So how does an apex predator like a WIC IP example get to the point that they are ready to bail with only eight years left? And how do Congress and the military fix it?

First, let’s establish one thing right off the bat. This is not a new problem. Airlines and military have always been cyclical. When one is feast, the other is famine. It never fails. But the problem here is that both are rapidly approaching the point of famine.

A Shortage of Pilots

Airline retirements are near record highs . With over 18,000 retirements in the next five to seven years, airlines are starting to worry that they won’t be able to fill seats. The problem – not enough qualified applicants and the military is no longer a stable provider. Not only are people just leaving the military for the airlines, but they’re not even joining in the first place (or choosing different career fields).

This is not really the article to point fingers. There have been many, many issues at play, like burnout from a decade and a half of regular deployments with no end in sight, promoting managers over leaders, initiatives like TAMI-21 that took qualified guys out of the cockpit to fly UAVs, force shaping, sequestration, and huge cultural changes.

That ship has sailed. There’s no changing any of that, so all we can do now is identify the current problem and move forward.

It’s Not About the Money

Military leaders looking to fix the problem have started throwing money at it. It’s the easiest, simplest solution, but it’s not effective. Yes, the money in the airline world is better, but guys aren’t leaving just because of the money. They’re leaving because they’ve been devalued. They’re leaving because they feel like they can’t accomplish their mission (or worse yet, they don’t even know what their mission is anymore.)

You can throw all the bonuses at the problem you want, but until you address the cultural issues, nothing will change. People are leaving to pursue a better quality of life. Money can help, but when people feel like the job is just not worth it anymore, or that the Air Force doesn’t value their experience and contribution to the mission, they’ll seek other options.

“Crush,” an F-35A Lightning II pilot with the 34th Fighter Squadron, goes over a couple checklist items with his Dedicated Crew Chief. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

It Starts With a Culture Shift

The old saying is that ‘happiness = reality minus expectations’. The people getting out now are people I went to pilot training with. We spent the first few years of our career being told that the mission was number one. Fly. Fight. Win. That’s it.

Instructors harped on knowing your aircraft and tactics to survive in combat. We were told we were warriors and treated as such. Ask any pilot out there, and they’ll look back on their first few years fondly because that’s when the mission was the most important.

In the last six to nine years, the military has gotten away from that. Managers have spent so much time trying to convince everyone that they’re warriors that they’ve minimized (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the people who actually go downrange.

The reality is this – everyone is a support asset. Whether you’re an A-10 guy doing good work supporting a SEAL team, a tanker giving gas to a four ship of Raptors, a Finance Officer, a Comm Officer, or a PJ, you’re supporting. This applies all the way to the grunt on the ground supporting the commander’s intent (which supports our national objectives).

It doesn’t mean any job is better or worse than any other. It’s not a hierarchy or zipper-suited sun god mentality. It’s a realization that Air Force and Naval Aviation spend millions of dollars and rely on highly trained officers to fly and employ their platforms as effectively as possible. Period. Let people do their jobs. Anything else is just queep (non-mission related additional taskings).

The military has to do a better job of recognizing this.

Minimize Mission Creep

Look, I get that some of the General Military Training is necessary. I don’t think anyone is arguing that ground jobs aren’t necessary to keep the lights on, but we can do a better job of staying focused on the mission.

Mission creep – duties that take away from the job of flying – can be dangerous. It can lead to distractions and unnecessary stress factors. It can cause the loss of aircraft.

I’ll get to the why in a second, but a lot of the training can be minimized. Some of the roadblocks can be removed. For example, the entire finance model needs to be demolished, set on fire, and completely redone.

The Defense Travel System is an abomination that causes more man hours of work than any other system. There is absolutely no reason it should be that hard for ANYONE to go on a Temporary Duty Assignment. Nor should any member of the military be worried about getting paid or having a hit on their personal credit.

Get rid of DTS. Get rid of the government travel card program (fun fact, did you know that if the military fails to pay it on time, the member will get a hit on their credit report? Does that sound like a good thing? Doesn’t happen in the civilian world.)

Pilots don’t need to be wing execs, admin officers, or maintenance officers. This is a failure in both the AF and Navy. Ground jobs should be directly related to the actual mission. If it’s not, find someone with less than a few million invested in them to do it.

“Fangs” gets a handshake from his Dedicated Crew Chief prior to launching out for a U.S. Air Force Weapons School sortie. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

Trust Your Officers

The government spends millions of dollars training the average pilot. They’re given officer training and extensive training on the UCMJ and Code of Conduct. Why, then, would you take them away from their jobs to waste time on what should be common sense?

Junior enlisted are optimal candidates for lectures on Sexual Assault, Drunk Driving, Suicide Awareness, Transgender Awareness, OPSEC, Cyber Security, et al. If you’ve made it through officer training school and UPT and don’t have the sense to not rape, share secrets, drive drunk, or kill yourself then you deserve the full wrath of the UCMJ. No amount of cartoon Uncle Sams will change that. It’s a waste of time and money.

The trust issues don’t stop there, unfortunately.

The Air Force doesn’t trust its officers to not lie or cheat on PT tests, so it hired civilians to monitor them. Why? Has there ever been a fighter package that didn’t get the gas they needed because the co-pilot couldn’t do 80 pushups in a minute?

The Air Force and Navy both spend way too much time and effort worrying about a PT test that has little to no relevance on mission accomplishment. The communities that require high levels of physical fitness already have their own tests. A standard is necessary, but when it takes away from doing the job and needlessly disqualifies capable warfighters, it’s another example of mission creep.

You see, what happens when you don’t trust your people is that you focus on things that have nothing to do with mission accomplishment. You take away morale patches, change boot colors, redesign the PT uniform, and hire people to enforce the standards at just over minimum wage.

Think about that for a second.

Someone with millions of dollars worth of training can have his career ruined by a GS-3 with an axe to grind.

It’s insanity.

If you trust your people, all of that takes care of itself. People become happier. And they stay.

Taxiing out for his “fini flight,” this F-16 pilot flashes the pistols…one last time. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

Fix the Promotion System

You wouldn’t rate your dentist based on how good he gives colonoscopies, so why does the military insist on comparing apples to oranges in their promotion system?

When you seek to promote pilots who fulfill the same wickets as a Logistics Officer, you get management over leadership. You get guys who check the squares and fill in the OPR white space just to get promoted. When you tell a guy that he needs more bullets for his ground job, you’re sending the message that the actual mission is a secondary job.

That’s outright wrong.

The promotion system needs to be revamped. Compare pilots to pilots. Value experience and qualifications over turning boxes green. These are the leaders you want leading your squadron. You want the guys who can walk the walk.

Beyond that, the emphasis on Professional Military Education should be removed. There’s only one school in the USAF that is relevant – the Weapons School, or Top Gun in the Navy.

Pilots learn leadership in their jobs. An Aircraft Commander learns how to lead through her upgrade program. A young flight lead gets a crash course in leadership in the flight lead and mission commander upgrades. You can’t teach that with PowerPoint.

O-1 through O-4 should be automatic promotions. At O-5, if you’ve (or should have) reached the highest level in your community (Instructor Pilot), then PME should be focused on how to run that squadron. PME and theory is best for the higher ranks.

Eliminate below the zone for O-5 promotion and mask selection for IDE/SDE for promotion boards. It levels the playing field for everyone within their year group and sets a true senior leadership track for O-6 after demonstrating ability to lead as a squadron commander.

Give credit where credit is due. It is often said that the Weapons School teaches Ph.D level courses and training. For example, give WIC instructors credit for in-residence IDE at the completion of their tour. No one else in the Air Force is as capable of integrating platforms and effects across the battlespace. This will keep apex predators where the Air Force needs them to be. Similar equivalencies can be drawn from other rungs in the career ladder. Studying theory in an academic environment is grossly insufficient in comparison to actual qualifications and credibility in the community.

Have separate rated and non-rated boards. Fighter pilots can easily be trained with on-the-job training for how to do 90% of the jobs in the Air Force. The inverse is not at all possible. There’s the simple reason that the Air Force has literally invested millions of dollars in training an individual fighter pilot. Instead of promoting career fields based on “the needs of the Air Force,” they favor an “everyone is equal” policy in line officer promotions, thus contributing to the current crisis.

Without credibility in their field, leaders are just managers. They won’t know how to fix the problems. And guys who don’t want to advance beyond O-4 are ok, too. These guys are your workhorses. They are there to teach the young guys and keep the metal moving. Let them do their thing.

Up or out created this mess.

A group of A-10 pilots from the 25th Fighter Squadron prepare to step for their afternoon mission. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

Improve Quality of Life

In combat, warriors will do whatever it takes to get the mission done. That much is guaranteed.

At home, in peacetime, however, there are things that can be done to enhance quality of life and keep people from burning out. Having pilots move every two to three years adds undue stress to families.

The first, and most important, is to get rid of Individual Augmentees. IAs are a scab on the entire profession. They are mobilizations of individuals (mostly involuntary) to deploy for 180-360 days overseas, usually with the Army and always in a non-flying role.

If the Army has a personnel problem, fix it. But why would you take a trained aviator out of the cockpit where currency is life and send them to the sandbox for a year just to write PowerPoint slides. It’s completely unsatisfactory, and it happens in both the Active Duty Air Force and Navy, and Navy Reserve. Lots of people would jump at the opportunity to deploy doing their job, but this is not a pilot job and shouldn’t be.

Let people go home to their families. The typical flying sortie takes anywhere from six to twelve hours from mission planning to debrief completion. When you add unrelated ground duties, that day can extend to fourteen plus hours. In a peacetime setting, there is no reason this should ever be the case.

When you remove these jobs, the days will get shorter.

Leaders can also deploy assets smartly. When not deployed, the endless cycle of TDYs can also keep people from their families. Guys end up bailing because they’re tired of being gone constantly. Train smartly at home. Use training hours efficiently, and let guys have some downtime before rolling into the next event.

Days off can be just as important to staying sharp as training exercises, and it’s another reason guys are bailing to the airlines.

Coming Sunday: How Congress, the Military and the Airlines Can Work Together


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  1. Classic pilot ignorance thinking they are God’s gift to the Air Force and the all force measures should be directly in their benefit. Saying they can “do 90% of jobs in the Air Force” is one of the most condescending things Ive ever heard one of them say. I dream of non rated officers getting stars and leading the Air Force while pilots are moved into more of a warrant officer role.

  2. No kidding. I’d love to see him say that kind of crap in front of a squadron. He’d have a whole slew of people who wouldn’t be willing to follow him into a paper bag, never mind an actual combat zone. No wonder he didn’t make it with that kind of attitude.

  3. When you hire people to do their dream job, then make them spend 70% of their time on other work and promote them on based on additional duties over “primary” duties, what do you expect? Why should mobility pilots have to know the JFTR better than finance troops? Why should fighter pilots’ best chance of promotion be taking a job as wing exec or aide to a flag officer? These are symptoms of a sick organization. The message is that “we” value ground duties over competency in pilot skills. Don’t expect pilots to ignore that.

  4. As for your attitude you give us “zipper-suited sum gods” a bad rap, I ask that the other reading realize Mr. Lemoine is NOT the norm.

    You’re wrong it is all about the money. Your short term memory make you forget what sequestration did, command had to decide to sacrifice either manpower or material, material acquisition is inflexible, but people are. GTCs in the real world are called corporate credit cards, military personnel are slightly more protected than you present it. Why is tricare so cheap? Because a preponderance of beneficiary must pass a PT test or get dropped from health care, Humana can’t drop someone for having cancer but the military gets to drop someone for being fat?!

  5. I’m sorry that you feel there’s an attitude to this post that gives you a bad name. My intent is to bring to light possible solutions to a growing problem. As this is an open discussion, we welcome your thoughts on how to fix it as well.

    As for the money – I disagree. There is a culture problem that is driving people out. I realize that sequestration has made commanders do more with less (in fact, I even mentioned it in this article), but that is no excuse for valuing non mission related queep over all else. Just because you’re short of funds doesn’t make it OK to spend your downtime doing busywork and coming up with ridiculous non sequiturs as policy. Nor should you go out of your way to burnout your force that is feeling the strain of said budget cuts.

    Regarding your comment about the GTC, you’re right, some corporations do this. The airlines do not. Many defense contractors do not. These are the jobs most guys are bailing to within the context of the pilot shortage. Do you really believe it’s a flawless system? Do you think it’s right to order someone to accomplish a mission, fail at paying for it, and then have their credit get hit as a result?

    There’s no doubt Tricare is cheaper. It’s government subsidized. If the PT test is just a tool to lower healthcare costs, then why doesn’t the military drop smokers, drinkers, et al? I agree that a healthy force is necessary, but what’s the value-added in not trusting your people enough to monitor themselves? Why hire GS-3s (which cost money) to administer the test? Why not allow alternate cardio options (like the Navy) to prevent long term injuries from running, or for those with those injuries? The bigger point in that is that the military has created a culture where it doesn’t trust its people. Everything else is just a symptom.

  6. Did you even read the article? It’s ABOUT not being “God’s gift”‘ to anything. It’s a plea for the Air Force to act like a football team: does the tailback learn zone blocking schemes with the linemen? No he runs fast, finds the hole, breaks tackles and scores points. No tailback would suggest he could do it without the line in front– no lineman thinks he can run like a tailback.

  7. Bill: classic anti-pilot comment. You do realize that the mission of the USAF is flying airplanes right? No pilots = no planes = doesn’t matter how good anyone at finance is or isn’t at their job because there is no more job.

    There’s a better than above average chance that a pilot could do 90% of the jobs in the USAF. What are the odds that would be true the other way around?

    Congrats! You are part of the problem. The airlines thank you for your part in negative pilot retention.

  8. So you’re saying you can fly a multi-million dollar aircraft but you can’t figure out DTS? It’s Orbitz dude…not hard. And balancing your credit card isn’t an Air Force problem…it’s a personal issue…if you got out because of that I say, good riddance.

  9. It’s not just a pilot problem, but one that exists across the rated officer spectrum. I agree, in part, with most of this article minus the “WIC is the end all be all of school importance” theme that’s bleeds from this. WIC teaches instructors, not leadership. Most WUGs graduate, leave, and become PowerPoint jockeys for their respective community rather than what they are intended for: to instruct.

  10. Mother of god, you can’t be serious with this comment. Do you think the member should responsible for the costs of the TDY because the government system is too slow to pay on time? Do you think we should not try to make it better? How is this related to balancing a credit card? You are part of problem

  11. It seems like MOST people in the military can figure out how to use the card…and can figure out how to ensure on-time payment, even in the instance that the payment system fails…and even in that case Citi will grant an extension on the payment with a simple phone call…why is this so hard??!!

  12. I’m admin Officer (prior enlisted) in the Corps… Grunts should kill and lead grunts, pilots should fly and and lead squadrons, sure a joint or staff tour outside of those primary duties are great experiences and needed if you are looking for stars, but the BS military training he gets at is spot on and the military will beat that dead horse day after day… If I have to attend one more sexual assault class I might make them focus back self inflicting classes!

  13. I can’t say that I’ve seen a WIC grad who became a Powerpoint jockey, unless he won the lottery and scored an all expenses paid vacation to the CAOC.

  14. It’s still amazing to me how, directly in the face of a service-breaking pilot shortage, people still can’t do what needs to be done. It’s like wing commanders and their minions are so brainwashed into following processes instead of doing what needs to be done, that they would literally still be giving out PT failure LOCs and writing awards packages, even with nukes inbound.

    I bailed for the airlines this year, but I can still take a little guilty pleasure in watching the ship sink from the safety of my life raft.

  15. To me, as an enlisted naval aviator, this article is spot on as to the current problems throughout the military. We have a culture problem. We don’t hold standards that matter and make up others to justify our failures. We stopped putting the mission first. I personally blame the past and present leadeship but we have to own this problem at every level. I routinely sit on junior elisted ranking boards and “of the quarter/year” boards. I listen to E6s argue one E5 or E4 over others based on college, volunteer, command collaterals, etc. Every year during my annual “did not promote” career development board I’m told the same thing occurs when the E6s are evaluated. I’ve heard from multiple COs and CMCs that they expected all of my peers to perform at the same level so the only way to break apart is through college/volunteer etc. I have seen stellar operators get out of the Navy because they leadership doesn’t value the work and effort they put into becoming a true expert in their field. This is unacceptable. We must fix our forces now and it requires leadership at every level to make the changes. Culture comes from within and it’s time to fight back against the machine.

  16. This entire forum is nothing but an AOR ripe for trolling and misinformation. Stick to the cool aircraft pics and maybe a few “so there I was stories” … at the unclass level. Leave the flying, fighting, politics, debate and tomfoolery to the guys that actually strap a jet on every day. No one cares what the authors on this forum think.

  17. Warrants are bailing out of the Army for the same reasons. Command attitude seems to be “anyone can do it”. In recent years pilot training slots are going unfilled and a greater majority of young pilots get out as soon as their flight school commitment is met. About one third of the candidates selected for training fail. The success rate used to be much higher.

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