, and you see it as a welcome relief. No more ancillary BS.
Just show up and go up and make a lot of money.
Coming up next Thursday: And Now There’s a Shortage of Pilots